WASHINGTON (AP) - Washington is normally a city defined by its divisions, be they political, racial or economic.
But the unlikely World Series run of the Washington Nationals has become something truly unexpected: a unifying force in a city that hasn’t known much unity recently.
Nationals red and the trademark swirling W have become common sights across the District of Columbia. On the night of Game 1 in Houston against the Astros, a racially diverse crowd of thousands turned out in the midst of a cold rainstorm to watch the game on television together in Nationals Park.
“There’s no politics in baseball,” said Beth Leeth, a Virginia resident who came to the park with her husband and four children. She continued the “League of Their Own” analogy by adding, “There IS crying sometimes. We’ve been Nats fans long enough that there’s been some tears over the Nationals. But not this year.”
Judith Gilbert, a 25-year DC resident, said, “You can feel it. It’s palpable in the community. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is at the moment. It’s helping us deal with the other stuff that’s really terribly frightening that’s going on politically. This is something that’s an antidote to that.”
As the nation’s capital, Washington is split by the passions and anger surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency and the impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-led House. As a city of 700,000 people, Washington is overwhelmingly Democratic. Still, a fast-moving gentrification wave has produced a host of racial and economic tensions with longtime black residents fearing that DC’s “Chocolate City” identity is being erased.
Nationals fever has even popped up inside Trump’s White House.
On Oct. 17, at the start of what would become a disastrous press conference that may have strengthened the impeachment case against his boss, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney started off with a Nationals reference.
“I did want to come out here with my Nationals hat on but they told that would violate some type of rule,” he joked.
Trump said Thursday that, if the Nationals don’t sweep, he planned to attend Game 5 on Sunday. If so then some of those DC divisions will be publicly on display. The Nationals announced Friday that the first pitch for game 5 will be thrown by Jose Andres - a local celebrity chef and humanitarian who is a vocal public critic of Trump over immigration and the government response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Washington is a city filled with transplants, many of whom bring their hometown sports loyalties with them. There also isn’t much of a local history of baseball success. Two separate incarnations of the Washington Senators have left town, becoming the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers. From 1972 until 2005, when the Montreal Expos relocated here, a generation of local fans was forced to either live without a hometown favorite or unnaturally root for the Baltimore Orioles.
But Nationals fever has become undeniable. That was evident last week when the fourth Democratic presidential debate went head-to-head with the Nationals‘ game 4 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Normally the bars of Capitol Hill would have been packed with debate-watching parties, but instead baseball seemed to decisively dominate politics.
“We need this. We really do need this,” said Rowena De Leon of Rockville, Maryland. “With the country so divided, this is just something that’s good and something to cheer for.”
Part of the charm of this year’s team is their underdog story. After the Nationals lost their best player, Bryce Harper to free agency, very little was expected of this year’s squad. Even squeaking into the playoffs as a wild card was considered a pleasant surprise. From there the team has somehow morphed into a juggernaut. After winning the first two games in Houston, the Nationals return home Friday for Game 3 with an eight-game playoff winning streak and in the unlikely role of World Series favorite.
A Nationals victory would also continue the recent championship streak for a city largely accustomed to sports futility. The Capitals won hockey’s Stanley Cup in 2018 after years of near-misses, and the Washington Mystics won their first WNBA title in September.
“I’m getting the same vibe as 2018 when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup and everybody just embraced everybody” said Ted Peters, a Nats superfan who comes to games dressed like a cruise ship captain and goes by the name Captain Obvious. “It’s a feeling of oneness. It’s us against the world. It’s a fantastic feeling and you can feel it throughout the city.”
The Wizards and the Redskins remain mired in long-term mediocrity, but Washingtonians will absolutely take what they can get.
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