You could feel it in Nationals Park this week, this tension surrounding the future of Bryce Harper. The cheers for the 2018 Home Run Derby were a little more urgent, a little more resigned than they might have otherwise have been.
Harper might leave the Nationals forever. He also might not leave, and build a Hall of Fame career with the Nationals over the next decade. Or he might take $400 million of the franchise’s money and give them 10 injury-marred seasons in exchange. Still, there’s a good chance that he goes away and doesn’t come back.
The Nationals won’t fold the entire franchise if Harper leaves. Life would go on, and considering the team is struggling to stay over .500 this season (with Harper hitting .214 and playing rough defense), it’s possible that they might even get better.
There would be symbolic ramifications of a Harper departure, though. The Nationals are currently in the middle or at the tail end of one of the most engaging, electric periods in the history of Washington baseball. Other than the Walter Johnson era, which ended nearly 100 years ago, it might be one of the only engaging and electric periods in the history of Washington baseball. The baseball gods gave the Nationals the gift of an all-time talent, and it’s possible that they’ll have turned him into four NL East titles, four crushing losses in the first round of the postseason, an MVP, one of the most exciting Home Run Derbies in history, and a sack filled with memories.
It’s possible they won’t have used Harper to finish their ultimate project, their most important in the century-plus of Washington baseball. Harper might leave before the Nationals create an identity that’s different from the current one, which is the sneaky-sad team from the crushingly sad baseball town.
Escaping that identity is something that Washington baseball has been trying to do for the last century or so.
If Nationals Park were a person, its name would be John Anderson. Please, if you happen to be a John Anderson, hear me out. Don’t email your angry thoughts just yet. Being named John Anderson didn’t prevent anyone from appearing in Psycho or running for president or selling millions of records. It’s a fine name. A strong name.
But the people in charge of naming a park for Nationals settled on “Nationals Park,” which is the John Anderson of ballpark names. The ballpark happens to be completely unremarkable, entirely pleasant, and wholly functional. It’s more likely to be accidentally left off a “Best Ballparks in MLB” slideshow than occupy the top slot.
Do you like wide concourses and plentiful concessions? How about a batter’s eye and ample but not excessive foul territory? Are you pro-seats and walls? Well, boy howdy, do I have the ballpark for you.
As a place to watch a baseball game comfortably, it’s great. There’s parking, the Metro is close by, and the views are solid from everywhere in the ballpark, even the upper deck. Functional doesn’t have to be an insult. But if the Nationals are going to build an identity, they’ll need to do it without the assist of a 37-foot wall in left field, a body of water behind right field, or a warehouse to pepper with home runs.
It doesn’t help that the surrounding area is also looking for an identity. Washington D.C. is one of the most historically vibrant cities in the country, but the neighborhood surrounding Nationals Park is almost entirely new. There are condos after condos, construction sites next to construction sites, hip restaurants tucked under the high rises, with plans for newer, hipper restaurants coming. Washington is a city where the plaques seemingly have plaques, but the Navy Yard neighborhood is trying to start over. The section for “projects” on its Wikipedia page is substantially longer than the “history” section.
Surrealism does make a cameo at Nationals Park, though. Around the perimeter of the ballpark, there are ... unique ... statues honoring Washington baseball legends.
That’s Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, apparently frozen in carbonite while fighting Dhalsim.
That’s Frank Howard, Senators slugger and extremely large man. He has four bats in this representation, which is probably against the rules, but that’s okay. He’s a symbol of power, so he gets extra bats.
On the fringes of one of the more nondescript ballparks in baseball, here are oases of surreal eccentricity. The only problem with them is that once you think about them, they don’t make any sense.
Beyond the aesthetics of the statues, it’s the subject matter that’s odd. The first statue is a likeness of the pitcher with the most wins in Minnesota Twins history. The second statue is of the slugger who ranks in the all-time top ten in at-bats, RBI, home runs, and walks for the Texas Rangers. Johnson might have several arms in that statue, but none of them threw a pitch for the Washington Nationals. Howard might have four bats, but none of them drove in a run for the team.
The best players in this franchise’s history, technically, are Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Andre Dawson, who played for the franchise when it was the Montreal Expos. You will not find statues or merchandise celebrating them around the ballpark.
What these statues are trying to sell is the idea of baseball in Washington. It has a rich history. It also has a history of crushing the spirits of anyone who makes the mistake of caring about baseball there.
