WASHINGTON — The thrill of the Washington Nationals making the World Series has been amplified for lifelong fans like Steven Baranko, who has experienced all the October meltdowns and playoff heartbreak in the team’s history.
He’s only 18.
That someone barely old enough to vote is still older than Washington’s baseball team highlights how novel the euphoria here has been this week in a city that’s been otherwise riven by fierce political partisanship.
“The vibe is totally changed,” said Baranko, from nearby Bethesda, Md., who was at the team’s losses in the deciding games of the 2012, 2016, and 2017 National League Division Series. “Everyone’s talking about them like, ‘Hey, did you get to go to the game? Does anyone have tickets they can sell me?’ ”
Finally, Washington has found a subject that everyone here can rally behind, something to compete with the impeachment frenzy — baseball fever.
The Nationals are headed to their first World Series since Major League Baseball returned to Washington in 2005 after a 33-year hiatus. And the team’s gleaming new ballpark, which has revived a downtrodden neighborhood just south of Capitol Hill, has become the place to be seen, drawing senators, Supreme Court justices, and government officials among its growing fan base.
The Nats’ postseason success this October after years of disappointment has become the positive story the city desperately needs amid the chaos of President Trump’s administration and the bitter House impeachment inquiry.
With a World Series game set to be played here next week for the first time since the old Senators called the city home during the Great Depression, some are even wondering if Washington — a place known mostly for partisan fighting and a football team with a politically incorrect name — will finally become a baseball town.
“It’s been an incredible run for a team that’s been out of it for forever,” said Tom Davis, a former US representative from the Virginia suburbs. “Washington is looking for some good news and they’re not getting it out of the White House, they’re not getting it out of Congress.”
The nation’s capital is abuzz with excitement, as strangers in Nats caps high five each other in the streets and strike up conversations about the team. The Washington Post described “delirious, almost disbelieving celebration” in the wake of the team winning the National League Championship Series on Tuesday, after “a quick check to ascertain whether hell had indeed suffered a winter weather event.”
“I’ve never seen — in all my years of living here, which is since 1970 — I’ve never seen a baseball crowd as emotional and revved up as they were [Tuesday] night,” said George Solomon, the director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland who was the sports editor of the Post from 1975-2003.
Many Washington politicians, especially those who come from states without MLB teams, have adopted the Nationals.
And because the Nats are so new, lawmakers and government officials who are fans of other franchises have felt comfortable making the team their second-favorite because it lacks the baggage of historical rivalries.
The team has taken on a unique role — common ground for political rivals. Don Stewart, a former top aide to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, said the Nats gave McConnell, a Republican, and former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid a politics-free interest to share amid their high-stakes fights and negotiations. The team plays that role for other Washington politicians and staffers as well.
“You’re walking down the street and you see somebody in a Nats hat, you can say ‘Go Nats’ to them and not have any clue who they are, where they’re from, what their party is, anything,” Stewart said. “It’s just a different way of identifying on a common, positive front versus wearing a certain kind of hat or certain kind of shirt from a political party.”
To put the Nationals’ history-making in perspective: Franklin D. Roosevelt — who is not among the four mascot-like presidents who race in the middle of the fourth inning of every game at Nationals Park — was commander in chief the last time a World Series was played in Washington.
Those Senators left for Minnesota after the 1960 season. The Senators returned as an expansion franchise in 1961, only to also flee the nation’s capital 10 years later, this time to Texas.
Baseball didn’t return until the Montreal Expos relocated to D.C. in 2005.
The long stretch without baseball means the Nationals lack the multigenerational appeal of teams like the Red Sox, and the postseason misery in Washington pales in comparison to the decades-long Curse of the Bambino.
Chris DeFelice, who owns the Boston-themed sports bar Dirty Water in Washington, believes the two ingredients for a passionate fan base are generational loyalty and an opposing team or player that fans band together to hate — like the Yankees for the Red Sox.
“It’s going to be an interesting social experiment to judge how the Nats’ fan base is now, versus 15 years from now,” DeFelice said. “I think 15 years from now, it’ll be like a Red Sox fan base.”
But while the Nats’ playoff run might be a welcome diversion in Washington, you can never fully cut out politics in the nation’s capital. Several bars simultaneously showed the Democratic presidential debate and the Nationals’ NLCS victory over the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday night.
“We had people come out for both,” said Ashley Saunders, the general manager of Union Pub on Capitol Hill. “More people were interested in hearing the debate, so that took precedent. Overall, I think you could see . . . heads bobbing between two screens throughout the night.”
Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said that a World Series win would be a great moment where “people could lay down their swords for a little bit,” but that he didn’t expect any lasting impact on the political environment.
“They’ll be nicer to each other for a couple days before they go back in the chamber of the House and Senate and fight with each other,” Heye said. “That’s kind of the ultimate reality. We’re able to have moments where we come together — unfortunately, those moments seem to be pretty fleeting.”