The Ultimate Washington Baseball Fan

My dad loved the Senators. He thought the Nationals would never win.

Washington Nationals team members hugging
David J. Phillip / AP

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

When I was a boy, there was no baseball in Washington, except in our minds. To watch games, we would drive up I-95 to Baltimore. In the car, my father would tell us stories from the mythical past, about how he would take the trolley to Griffith Stadium to watch the Washington Senators, sometimes even without the knowledge or company of his parents. If he arrived in the late innings, a friendly usher would let him slip past the turnstiles without a ticket. My brothers and I felt jealous of the city he described, a place where a kid could have such free and easy access to baseball.

The stories my father told were about a bunch of losers. He loved them deeply, even though he never thought the team would reciprocate his passion with pennants and trophies. Broadway enshrined the Senators’ atrociousness in the musical Damn Yankees. The Senators were so terrible that only a Faustian bargain could possibly bring the team success. From an early age, I loved the writer Charles Dryden’s comic description of the Senators, with its perfect juxtaposition of grandeur and disappointment: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League East.” The Senators were so bad that the owners kept moving them to other cities for a fresh start, renaming the team and leaving behind a metropolis without baseball. That loss felt somehow connected to the insulting and racist fact that Washington is an anomaly in American democracy, the one place not fully trusted to govern itself.

We really liked the Baltimore Orioles—and worshipped the team’s shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., invariably described as the ultimate “blue-collar” player—but we felt a little alien in their stadium. They ate crab cakes and sang “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch. Before games, we’d sometimes stop at Baltimore’s famous markets for a bite to eat and marvel at how two cities could be so proximate but so culturally different.

At some point, in the middle of an Orioles games, two guys would unfurl a banner that they would march through the stands along the first-base line: Bring Baseball Back to D.C. It felt like they were idealists, like supporters of single-payer health care, stoking a beautiful but implausible dream. My dad would wear a Washington Senators cap and jacket to these games in Baltimore. Every so often, in the line for popcorn, a stranger would tap him on the shoulder and tell him: “Someday you’ll have your team back.”

Everything about the return of baseball to Washington has felt like a dream sequence. I remember watching News Four when the Lerner family announced that they would relocate the franchise from Montreal and it would be called the Nationals—an identity distinct from the Senators, but still connected to it. (“The Nats” was a nickname that old-timers used for the Senators.)

I hadn’t allowed myself to believe that my father’s fantasy, that implausible notion on the quixotic banner, might actually be realized in my lifetime. That sense of disbelief stayed with me when the team returned. The Nats always seemed to be on the brink of greatness, yet somehow destined to remain the unlucky Senators. Even at the end of this year’s regular season, my dad and I left a game talking about the prospect that the team’s best players—Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon—might not be around in 2020. Six weeks before the Nats won the World Series, we were bemoaning the impossibility of rebuilding the team and preparing for a long winter of sustained mediocrity.

There’s a populist disdain for the Washington Nationals, and I totally get it. The stadium is populated by partners at fancy law firms; advertisements for the military-industrial complex ring the ballpark; the luxury boxes are a vehicle for trade-association honchos to entertain clients with the intention of extracting rents from the state. As a Washingtonian who has lived here for all but five years of my life, I disdain this side of the town too.

But it’s pure ignorance that allows glib newspaper writers to skip past the nontransient part of the city. My great-grandfather came to Washington from Russia and worked as a wallpaper hanger; my grandfather worked as a police reporter for The Washington Herald, before he began selling watches on his mother’s stoop. (My grandfather, who worked in retail, had to negotiate with the Nats’ owner Ted Lerner, who owned suburban shopping malls.) Baseball—and the absence of baseball—has been deeply entangled with my sense of place, the connection I feel to my native ground.

This glorious run to victory has been tainted by an unfortunate bit of scheduling. During his retirement, my father has made time to watch nearly every Nats game. At the depths of the team’s terrible May, when they dipped to 19–31, he made plans for October. He and my mother would take a trip of a lifetime to Cambodia and Vietnam, their longest-ever excursion from home. I don’t think he pondered the possibility that his vacation might conflict with his one chance to watch the Nationals win a World Series. This perhaps makes him the ultimate Washington baseball fan, the one most tethered to the team’s history. Even in the face of such a great miracle—even as he has experienced such great joy—he has managed to remain connected to the legacy of futility. I couldn’t be more happy for him.