In 1904, legendary baseball writer Charles Dryden wrote the famous line “Washington – first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League,” which set the Washington Senators up as a kind of proto-Cubs to act as a placeholder until the real Cubs stopped winning championships. But from 1907 through 1927, the Senators (known colloquially as the “Nationals,” even then) had Walter Johnson, one of the best pitchers to ever live, and in 1924, they won the World Series. The success lingered through 1933, when they won the pennant and finished second in attendance in the American League.
That was the zenith, though, and the decline and fall was a bloody mess. The Nats played 27 more seasons in Washington, and they were in the bottom half of AL attendance in 24 of them. Correlations between losing and underwhelming attendance happen in every city with every sport, but there’s extra punishment for the teams that play in hot and sticky weather. Sitting through bad baseball on a humid 100-degree day might be an okay way to make a little extra money, but it turns out that the teams want you to pay them. Screw that.
There were other reasons for the decline in attendance. The St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles, sucking up at least a fraction of the fans who would need to travel from Maryland to see Major League Baseball. Calvin Griffith, who assumed ownership of the Senators when his dad passed away in 1955, blamed the writers for being mean to his perennially last-place teams, and he was also convinced that “baseball in Washington was unable to compete with the heavy horse race mutuel betting in the capital area,” according to a Sporting News article from 1959. Griffith was also unabashedly racist, which put him at odds with a huge swath of his potential audience.
Mostly, though, it was the team sucking.
When Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota, not all was lost, because the vote allowing them to move came with a rider that required baseball to put an expansion franchise in Washington. There wasn’t even a one-year gap between the old team and the new team. That was the good news.
The bad news was that the old Senators took enough young talent with them to put the Twins into the World Series within five years. Harmon Killebrew played in that final season in Washington, as did Jim Kaat, Bob Allison, Camilo Pascual, and Zoilo Versalles, who all combined to bring 20 All Star appearances, three postseason berths, and two MVPs to Minnesota. The new Senators would be an expansion team.
They, too, sucked.
Those Senators lost 100 games or more in each of their first four seasons, and they finished over .500 just once in their 11 seasons before moving to Texas and becoming the Rangers after the 1971 season.
Combined, these two versions of the “Nationals” played 71 seasons in Washington, and 19 of those teams finished over .500. They finished in last place — in divisions that were usually eight or ten teams deep — about 20 percent of the time.
More importantly, they drew more than a million fans in a single season just once out of those 71 seasons. Washington was always thought of as a logical place for a new team as baseball looked to expand, but it was always going to be a harder sell than it should have been.
Here, I’ll simplify it for you with a one-sentence history of Washington baseball before the current iteration of the Nationals: The teams stunk, and it was impossible for anyone to care.
Intermission: Best names on the 1924 Washington Senators, ranked
- Firpo Marberry
- Slim McGrew
- Chick Gagnon
- Mule Shirley
- Showboat Fisher
- Doc Prothro
- Nick Altrock
- Nemo Leibold
- Goose Goslin
- Muddy Ruel
This is what the new new Nationals signed themselves up for. They didn’t need to attach themselves to the fatal misery of the Montreal Expos; they had the intermittently fatal misery of the old Washington teams to celebrate.
While the first team in new new Nationals history finished .500, they quickly lost 100 games with two different unwatchable teams. They were a wayward home for former future superstars like Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson, Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, and Elijah Dukes.
But you can tell the story of the new new Nationals in one statistic: In their first season after moving from Montreal, they drew 2.7 million fans, which is more than any Washington team had drawn in any three consecutive seasons combined. It was more than the combined attendance for the first four seasons of the Senators team that moved to Texas. Even when the team lost 102 games in the 2008, they still drew more than two million.
The new new Nationals came into baseball at a fortuitous time. The dirty secret about the golden era of baseball is that not a lot of people actually came out to watch it.
In the modern era, people will come out, especially when a team has a superstar to offer. For all of the misery the baseball gods had foisted on the Senators, Senators, and Nationals, a cosmic tumbler finally clicked into place. The Nationals were four losses worse than anyone else, and they got to pick first in one of the rare drafts where there is an obvious consensus first-overall talent who was almost guaranteed to change his franchise.
The Nationals got to select Bryce Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16. That feature article came with a lede that detailed a 570-foot homer and a headline that compared him to LeBron James. It was a gift from the heavens, the kind of gift that eventually gave the Cavaliers a championship and changed the vibe of an entire city.
They made the postseason in Harper’s first season. In his first five seasons, there were as many postseason appearances for the Nationals as there had been in the previous 71 seasons of Washington baseball. If the Nationals were going to stop being a sneaky-sad team from a crushingly sad baseball town, it was going to happen with Harper.
