A look at how the nation’s capital fell back in love with America’s pastime.
By Laura Wainman
Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (Photo by Tony Powell)
Hugh Kaufman’s childhood is filled with memories of baseball diamonds, humid summer nights at the ballpark and the sense of pride that only comes from sticking by a team for which a W was so rare that it was cause for citywide celebration. One of his earliest memories is riding a trolley car to Griffith Stadium with his parents to see the Washington Senators and first baseman Mickey Vernon tossing a baseball to him in the stands.
“I was absolutely thrilled and it’s a day I still remember 60-plus years later,” Kaufman says. “That’s baseball for you.”
An entire generation of Washingtonians was stripped of the opportunity to make these memories when the District endured a 34-year baseball drought after the Senators departed for Arlington, Texas in 1971. Gone were the family-friendly outings to RFK where mom and dad held tightly to sticky hands itching to wolf down another hotdog; gone was a father’s chance to bond with his son who sat on the edge of his seat, legs swinging lazily as he pounded his fist into his glove sure that the next fly ball was coming his way; and gone were the days of hometown heroes, as hero worship had been outsourced to Fenway, Wrigley or Yankee stadium..
Some fans were so desperate to once again be participants in America’s pastime that they ventured outside the Beltway to adopt the Orioles or poured their hearts into supporting the exciting, young prospects on teams to which they had no ties. A few diehards, like Kaufman, held out hope that their beloved game would return to Washington and never courted a substitute. But more often than not, the thirst for baseball waned and the city shifted its allegiance to the men of the gridiron to become a town dominated by the Burgundy and Gold.
Flash forward 44 years since the last out was recorded in the nation’s capital. Baseball mania has returned as the Washington Nationals have spent the last decade inching their way back into our hearts. Natitude is sweeping not only the District, but the country and the Curly W is worn as a badge of honor far beyond Nats Park. In 10 years, a nanosecond in baseball time, Washington has clinched two NL East Division Championships, secured the best record in baseball in 2012 and participated in post-season play twice — something that hadn’t occurred since 1933. They have witnessed countless walk-off home runs and cheered wildly as more and more headline-making players joined their ranks. They’ve become the name on the lips of the baseball cognoscenti and are perennially touted as World Series contenders.
“We used to be a city starving for baseball, and now we’re a fan base that’s thirsty for a championship,” says Will Yoder, founder of the Nats Blog. “Starving for baseball isn’t just about having a team, but also having a community that loves it. We have that, and now I think we’re all just trying to take the next step.”
The journey has been far from easy and the story is not yet complete without a coveted World Series ring. But ask any dedicated fan whom to thank for the last decade of excitement in Washington and three names will surface: Anthony Williams, Ted Lerner and Mike Rizzo — the three wise men who shepherded the return of America’s pastime to the nation’s capital.
FROM MONTREAL TO WASHINGTON
The long wait for baseball to return to the District ended at 7:06 p.m. on April 14, 2005 as Liván Hernández hurled a called strike to the mitt of Brian Schneider in front of a sell-out crowd. But the deal that eventually ushered in the new era of baseball in Washington was one that had hung precariously in the balance for years before that evening’s win over the Diamondbacks.
The bidding for the flailing Montreal Expos (a team that was bleeding some $45 million a year) began in 2002 after owner Jeffrey Loria sold it to Major League Baseball in February for $120 million. Almost immediately, neighbors Washington, D.C. and Virginia began fighting one another to bring the team to the DMV.
“It was an uphill slog all the way,” former MayorAnthony Williams told Washingtonian Magazine. He faced resistance not only from within his own government, but from forces in Virginia who wanted to see baseball in Northern Virginia, not Washington, D.C. as well as from Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos who did not want competition just 40 miles down the road.
