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.”
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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.