Washington is a dark place with a mean-spirited and bitterly polarizing president. But suddenly, there’s sunlight—not from the looming impeachment of Donald Trump or the political skill of Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker—but the Nationals, the local baseball team, which in a previous incarnation was called “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
The Nationals, now of the National League, head to the World Series today. The joy is palpable, non-partisan, and has squeezed (temporarily) an ounce of optimism out of an embattled press corps. When the Nats, as they’re known, secured victories earlier in the playoffs, reporters high-fived on the campaign trail; Andrea Mitchell and Judy Woodruff (my wife) tweeted excitedly; and The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein flew in from California for a game. “At a time of daily news eruptions, it’s particularly a tonic for the folks working in and covering politics,” Jonathan Martin, chief political correspondent for The New York Times, says.
At Nationals Park, Peter Baker, the chief Washington correspondent for the Times, takes his spot in the low section between home plate and the dugout. A section over is the oracle of baseball-loving political columnists, George Will. “There’s no more unifying force in established Washington journalism than the Nats,” James Carville, the political operative and commentator, tells me. Carville, who’s flying in from New Orleans for the first championship home game, on Friday, sits next to Luke Russert. A fat cat offered Russert thousands of dollars above list price for his tickets. He, of course, said no. Russert wondered aloud to his mom—Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair—who he might take to the game. She had a quick, emphatic response: “Moi.”
Natsmania has affected the whole town. There are signs everywhere; customers at Starbucks are wearing Nationals hats and shirts. “It’s a funny window into how Washington works,” Michael Tackett, deputy Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press and a Nats fanatic, says, of the World Series. Tickets to Game Four of the division series (when the Los Angeles Dodgers might have ended it) didn’t sell out; there were some five thousand empty seats. Now, for the championship, standing-room spots are going for seven hundred dollars apiece; upper deck seats for fourteen thousand. There’s a mad dash to get in. “Every fixer is making a deal,” Tackett explains, “every connection leverager.”
Like politicians, journalists these days are jaded, often crossing the boundary between skepticism and cynicism. But the Nationals, who will be up against the fearsome Houston Astros, are refreshing—this is our Camelot.
It’s a fabulous narrative. In another dark era—the seventies—Washington’s professional football team, the Redskins, was a unifying force in our city. That team is now dysfunctional—with a reviled owner, an incompetent general manager, a dreadful stadium, a shrinking fan base, and an always-awful name. To be sure, in a town often labeled a sports loser, the Capitals, our hockey team, won a championship in 2018 and the Mystics, our women’s basketball team, won this year. But Washington has been a vast wasteland for baseball. The city hasn’t had a team in the World Series since 1933. It hasn’t won a series since 1924; Calvin Coolidge was president.
We were without a baseball team entirely for thirty-three years, until 2005, when the Montreal Expos, financially strapped, moved to town. Having waited in agony for a team, I eagerly took my eighteen-year-old son to the opening game at the old Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. “Benjamin,” I said to him, getting a little teary-eyed, “I have dreamed for so long about this day, taking a son to a baseball game.” He shrugged. “Hey Dad,” he replied. “It’s just a baseball game.” With this season, however, he knows it’s a lot more.
The history makes this team and this year sweeter. After moving into a new stadium, Nationals Park, in 2008, with enlightened management, the team has gradually become one of the best in baseball. Except in October, when the past has been prologue: four times over the past seven years the Nats have lost in the first round of the playoffs, excruciatingly, with blown leads, eighteen-inning contests, and managerial miscues. As of May 23, this season didn’t look too promising: the team had won only nineteen games and lost thirty-one. Over the next four months, they staged the greatest turn-around in more than a century of major league baseball, and come October, we braced for the inevitable.
I’ve been a season-ticket holder since the Nats arrived in Washington—I share my seats with Seth Waxman, a former solicitor general—and I belong to an email group of crazy fans, a few leading journalists, and some former top government officials. Throughout the playoffs we messaged in real time, often second-guessing the Nats’ manager, Davey Martinez. On every occasion he was right. One of our profession’s weaknesses is difficulty in admitting we were wrong. Not this time; we loved how much smarter Martinez was. When the Nats scored a stunning come-from-behind victory in the winner-take-all National League “wild card” game, for instance, I joined Jerry Seib, the Wall Street Journal columnist and executive (typically laid-back), in dancing around gleefully like teenagers.
More than a few political journalists are frustrated sports writers; this month many would trade places with Tom Boswell, the Washington Post baseball columnist. After all, the Nats are a great story: In the wild card game, our twenty-year-old phenom, Juan Soto, hit a game-winning shot against the best relief pitcher in baseball. In the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, we were overwhelming underdogs; behind again, Soto and Anthony Rendon, our top player, hit back-to-back home runs against Clayton Kershaw, an All-Star eight times over. Then one of our oldest players—Howie Kendrick, age 36, recently recovered from an injury and now with his fourth team in five years—hit a grand slam to win it. Howie is a kid next to Fernando Rodney, a Nats relief pitcher, who at 42 is the oldest player in the major league. Damn, this is as good a story as Barack Obama.
Athletes, like journalists or members of any profession, have their share of jerks. Yet the Nats’ clubhouse appears remarkably jerk free: Max Scherzer, a hyper-competitive ace pitcher, won a game with a broken nose; Sean Doolittle, our closer, is an advocate for social justice. The ballpark is an escape from the usual stories of Washington, and the disappointments of its people. “It’s a great time to turn in your badge, not look at Twitter, and focus on what’s really important, baseball,” Tackett says. Plus: “It’s a place where journalists can go and not get screamed at.”
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images