The First Generation of Nationals Fans Has Its First Championship

In Washington, D.C., the roots of baseball fandom don’t run particularly deep. Sure, there are still a few fans of the old Washington Senators, but the last edition of that club bolted to Texas nearly half a century ago. The Homestead Grays also have a storied history, and an important one — but the Grays last took the field in 1951. Prior to 2005, baseball in Washington was a distant memory, and most fans in the D.C. metro region, many of whom originally hail from elsewhere, held allegiance to teams from different cities.

In 2001, a few months after I was born, my family moved from Northern California to Northern Virginia. We’re a family of baseball fans; my parents recall how when we moved during the 2001 World Series, one of the men who helped us was a diehard Yankees fan, rooting hard for the Bronx Bombers to win their 27th title.

In 2009, just a year after Nationals Park opened in the Navy Yard district, I attended my first ever Nats game — as a fan of the visiting San Diego Padres. My dad grew up in San Diego, and there we were, at Nationals Park, wearing Padres gear. The pitching matchup was star-studded: Chad Gaudin versus John Lannan. I don’t remember many details from the game; apparently an Austin Kearns walk-off single in the 10th won it for Washington. I doubt we were still at the park.

We went back to see the Padres in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, we went on my brother’s seventh birthday. He brought a poster that said: “Today is my 7th birthday. Go Padres.” Chase Headley, Chris Denorfia, and Heath Bell all signed it. Ryan Ludwick even signed my brother’s jersey where he stood, back crouched.

That was how life was like for most baseball fans in Washington, D.C. During their first few seasons in town, the Nationals were an afterthought. Often, they were just the team hosting the team that many of the fans had actually came to see.

The date the culture around baseball in Washington began to change was June 8, 2010, when eventual-World-Series-MVP Stephen Strasburg made his debut. The most hyped pitching prospect in recent memory, Strasburg gave a sellout crowd a glimpse into the Nationals’ bright future.

More importantly, Strasburg provided people interested in baseball a reason to become Nationals fans. For most of their time in the capital, the Nats had committed the twin sins of being bad and boring. Strasburg offered a marked contrast. The team was still bad, but at least it was relevant, and with the promise of becoming being less bad some day soon. The effect was immediate: on that day my dad jumped on the Nationals’ wagon. Strasburg, a San Diego State alum like my father, instantly became his favorite player.

If Strasburg’s debut was the start of Washington’s rise to prominence, Bryce Harper’s arrival was the second big step. Whatever his postseason disappointments, Harper changed the course of the organization. He was the franchise player, the superstar, the homegrown wunderkind. He was a once-in-a-generation talent, and his stardom changed both the Nationals on the field and how the fans felt about their team off it. There’s a reason why we saw so many pictures of Nationals fans with altered Harper jerseys this season: they all bought Harper jerseys in the first place.

Harper’s arrival changed the conversations around town in a way that even Strasburg couldn’t. Strasburg was a phenom, and he electrified the city upon his arrival. But the Nats were still bad in 2010, and he was hurt for the tail end of that year and most of 2011. Harper’s debut dovetailed with relevancy in the standings. And, of course, his talent made him a conversation starter: Did you see Harper’s clutch homer? What about that stolen base? Did you see his incredible throw? Winning generates interest, and Harper expedited that too. In Harper’s first season, he helped spark the club’s first playoff berth in Washington. Unsurprisingly, the team drew a record number of fans to Nationals Park.

The growing Nationals fandom in my family was a microcosm of what the city experienced at large. With new stars in the fold, my brother chose the Nationals as his favorite team. For him, going to Nationals games was now about seeing the Nationals. In 2017, he had his 13th birthday party at the ballpark, and as luck would have it, the Nats were playing the Padres. This time, as Scherzer mowed down 13 Padres hitters (I like to think he did this because it was my brother’s 13th birthday), my brother cheered along with the home crowd.

For most of the 2000s, the word “playoffs” held a nauseating connotation in Washington. Between 1999 and 2017, none of the four major D.C. sports teams made the conference or league championship, let alone the big dance. In the 13 games in which these four teams could have advanced to that point, they went 0-13.

The Nationals caused more heartbreak than anyone, thrice losing decisive Game Fives at home in excruciating fashion. The Capitals Stanley Cup win in 2018 got the proverbial monkey off of the city’s back, and the Washington Mystics brought another trophy home earlier this year, but neither did much to erase the painful memories from Nationals Park. For fans of the baseball team, there was plenty of unfinished business left, and considerable angst about the club’s broader place in the league, particularly after Harper’s departure.

