Maybe the circumstances are different, the two sports’ postseasons too divergent to make the comparison apt.
But if the specifics are a stretch, the bare facts are not: In 2018 the Capitals went on a magical playoff run to capture the Stanley Cup for the first time in the organization’s 44-year history. And in 2019 the National’s ended an 86-year pennant drought for D.C. baseball. And both times the party really got cranking at Nationals Park.
A wild celebration began on the field and off Tuesday night after the Nationals’ 7-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. A Washington baseball team will play in the World Series for the first time since 1933.
But don’t get too carried away. The kind of legendary celebration the Capitals put together that memorable June weekend requires all opponents be vanquished, a championship won.
“We can’t compare ourselves to them yet because they won the whole thing,” Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said after a Game 3 victory on Monday all but ended the National League Championship Series. “We’ve still got work to do.”
But the two teams are simpatico is so many ways. Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton rocked a Capitals hat during his post-game interviews after Monday’s 8-1 Game 3 victory. The Capitals themselves all wore Nationals t-shirts as they boarded a flight to Nashville last Wednesday in solidarity with the team that supported them during the Cup run.
Ovechkin even threw out the first pitch before Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers on Oct. 7 and was at Game 4 cheering on the Nationals. Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, of course, opened Game 4 of that Stanley Cup Final series against the Vegas Golden Knights dressed in full hockey gear and led a thundering “Let’s go, Caps!” chant.
And while the Capitals’ partied throughout the night in Las Vegas after winning the Cup on June 7 and continued on June 8 when they arrived home, the shenanigans didn’t really go off the rails until they attended the Nationals game on June 9. That Saturday afternoon Alex Ovechkin and his teammates ended up swimming in fountains on the Georgetown waterfront and getting tattoos in Adams Morgan.
But early that day Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson did groggy interviews at Nationals Park in the morning, hoisted the Cup on the field with most of their teammates before the game and then retired to a suite down the third-base line. At almost every opportunity a Capitals player would randomly lean out and lift the Cup to wild cheers from the fans below. It never got old.
But those who dismiss the comparisons between the two clubs – the Capitals had tried and failed for four decades, the Nationals didn’t move here until 2005 from Montreal – are missing the point.
The pain was the thread that connected the two teams and their fans. All of the season-ending Game 5 and Game 7 losses at home, all the blown leads and missed opportunities, all the nights like Tuesday that should have happened but never did.
They celebrated wins in other towns, they hoisted beers to other postseason heroes while here in Washington wonderful teams, 98-win baseball teams, 120-point hockey teams, were left shattered when time and again they fell short in the postseason.
No one who was in the crowd at Nationals Park after that last morbid out in Game 5 of the 2017 N.L. Division Series against the Chicago Cubs would fail to make the immediate connection to the sad organ dirge played after the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 at home in 2017.
It was all one in the same. Washington sports fans might as well have made Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” their official anthem. It seemed to always play the fans out after each crushing postseason defeat, the sprightly anthem an ironic message of hope no one wanted to hear as they exited in despair.
“Don’t worry…about a thing. Because every little thing…is gonna be alright”
Yet it never was. That’s why the two teams always seem intertwined in ways the other major local pro sports teams do not. The Redskins have a glorious past long gone and a chaotic present, the Wizards have a lone title 41 years ago, but never win enough to sustain relevance.
The Nationals took postseason misery that some teams would accumulate over decades and stuffed it into seven years. From the blown 6-0 lead against these same Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS to the still-can’t-believe-it-happened fifth inning of the deciding Cubs game in 2017 with NLDS losses to the Dodgers and Giants in between.
You could write a book on the playoff failures of the Ovechkin-era Capitals, who even before that began had playoff baggage equal to any pro sports team anywhere. But just when it looked like the Capitals were finished, that Ovechkin’s time here in Washington would end with many brilliant moments, but no Cup, they broke through when everyone least expected it.
The Nationals were supposed to be good this season again, but they were diminished by Bryce Harper’s free agent departure and World Series dreams seemed to be just that: Dreams, not reality. Certainly not after the 19-31 start to the year left them for dead. But that was all put to rest Tuesday as a joyous locker room again exploded in champagne and beer and dancing and parade whistles and football helmets and light sabers. It was a scene as they say.
The Capitals have their championship. The Nationals want more, but for now at least had a moment with a roaring home crowd, an emotional trophy presentation and Ryan Zimmerman hoisting the trophy with a primal scream toward the fans still celebrating behind the dugout. They will play the Yankees or the Astros in the World Series. There is hope yet for the biggest party of them all. That’s all that really separates them and the Capitals now.
“For me, I want to be a part of that, too, and it does mean a lot to me that our hometown teams are winning,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “I feel like, quietly, I supported all the teams. I said, this is going to happen. It's going to happen in our world, in the baseball world. It is. We've just got to believe. We're one step closer right now.”
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