Joy is not a word D.C. sports fans understand.
Pain. Misery. Sadness. Defeat. Those were terms locals earned a Ph.D. in during the lost years since the Redskins last won a Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1992. But in 17 months that has all changed. Maybe forever.
The Capitals broke whatever demonic hex was upon them in 2018 with a Stanley Cup run for the ages. In doing so they unleashed a torrent of joy that’s almost confusing to a city not used to it.
The Mystics won a WNBA title last week behind a two-time MVP in Elena Delle Donne and a fun, talented group of easy-to-root-for characters who played for a rumpled basketball lifer in Mike Thibault, the best coach in league history.
Then came the Nationals. No one was prepared for that. A team that was actively trying to match the Capitals’ notorious history of playoff failures in just half the time suddenly took out the fearsome Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
Months after Bryce Harper rolled up I-95 to Philadelphia, when it looked like this group was playing out the string on a wonderful decade of baseball, it all suddenly changed with that elusive playoff series victory.
Just like that bitter memories of the Cardinals and Dodgers and Cubs all celebrating NLDS wins at Nationals Park were banished to the dustbin of history. And after a frantic, can-you-believe-this five days worth of N.L. Championship Series baseball, the champagne finally was uncorked in the home clubhouse.
Now, Washington’s baseball team is playing in the World Series for the first time since the Great Depression (1933). The hockey team has a reasonably fresh championship banner and remains a relevant contender. The WNBA team has its first title ever. “Everything is happening!” as the legendary Canadian hockey broadcaster Bob Cole once said.
This isn’t Boston or New York. They don’t just hand out titles in this city, which didn’t even have a baseball team for 33 years. The old Senators were a horrendous outfit. After that 1933 N.L. pennant – that flag flies high atop the big scoreboard at Nationals Park, you can see it with a telescope - they had 23 losing seasons in the next 27 years. Then, just when a promising young team was showing signs of growth, Major League Baseball let the team move to Minnesota in 1961.
Those Twins quickly became a force. From 1962 to 1970 they won 90 games or more six times and made it to the World Series in 1965. Think that stretch of winning would have played well in D.C.?
Instead, MLB gave Washington a dumpy expansion team to replace the original Senators as a “sorry”. It had one winning season in 10 years and never finished higher than fourth in the American League. Then the league had the gall to use poor attendance as a reason to let the Senators 2.0 move to Texas after the 1971 season and the sport gave up on Washington as a baseball town for a generation. “Get your fix in Baltimore,” the league said.
And throughout the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s many did just that, especially if you lived in the Maryland suburbs. But let’s be real: The Orioles might have been popular, but the parade was still happening in Baltimore, where there remained resentment that the team catered to Washingtonians at all. Getting “Baltimore” back on the road jersey became a cause, the blame for a more sedate crowd at Camden Yards always pinned on the “K Street” lobbyists and lawyers from Washington who bought up the high-priced seats. It wasn’t exactly welcoming.
So excuse Washingtonians if “joy” isn’t something they know how to handle. The Redskins had their glory days, no question. Going to four Super Bowls in 10 years and winning three of them is something almost any city would envy. But if you remember the 1991 Skins and their incredible 14-2 season, I hate to tell you this: You’re approaching 40. No one under 30 has any memory of that special season. No one under 45 remembers the Wizards/Bullets winning the NBA title in 1978.
And all respect to D.C. United for being the original dynasty in Major League Soccer. It won championships in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004. But soccer in the United States now, with English Premier League games broadcast on NBC every Saturday morning and the success of the United States’ women’s national team and nice World Cup runs by the men in 2002 and 2010, is not what it was then.
United had a devoted fanbase. It sold out RFK Stadium for the 1997 MLS Cup. It was also a brand-new club that had no tradition. How could it? MLS formed in 1996. It couldn’t possibly unite the entire community the way the Capitals did in 2018 when entire blocks of downtown were choked with fans who just wanted to be near Capital One Arena during the Stanley Cup Final. That moment was 44 years in the making, not two.
With a gleaming new downtown stadium, United is poised to join the D.C. sports party if it makes a playoff run starting Saturday with its first-round game at Toronto FC. We already saw two huge crowds fill Audi Field for a pair of late-season Washington Spirit NWSL games. It’s a far different sports landscape than when the Redskins were the dominant force in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
And that might be the most remarkable part of all this recent sports success for the District. It came in the exact week the Redskins fired their head coach and barely beat a team openly tanking its season. It came the same month that thousands of Patriots fans took over FedEx Field while their team drubbed the hapless Redskins, who seem as far from true contention as ever.
And yet instead of falling into a morose stupor, D.C. sports fans were thrilled by the wild ride the Nationals gave them this October, which continues next week on baseball’s biggest stage. They don’t have to rely on one team to provide joy anymore. There are so many other options now.
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