The loss of Harper hit the town hard. Other guys have filled the void — Max Scherzer, certainly, and now Juan Soto — but Harper’s departure was a blow. One thing it did do, however, was demonstrate the passion that had already grown within the fanbase. The Nationals were no longer shrouded in indifference: People were angry and felt betrayed. Most importantly, people cared.

This season was quite the journey. When I graduated from high school in June, the World Series seemed like a pipe dream; the Phillies were still leading the division at the time. My friends were more focused on UVA’s recent basketball championship than they were on professional baseball. The bullpen was a mess, the offense wasn’t hitting, and Dave Martinez’s job was legitimately in jeopardy.

But the Nationals never relented. They clawed their way to a Wild Card berth, and battled back all October long: They trailed by two runs in the eighth inning of the Wild Card game, were down by two again with Clayton Kershaw on the hill in Game 5 of the NLDS, and dropped all three games at home in the World Series. And yet, they never went down for the count. Hard as it would have been to imagine in June, the Nationals are champions.

Along the way, they became a permanent fixture in the D.C. community. In 2005, they were a local baseball team. Now, they’re legitimately a part of what brings people in the region together. Growing up in Washington, I’ve seen first-hand how this dynamic has emerged among young fans. Most of my friends are in college now; the ritual of going to school and talking about the previous night’s game is no longer part of our lives. But we’ve stayed in touch in part because the Nationals have given us so much to talk about. Across the country, wherever my friends happened to be, they were all watching the team. People I know who don’t even watch baseball regularly were posting on their social media accounts about home runs and strike outs and hope. Last Wednesday night, my Snapchat stories were a hodgepodge of jumping and screaming, all centered around the same image of Daniel Hudson recording the last out of the World Series.

At home, my family was going nuts. I FaceTimed them soon after the victory to find my brother and dad already ordering championship gear. It was a lot of the same — yelling, jumping, elation. Caring.

My generation represents the roots of Nationals fandom in Washington, D.C. Decades from now, when we’re all telling our grandchildren the baseball stories of our childhood, this incredible run will be near the top of our list. Between 19-31, Baby Shark, Juan Soto being, well, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer pitching in Game 7 with back spasms — these are the moments we’ll all remember forever. These are the memories we will pass down until our kids are tired of hearing about them. Baseball fandom in where I grew up might still be fresh, but the Nationals have become part of the community.

That relationship, of course, has its ups and downs; after the Nats gave their fans the highest of the highs last week, many felt something quite different this past Monday. Barely a week after Nationals Park gave Donald Trump a very clear indication of what the town thinks of his federal stewardship, Kurt Suzuki made a different impression. When some of the World Series winners were at the White House to celebrate their title (others stayed home, among them Sean Doolittle, skipped the White House visit due to Trump’s policy positions and rhetoric), Suzuki took the opportunity to make a statement: With a big smile on his face and the infamous red hat atop his head, he strode to the lectern and shared a warm moment with the man who was booed so lustily. A few feet away, manager Dave Martinez laughed heartily.

How that moment affects the considerable good will this franchise has built in the capital remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, it won’t bother some fans at all. For many others, the association between the beloved Nats and a despicable man will test the durability of the bond between fan and team. Communities, of course, are complicated. They are marked by differences and disagreements, small and quite significant, lasting and fleeting, unfurling over the span of baseball seasons and lifetimes. The Nationals community is diverse and varied, much like D.C. itself; at times at odds, at others united. But, for the first time in the franchise’s history, one that is present, real, active. Caring about this moment and how it might alter our memories of all that screaming and whooping last Wednesday. Caring that its Doolittles and Suzukis live up to our hopes, of another championship and good choices. Caring, as a community does.

Last Wednesday night, after a season of unbelievable moments, highs and lows and home runs, the Washington Nationals became champions, and Washington D.C. became a baseball town. A couple of young people got hooked. In 2009, I was rooting for the Padres, just me, my parents, my brother, and a homemade sign. In 2019, as October dawned, I rooted for the Nationals, and now, there are a few more folks in that number. A ballpark, a city. A community.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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3 years ago

Ugh. Trump sullies and degrades everything he touches. Don’t let him ruin the championship for you. Nats fans had me rooting 100 percent for their team after that booing you gave him.

Anyway, my team also won a championship fairly recently. Wonderful memories. Carrying a girl on each shoulder around the bar as everyone screamed and celebrated, high fiving strangers on the way home on my motorcycle, and of course the parade. For a year your team is better than everyone else and you can lord it over everyone. I hope you have fun with it.