Then the sneaky sadness became more overt. There were more Sports Illustrated covers, mostly to tout the Nationals as the best team in baseball, which they’ve been at various points over the last few years, but there was always a brutal first-round exit waiting for them in the postseason. The Harper window was open, but there was always a trap door underneath the entire team.
- Why was Pete Kozma even playing?
- Why were the Nationals so bad in the first half of 2013?
- Why did Matt Williams pull Jordan Zimmermann?
- Was it really better to rely on Marc Rzepczynski, Blake Treinen 1.0, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley, and Oliver Perez rather than a Max Scherzer nearing 100 pitches?
None of that had anything to do with Harper, but it all shoved the window down a little bit further. Now the Nationals are hovering around .500, and their special baseball wunderkind, that gift from the heavens, might leave after the season. They flew too close to the sun on wings made out of wonderful, billowy hair, and now they must return to their destiny as a sad team from a sad baseball city.
Except that explanation is as dumb as shit.
The myth is that DC is entirely a transient city, which will keep Nationals Fever at 98.6 degrees for now and forever. But that’s the silly logic that was also used to explain why the Vegas Golden Knights would flop and flounder in a city that wasn’t built for hockey. What actually happens in these situations is the locals — and there are millions of of them — finally have something to latch onto in a way that separates them from the dorks just passing through. It’s something that roughly translates to: “You can take the freeways and the restaurants and make everything more expensive, but this here sports team? This is mine, dammit.” That feeling can be a powerful, defining force. It can become an identity.
It wasn’t a bunch of wonks losing their minds when Jayson Werth tried to jump through home plate. It was people who were wholly invested in the idea that baseball in Washington was something worth caring about.
Maybe there were a few wonks.
And the demise of Washington baseball is, for once, greatly exaggerated. In right field, there’s a 40-foot-wide picture of Max Scherzer’s eyes to remind you that they employ the best pitcher alive. The crowds are still streaming in, even if they’re just as disappointed about the 2018 season as you would expect.
The most remarkable piece of symmetry might be with Juan Soto, the player Yoda was referring to as he gazed into the stars and made his proclamation. Part of Bryce Harper’s mystique is that he was doing things that teenagers weren’t supposed to do. When he won the NL MVP, it was proof that we weren’t wrong to make a big deal about his precociousness. Teenagers just aren’t supposed to do that.
Yet just as the previous phenom is about to leave the nest, here’s another one who is somehow off to an even faster start as a teenager. The possibility that your favorite team will go another 50 years without a Soto is a reminder that not all franchise cornerstones have to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated before they’re anointed. Sometimes they just happen.
Even more relevant is the Nationals have an owner who seems to care very much about the team’s success. While that was surely the case with both of the Griffiths, Ted Lerner has shown a willingness to play by modern baseball’s rules and play the part of a big-market bully at times. No owner has a better relationship with Scott Boras, which is practically a Webster’s-worthy definition of an owner who is willing to spend to win.
It’s possible that whoever succeeds Lerner will stumble, and perhaps there will be an ownership change in the near future, but there’s been something of a proof of concept with the Nationals and Washington baseball. The area will support a winning team. The area has probably always been willing to support a winning team, but they just didn’t get enough opportunities. The fans are willing to come out and cheer the superstars, and they’ll continue to hope those dumb hopes.
If that happens to include Bryce Harper, that’s great. If it doesn’t, not a whole lot will change. The Nationals already have an identity. It isn’t tethered to the past, it isn’t tethered to a unique ballpark, and it isn’t tethered to the whims of a single player, no matter how special he was supposed to be or how special he actually was.
The Nationals are a fully functioning part of baseball’s ecosystem now. Their future will hold some ups and some downs, some brilliant seasons and some disappointing seasons, just like every other team. They might take Soto and rule the baseball world one of these Octobers, or we could be back here in seven years, talking about the Soto window closing.
But this is already the most hopeful baseball team in Washington over the last century, and it will probably stay that way, even through the inevitable down years. They were lucky enough to enjoy Bryce Harper for years, and they might get to enjoy him for years to come, but they’ve already forged a new identity out of the ashes of previous franchises. The ballpark features statues of a Twins pitcher and a Rangers slugger because they want to celebrate the idea of baseball in Washington.
Finally, after 100 years, it finally seems like something worth celebrating, even if there’s still a whole lot of sadness they need to hack through.