Illustration by Stephanie Davidson/Bloomberg
Washington

Can America Root for a Town That Can't Root for Its Team?

This year, rooting for the Nationals or the Orioles—good as they both are—is a kind of gaffe.

There is little in baseball more potentially thrilling than the idea of an intra-city battle in the World Series. They are incredibly rare events. Since the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles, New York has had only one Subway Series. The Bay Area Series of 1989 still fires up the passions of San Franciscans and Oakland residents. A Cubs-White Sox World Series would leave even Rahm Emanuel speechless. It is the civic sports war every town dreams of.

This year, Anaheim could play Los Angeles, or St. Louis could play Kansas City, but nothing would compare to a Beltway Series. Since the Nationals came to town in 2005, neither they nor the Orioles have been all that great in total, let alone at the same time, but this year, the stars appear to be aligning. Both teams ran away with their respective divisions, and while the Nationals have some work to do after falling behind 2-0 in their NLDS against San Francisco, both teams have the talent to reach the Fall Classic. It would be the dream of any metro area—the most fevered fantasy of those who spent years trying to get a team to Washington—and this year, it could happen. Fans of both teams see the stars aligning. It would be the best story in baseball this year.

Which makes it that much more bizarre how little the Beltway seems to be into it—specifically, into the Nationals, the team that owned the Beltway two years ago. Back in 2012, the Beltway was arguably more enthused by a pennant chase than an increasingly rote Presidential campaign. The Nats, who had never even had a winning record since moving to town from Montreal in 2005, took over first place in the NL East in early June and never let it go, riding young talent like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and the wizened hand of manager Davey Johnson to 98 wins, the best record in baseball that season.

It set the Beltway ablaze. Five Supreme Court justices were seen at Nationals Park, as well as Vice President Biden, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, several Cabinet secretaries and just about every member of the political media. Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor whose Nationals (and Wizards) fandom is universally understood to be unparalleled, told the story of being at a dinner with former Health and Human Services director Kathleen Sebelius and having her keep asking the score of the Nats game. It was the summer of “Natitude,” and it took the city by storm. For a few months in 2012, in the heat of the Presidential election season, Nationals games were the place to be seen.

Not this year. Even though the Nationals might have an even better team—a well-balanced lineup, lights-out rotation, and an improved bullpen—this time, the buzz is gone. “It’s not the same,” says Blitzer, who has attended fewer games this year than in 2012 (he does have an unexpected month in Israel covering the Hamas war as a fairly solid excuse). “It’s a different atmosphere.” Part of that is due, of course, to the Nationals’ painful end to that 2012 season, a crushing NLDS Game Five loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that featured four ninth-inning Cards runs for the comeback victory. But the different vibe at Nationals Park is thanks to a different vibe in the rest of the city.

When you go through the list of political luminaries who have been known to attend Nationals games, you see names like Blitzer, or Harry Reid, or Sonia Sotomayor, or Mitch McConnell. You see the same sort of people who have been going to games throughout the history of baseball in the capital: Congressmen, supreme court justices, entrenched media. You see…the establishment. You see people who live in Washington year round, who make it their home, who consider the Nationals a matter of civic pride.

Meet the Fans

The thing is that in many quarters of the Beltway—particularly those elected in the last four years from the Tea Party contingent—“civic pride” is the last thing anyone should be touting. Washington, D.C. is a place not to be associated with, a place to escape from as quickly as possible, lest one become one of those wretched “creatures” of the place. “These days, [most] Washington politicians spend pretty much three or four days in Washington and then they’re home for the rest of the week,” reminds Fred Frommer, an Associated Press reporter and author of the book “You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions.” “These new guys, their whole thing is anti-Washington, and I don’t know if they’re really going to get too excited about it. They’re not going to be that interested.” This is all to say: If you spend your election year talking about how corrupt and fat-cat Washington is, you’re unlikely to have much impetus to wear a jersey with WASHINGTON stitched across the front.

Much of the talk about the 2012 Nationals was about how the team could serve as some sort of bipartisan refuge, like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill sitting down for drinks in the Oval Office. (“Everyone is watching. It's a bipartisan success story,” said Luke Russert at the time.) This likely wasn’t true, and Blitzer rains on the notion. “That isn’t going to happen,” he said. “The divisions are way too deep.” But this year, it’s almost like people are running away. Or, more precisely: It’s not cool to be Nationals fan like it was two years ago. With Congress at 15 percent approval ratings and the President in the low forties, it’s a wonder the Nationals aren’t as hated as the Yankees. The only people still making a point of attending all the Nationals playoff games—including Blitzer, who says he has tickets “all the way through to the World Series”—are those who are proud to be members of that Washington establishment. And that’s not such a popular thing to be these days. Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell can both be Nationals fans while being on opposite sides of the aisle, but to the new insurgent young Tea Partier, they’re essentially already on the same team.

This is particularly stark when set against the endlessly toxic battle for the Senate, which each side is selling as the apocalypse that will alternately end/sustain the Republic as we know it. Two years ago, that idea of bipartisanship had real appeal: If Reid and McConnell could cheer for the same team and watch a game together, there had to be some sort of common ground somewhere, right? No one is even bothering to pretend this time.

The idea that the Washington baseball team ever existed outside the world of politics is a myth anyway: When Calvin Coolidge congratulated the 1924 champion Washington Senators, as Frommer writes in his book, he made sure to sneak in a dig at the opposing party Democrats and commended the team’s players for being the only people who could get any work done in town. Much of Congress got to Washington by running against it, and that platform has affected everything else—including baseball. In many ways, the Nationals—and the sport itself, really—is an institution, and the political discourse is about mistrust of  institutions. If Reid (or McConnell or Blitzer or Krauthammer) are for it, someone has to be against it.

As Blitzer puts it: “They don’t spend as much time in Washington as they used to. The Nationals are more for people like me who have been living in Washington, D.C. for years and years.” For those who have been living in Washington, D.C. for years and years. If the Nationals are looking to recruit more political bigwig fans, they couldn’t come up with a worse slogan.

It’s so strange, when you take a step back and think about it. Politics is the company of the company town of Washington, D.C., and it’s sitting this fight out. (Imagine the enterainment industry not being into the Lakers, or Wall Street not embracing the Yankees.) There is this wonderful thing happening, this idea of a Beltway Series, these two terrific teams potentially battling it out for the hearts and minds of an entire metro area. It will be inspiring and exhilarating to watch. And this little political club is skipping out on it because of the same old fights. It’s their loss. It usually is.