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D.C. sports fans basking in unprecedented success

D.C. sports fans basking in unprecedented success

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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Carter Kieboom has a mentor at spring training: veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera

Carter Kieboom has a mentor at spring training: veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera

With Trea Turner at shortstop and Starlin Castro at second base, the Nationals have two reliable veterans at the two positions Carter Kieboom has always played. 

So now, the Nationals' top prospect is competing for the starting third base job with seasoned veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. Once one of the best shortstops in baseball, Cabrera has fallen off defensively and has limited range nowadays, though he was still a key contributor to the Nationals' World Series championship in 2019. 

Instead of viewing Kieboom as just his competition and doing everything he can to win the job, Cabrera has taken on the role of mentor for the 22-year-old infielder.

“(Cabrera) takes ground balls with (Kieboom) every day,” Martinez said, according to MASN's Pete Kerzel. “I’ve asked him, ‘Hey, you need to take ground balls at second, too, and short sometimes.’ Religiously, for the purpose of being with Carter, he stands with Carter, helping him with his throws, making sure he understands that footwork is important when he’s throwing. ... He talks to him all the time about a bunch of different things, how to play positions, not take your at-bats to the field. He’s been unbelievable with him, he really has. It’s been good for Carter.”

Kieboom has struggled with errors through the early days of spring ball, which is to be expected considering he's a young player at a position he's never played regularly on the professional level. While a bunch of errors in February are nothing to get too concerned over, Kieboom will have to cut those down in March if he wants to win the job. 

Cabrera is seen as the backup plan at third if Kieboom can't secure the job during spring training. The 34-year-old is entering his 14th season and would probably be better maximized if he didn't have to play every day. 

If Kieboom isn't ready though, it wouldn't be the best idea for the Nationals to force it. So over the course of the next three weeks, we'll see just how much Cabrera can help the youngster. 

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Jayson Werth explains why he 'always thought' Bryce Harper could end up with Phillies

Jayson Werth explains why he 'always thought' Bryce Harper could end up with Phillies

During Phillies spring training on Friday, Jayson Werth visited his old team and former Nationals teammate Bryce Harper. It just so happened he had arrived on the one-year anniversary of Bryce Harper deciding to leave Washington to sign a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. 

Werth spent six seasons sharing an outfield with Harper but before his days in Washington, he helped the Phillies win the World Series in 2008. His play in Philadelphia earned him a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals in 2011. 

Harper's exit from DC is a sore subject for Nationals fans, even though a World Series championship definitely helped numb the pain. Werth explained in a story by NBC Sports Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury that he always had a hunch Harper could end up in Philly. 

"I always thought this would be a possible destination for him, even way back when, for a bunch of reasons," Werth said. "Kind of where the team was, the money was right, the owner was right, the town's right.

"But more than anything else," Werth added with widening eyes, "Citizens Bank Park is just an awesome place to hit. We always talked about that."

Werth clarified he doesn't want anyone to think he was pushing Harper to Philadelphia, just that as players they naturally had plenty of conversations about other ballparks. And it's hard to argue with that. 

Before he played a single game for the Phillies, Harper was Citizens Bank Park's all-time leader in slugging percentage. In 2019, Harper hit the second-most homers of his career (35) and his second-highest slugging percentage as well.

Werth even enjoyed a nice bump hitting in Philadelphia. During his time with the Nats, Werth his .291 with a .922 OPS to go along with 15 home runs and 45 RBI in 52 trips to Citizens Bank Park. 

Between the 81 games in a hitters ballpark and a $330 million contract without the deferred payments the Nationals reportedly offered to Harper last year, it makes a decent amount of sense he decided to take his talents north. 

But hey, the Nationals won a World Series the following season, and in epic fashion I might add, while there's no guarantee the Phillies get there any time soon. I mean, have you seen their pitching staff outside of Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler?

So Bryce is happy and Nats fans are happy. Everyone wins, right? 

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