Washington becomes a baseball town

Washington becomes a baseball town
October 4, 2012, 8:38 pm
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How does a town respond to something that hasn't happened in 79 years? How does a city that hasn't hosted a postseason ballgame since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House catch pennant fever? And how does a region known mostly for dividing itself down the middle along political party lines come together in support of one common goal: Winning a World Series?

Washington is about to answer all of those questions, and the rest of the country is about to find out what those who live here have known for decades: D.C. is a big event town.

And for the next week (and perhaps the entire month) there's going to be no bigger event in town than Nationals playoff games.

From the moment the Nationals clinched their city's first postseason berth since 1933, there's been a baseball buzz around the District and surrounding suburbs not experienced in generations, if ever. The local papers are filled with more baseball coverage than many have time to read. Local TV news has hopped on board the bandwagon. Radio stations are announcing plans for Super Bowl-like pregame and postgame coverage of first-round playoff games.

Politicians and network news anchors have been showing up at Nationals Park, some of them mysteriously becoming part of the clubhouse champagne celebration. The President of the United States has expressed his support of the Nationals (as well as his hometown White Sox, who have since been eliminated from contention).

And, in perhaps the craziest example of Nationals buzz overtaking the city, the long-awaited triumph of Teddy in the Presidents Race on Wednesday instantly became one of the biggest (non-) news stories in the country. Moments after he crossed the finish line ahead of nemeses George, Tom and Abe, Teddy became a trending topic on Twitter, with a replay of the race becoming the No. 1 "highlight" on ESPN's SportsCenter (ahead of Miguel Cabrera securing MLB's first Triple Crown in 45 years).

For those who have followed the Nationals since the franchise arrived from Montreal following the 2004 season, there's a surreal nature to all this attention. Sure, there was hype and buzz surrounding the Nats during their inaugural 2005 campaign, especially when they took over first place in the NL East for a stretch in early summer.

But few outside of the die-hards cared much about what was going on during the dark days from 2006-09, when a 73-89 record was considered a significant achievement. Around the country, just about the only time the Nationals were mentioned beyond a passing breath was when they were being mocked, whether for misspelling their name on a couple of jerseys, producing the worst TV ratings in the majors, getting booed in their own park on Opening Day by Phillies fans or losing games at an astonishing rate.

Then, at long last, came a glimpse of what could be: June 8, 2010, the night Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut. Considering all the hype surrounding the rookie right-hander from the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Nationals, his first career start turned into a major baseball event in D.C.

And when Strasburg surpassed everyone's expectations by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings, an overflow crowd at Nationals Park rejoiced in a manner that suggested this could indeed become a baseball town ... if the team ever started winning.

There were glimpses of it late in 2011, with manager Davey Johnson guiding the team he took over in midseason through a strong September and coming within two games of producing the club's first-ever winning record.

But it wasn't until the Nationals burst out of the gates in 2012, opening the season 14-4 and taking over first place in the division, that the skeptics began to believe. And over the course of the summer, fans began turning out in bigger numbers and more and more people around town became engaged with what turned into the best team in baseball.

Now, you can't walk more than a few blocks without spotting someone wearing a curly W cap or a Bryce Harper jersey. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to begin a conversation about local sports not with an analysis of the Redskins' next game but with a debate over which potential postseason opponent the Nationals would be most likely to beat.

The toughest ticket in town right now isn't to see RG3 and the Skins face the Falcons on Sunday. It's to see Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth host either the Cardinals or Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Starting times haven't been announced yet, but when they are, thousands of federal government employees and regular working Joes in Maryland and Virginia are going to be putting in requests to leave early to catch the first postseason ballgame here in three generations.

It's uncharted territory for just about everyone involved. But it's left everyone in a state of euphoria for now, then ultimately high tension as this city gets to experience the meat grinder of emotions that comes with postseason baseball.

Fans in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- regular participants in this exercise -- may scoff and ask why this is a big deal.

Washington sports fans need not respond. They've spent the last six months falling in love with the National Pastime, and they're about to be rewarded with a honeymoon that could last anywhere from four days to four weeks and could bring this town together like few past events have.