Most believed that Washington was fighting a losing battle.It had already lost two teams before (the World Series-winning Senators who had left for Minnesota in 1961 and the second incarnation of the Senators who went to Texas in 1971) and had a reputation for government corruption and fiscal mismanagement leftover from the Marion Barry days. As in most business deals, it came down to finances as the MLB was looking to have the cost of the stadium fully fronted by the city where they sent the team, a commitment Northern Virginia was not ready for. After several near misses, numerous changes to the plan, tireless efforts from Williams and some last-minute, unexpected help from Councilmember Jack Evans, Washington got its baseball team and the MLB was guaranteed a fully-funded stadium along the Anacostia River. The 29 owners of the MLB had approved the move 28-1; Angelos was the sole holdout.
“I don’t think we would have baseball if it were not for Mayor Williams,” Kaufman says. “I will always be indebted to him for that.”
BASEBALL FOR SALE
Despite the nearly three-year fight to relocate the Expos from Montreal to Washington, D.C., the battle wasn’t over. The orphan team still desperately needed an adopted parent willing to nurture and give it the love and attention a rebuilding franchise would need from an owner, not to mention one with the kind of money that leads to flashy free agent signings. In real estate developer (and Maryland’s wealthiest man) Ted Lerner, the MLB found a match. The District native won out over seven other bidders due to the family nature of his bid, which included his son and sons-in-law in the ownership, along with former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, whom he brought in as team president. His reminiscing on the days where he could spend 25 cents to watch games at Griffith stadium didn’t hurt either.
“This has been a long journey. … While I do apologize for the time, I think history will prove it maybe was time well spent,”then-Commissioner Bud Selig said on May 3, 2006 of the $450 million sale.
So far, Washington players, management and fans couldn’t agree more, as they all have nothing but high praise for the Lerner family and the direction they have taken the team. From bringing in Mike Rizzo as general manager, and giving him enough free rein to actually make decisions, to taking a risk and spending the $126 million it took to secure Jayson Werth for seven years, the first signing that convinced big name players Washington was a town worth playing in, the Lerner’s are proving that they are in it for the long haul.
“When the Lerner family bought the team there was a commitment to running a baseball organization the right way that was extremely self-evident and palpable to fans who were paying attention,” says Scott Ableman, founder of the Let Teddy Win blog. “We knew it would take a while to turn into success on the field, which it has, but it changed things almost immediately.”
But the Lerners’ purchase did not come with a blueprint for success. What they inherited from Major League Baseball were a few veteran players whose best days were behind them, several young guys looking to make it in the bigs who didn’t have half the talent of a Bryce Harper or Michael Taylor, and a shell of a farm system. They would have to start from the beginning and create something from nothing more than a name.
BUILDING FROM THE BOTTOM
As any child who has been given a shiny new toy knows, those first few days with your new plaything are precious and all-consuming; all other toys pale in comparison to the just-out-of-the-box whatnot they had begged, hoped and pleaded for. You’re not yet ready to share and God forbid, you’d fight anyone who had even the slightest negative feelings towards this new object of affection.
In 2005, Washington baseball fans could be likened to these children. Finally, the drought had ended and clouds of rust-colored dust would once again be kicked up by metal-spiked cleats at RFK. They were more than ready to unwrap their long-awaited present. A crowd of 45,596 fans, the largest of any Nats home game to date, showed up that fateful April night to see the team soar to a 5-3 victory over the Diamondbacks, with eight shutout innings recorded by Liván Hernández and Vinny Castilla nearly hitting for the cycle. The inaugural season would bring 80 more Ws, 12 interleague wins, the most in the national league at the time, and the call-up of “the face of the franchise” Ryan Zimmerman, who would record 23 hits in 58 at bats and become the first Nat to complete the season with a batting average of at least .300 with at least 50 at bats. The 2005 attendance of 2,731,993 for the season and average of 33,728 per game is still a franchise pinnacle.
“The first half of the 2005 season was magical,” Kaufman says. “We were in first place in the division which hadn’t happened in Washington since 1933. The whole experience, nothing can surpass it unless they go to a World Series.”
“We had a small, rabid fan base when we first started, and as you can imagine we weren’t a very good team in the beginning,” remembers GM Mike Rizzo. “It wasn’t a bandwagon group. They loved having baseball back and were good, hardened fans that knew the game and wanted to see this team grow.”
