WASHINGTON — The images beamed back from Houston somehow did not seem real.
There were players with “Washington” stitched across their chest piling on top of each other celebrating yet another championship. It’s becoming so common now. You could get used to all this winning.
Just 18 months after the Capitals brought the Stanley Cup back to the District for the first time and three weeks after the Mystics won their first WNBA title at their little gem of a gym in Anacostia, the Nationals made it a D.C. sports trifecta.
That’s your team that ended a 95-year World Series drought in Wednesday night’s Game 7 against the Houston Astros. Those are your favorite players somehow pulling off another late comeback in an elimination game to win 6-2. Well, there are no more games left to play. The Nationals are champions and those aren’t words many people thought would ever be said.
A runt of a franchise landed in the District in 2005 bruised and battered after years of mistreatment while struggling to survive in Montreal. Things were hardly better here in those early years. There was no owner. The GM and front office were all temporary holdovers. The new cable network supposed to broadcast its games was unavailable on the biggest television provider until the final month of the Nats’ second season in the District.
Maybe it was for the best. After a honeymoon first campaign, the team fell apart in 2006 anyway. There wasn’t much to watch unless you liked bad baseball. And that rarely changed even when the Nationals left RFK for Nationals Park, a new home in a neglected part of town waiting for a neighborhood to sprout around it.
The shoots began to appear. Slowly. Washington drafted Stephen Strasburg No. 1 overall, the reward for losing 102 games in 2008. Bryce Harper was the reward for a 103-loss season in 2009. The Navy Yard neighborhood grew bit by bit. Each year more people moved in, more businesses opened.
Strasburg arrived in the majors in 2010 and dazzled D.C. with his landmark 14-strikeout debut on June 8. The image of fans in the upper deck losing their mind as the stadium shook with emotion is seared into the memory of anyone who saw it. But in August Strasburg blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Nothing was ever easy. Shaking the label of “Natinals” – as their jerseys once read during an unfortunate 2009 game – would take time.
The Nationals finally transitioned into a new era with the signing of free agent Jayson Werth in 2011 and the return of Strasburg at the very end of that season. At 80-81 it remains their last losing year. Harper made his debut early in the 2012 season and they were off.
But it still took years of pain and heartache to finally get the formula right. Some saw karma in Washington’s blown 6-0 lead in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against St. Louis for shutting down Strasburg with a month to go in the season to protect his elbow.
That crushing loss was just the beginning. The Nationals won the N.L. East in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, but three times lost an NLDS Game 5 at home. They lost an 18-inning playoff game to San Francisco and didn’t even get a Game 5 in 2014. They discharged three managers (Davey Johnson, Matt Williams, Dusty Baker). That’s a lot of embarrassment and agony to cram into 15 years.
Then came this season, where a team expected to contend again started the year 19-31. A fourth manager, the relentlessly positive Davey Martinez, looked like a goner, veteran players appeared headed out of town. Then it all came together. There were Baby Shark and goofy sunglasses, dugout dancing and imaginary car rides, a veteran team that embraced skits and bits and played far looser than earlier, more talented versions of the Nationals.
It was a thoroughly likable team. And now it will be forever a championship club. We’re not used to that here. D.C. United won four titles in the early days of MLS, including one before a sellout crowd at RFK in 1997. But that league was small and fledgling. The tradition wasn’t there yet.
Otherwise, D.C. sports miseries came in battalions once the Redskins’ glory days ended in 1992. After winning three Super Bowls in 10 years, they left RFK for soulless FedEx Field. They are about to miss the playoffs for the 22ndtime in 27 years. The Bullets changed their name, but not their insipid mediocrity. The Wizards haven’t won 50 games or reached an Eastern Conference final since 1979.
The Capitals were the one local team that could be counted on to win consistently, but they made a brand out of spectacular playoff failures even during the Alex Ovechkin era. Three times this decade they finished with the best record in the NHL. They never made it past the second round.
It wasn’t until the 2018 Stanley Cup that Washington’s fortunes began to change. Those Capitals partied so hard afterward it made the city love them even more. And it also allowed local fans to realize sports doesn’t have to be an exhausting effort in frustration and failure.
The Mystics, another loveable group of goofballs, were rebuilt around WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and won their first title ever this month after 22 years. Now the Nationals have broken through, too, and suddenly the best damn parade route in the country is ready for an encore.
Start at Constitution Avenue around 15th Street, near the Ellipse and the Washington Monument, and glide down that beautiful boulevard past the Smithsonian Museums. Turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue and drive a few more blocks to the Capitol. We know how to do parades in this city. We have them after the Inauguration of every new President, after all. Now our teams are finally getting in on the act.
It’s a feeling fans in other cities know all too well. Titles are expected in New York and Boston and Chicago and San Francisco. Almost alone among the biggest U.S. cities, D.C. was a championship wasteland for a generation. That’s all changed now thanks to the Capitals, Mystics and Nationals. Get ready to party. Again.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
- Legends: Strasburg, Soto will be remembered as all-time greats
- Best scene: Nats celebrate first World Series win
- MVP: Strasburg earns title with two recorded wins
- Mark Your Calendars: Parade set for Saturday
- For Davey: Nats 'cured his heart'