The excitement stemming from newness was fleeting. After the team ended the season in last place, nine games back from the division winning Atlanta Braves, with an 81-81 record, the fan base dwindled considerably. The 2006 season saw a loss of more than a half-million fans with another 200,000-plus departing in 2007, as the Nationals recorded two more losing seasons. With the creation of Nationals Park, attendance for the 2008 season once again boomed with 2,320,400 fans visiting the new stadium despite the team finishing last and putting up a dismal 59-102 record. Attendance hit an all-time low in 2009 with an average of 22,435 fans per game and stayed down for the next two seasons. It got so bleak that in 2009 Kasten infamously committed Washington sports treason and encouraged Philadelphia Phillies fans, the Nationals’ metaphorical enemy, to make the trip down and help fill his vacant stadium.
What wasn’t apparent to these casual interlopers who flitted in and out on nights when baseball seemed like a fun idea was the re-building that was happening within every level of the organization, from their Minor League affiliates like the Potomac Nationals in Woodbridge, Va., all the way up to The Show. Long before the household names like Werth, Strasburg, Harper and Scherzer showed up, Rizzo and his team had an aggressive plan for the amateur draft and were implementing consistent player development procedures to create depth from the bottom up and ensure that when the headline-makers inevitably began showing interest in playing in Washington, they’d be ready. He embodied the “slow and steady” approach and knew that what he was looking to build wouldn’t happen overnight. In the past, Washington teams have jumped at the opportunity to snag coveted, high-priced free agents seen as a panacea (Albert Haynesworth comes to mind) and ended up failing miserably. Finally in Rizzo, and Lerner, Washington has a franchise that seeks to fully fix leaky holes in the ship rather than merely covering them with a Band-Aid.
“We took the aggressive stance that we were building for longevity,” Rizzo says. “The first order of business was to hire the best and brightest scouting minds and evaluators in baseball so we could be cutting edge in all aspects of analytics. It starts at the ground level with area scouts and minor league coaches and managers. You can see through the roster that we have a lot of players that we have drafted, signed and developed ourselves or used these well-developed players to trade for the big pieces that are now on the major league roster.”
After a few years of quickly promoting its top prospects due to sheer need at the big league level — think Bryce Harper’s one-and-a-half-year ascension — the Nationals have rebuilt the depth of their farming system to be sustainable for years to come. Their system jumped from being ranked 23rd overall by Baseball Prospectus in 2013 to 11 this year. They are sitting on possibly the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball currently with 20-year-old Lucas Giolito, the 16th pick of the 2012 draft, and see great potential for Reynaldo Lopez, Trea Turner and Rafael Bautista among others.
While he was busy building through the draft and creating a farm system from scratch, Rizzo had Ryan Zimmerman as his building block. Selected in the first round as the fourth overall pick, Zimmerman was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Virginia and the Nationals’ first ever draft pick. He rapidly became the face of the franchise, a quiet, introspective man who would rather lead by example or pull younger guys aside to privately teach them how it is done in the big leagues. You won’t catch him yelling or making an example out of a teammate, and it’s a style that has earned utmost respect among his peers both in his own clubhouse and throughout major league baseball.
“It’s about far more than being the first pick,” Rizzo says. “That gave him something unique, but he’s the face for so many reasons- his personality for one and his professionalism. The way he conducts himself not only between the white lines but also in the clubhouse and the community is what makes him the man here in D.C.”
He’s amassed a lot of “Nationals firsts” since the 2005 draft, such as first September call-up, first home run hit by a National in Nationals Park and he holds the team records for active players in games played, at-bats, hits, doubles, home runs, runs scored and RBIs. Once declared a “human fireworks show” by ESPN, Zimmerman has developed a penchant for hitting walk-off or go-ahead homers, particularly on holidays, and secured his 10th game-ending home run of his career on May 19. He gave the town something, actually someone, to rally around during the years when the overall product on the field was still in the developmental stages.
True to character, Zimmerman doesn’t brag or tout superior athletic abilities as the cause of his success in Washington. In his mind, he just had good timing.
“From the beginning I’ve said I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Zimmerman says. “In the early days we didn’t have too much to promote or get the fans excited about. I was the new, young, exciting guy and the organization just kind of thrust me into that role [the face of the franchise], without even really knowing who I was or what I’d do. I wasn’t even sure if they were doing the right thing, but I give them a lot of credit for taking that chance. I take pride in it, and love that now we have six or seven faces of the franchise.”
When asked who he sees filling his shoes for the next 10 years (though as Rizzo was quick to point out, he will still be here for several more years), he looks to the stars like Harper, Rendon “or even a guy like Strasburg.”
“Even if he does nothing else as a Nat, Zimmerman deserves all the money he gets for what he did in helping to create what is now the modern Nationals,” Kaufman says. “He was ‘Mr. Baseball’ for this city, and he isn’t done yet.”
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
On May 24, 2015, Thomas Boswell, one of the country’s premier sports writers, used his Washington Post column to make a bold proclamation: that Washington, D.C., long bemoaned as a sports wasteland save for Redskins Nation, was proving to be a good sports town. Sure, that may not seem like trumpet-sounding breaking news but considering what former pundits have said concerning the nation’s capital (recall Michael Wilbon decreeing it as “terrible” less than three years ago), it is one giant leap for D.C.-kind.
“Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos once said ‘there are no real baseball fans in D.C.,’” Boswell wrote. “In recent weeks, national pundits have claimed that Washington ‘is only a Redskins town’ or ‘isn’t a good sports town.’Apparently, dumb isn’t an endangered species. Get your head out of your Ashburn and look around,” Boswell added in that how-can-you-possibly-not-see-what-I-see tone only the Bos can pull off.
As he notes, Washington finds itself, for the first time, within the top 10 teams on the 2015 attendance report. With an average per-game attendance of 33,057 before school has even let out for the summer, and more than a 10 percent crowd increase from this point last season, the Nationals are rapidly approaching the record attendance levels of their inaugural season; Boswell predicts an average of nearly 35,000 this year which would finally trounce the 2005 numbers. But what exactly led to this explosion of fan support, the kind usually only explained by repeated World Series Championships, or at least appearances? 2012.
After years of losing seasons, of rebuilding the farm system to develop young players like Harper, of signing big gets like Werth, Strasburg and Scherzer, Washington’s patience was paying off in a big way. From an 80-81 finish in 2011, the Nationals soared to the best record in baseball in 2012 with a 98-64 record, a NL Division East championship and the city’s first postseason appearance since 1933 under their belts. Not too shabby.
“The 2012 season put us on the map in Major League Baseball,” Rizzo says. “It showed that the Washington Nationals need to be taken seriously, that we were a real organization that could compete at the highest level and introduced Washington, D.C. as a baseball town. The fan base really embraced it to a stratospheric level.”
Now, there is no need for Stan Kasten or anyone else to invite Phillies, Cubs or Mets fans out to the ballpark in order to fill seats. The Nationals can pack their own house with 40,000 fans who are rocking the red, wearing curly Ws, calling players by name and cheering their hearts out for their team; a team they fought tooth and nail to bring to the city.
“I take pride in the fact that we started this thing from the ground floor and we always had a vision for how we wanted it run,” Rizzo says.
There is a well-documented, mostly loving, relationship between Washingtonians and power, and nothing fuels power more than a sense of ownership, in being a part of something from the beginning. Just as much as the Nationals have taken a hold on this city, Washingtonians have stepped up and claimed baseball for their own. As blogger Scott Ableman warned, Washington loves a winner and if there ever comes a day when the Nats aren’t putting up winning seasons, the fans may drop off. It’s the nature of the beast. But for now, Washington’s romance with America’s pastime has been rekindled and remains in heat. And as the eternal optimist Rizzo says, “hopefully our best days are still in front of us.”
See the story from the Summer 2015 issue below:
See the full Summer 2015 issue below: