Baseball Team Does What Politicians Couldn’t: Unite Washington

Todd Shields and Jennifer Jacobs

(Bloomberg) -- The Washington Nationals didn’t just banish eight decades of baseball futility in the U.S. capital by making it to the World Series. The team accomplished what generations of politicians promised but couldn’t do: bring Washington together.

Nationals Park was a cauldron of yelling, delirious fans as the team defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 7-4. The Nationals swept the Cardinals in four games and now advance to the Fall Classic, with the initial game set for Oct. 22.

Red-clad, roaring crowds this autumn have watched as the Nationals purged frustration that spanned a World Series defeat -- for the then-Washington Senators at the hands of the New York Giants -- in 1933, the departure of two teams for other cities, and four excruciating losses this decade in post-season series.

The only World Series crown for Washington came nearly a century ago when the Senators upended the Giants in 1924.

“They were so amped up,” said Fred Frommer, author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a book about Washington’s baseball history. “Not just about the 86 years, but modern baseball history -- those four horrible losses.”

The mania is all the stronger for being unexpected, with the Nationals climbing from a losing record early in the season. Now on South Capitol Street, where the stadium is located, players in Washington’s political dramas are enjoying a prolonged season for the summer game -- and a chance to focus on something other than deficits, procedural votes and an impeachment inquiry.

“Most Americans think the only thing normal about Washington is what happened last night,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, told reporters Wednesday.

Washington is talkin’ baseball.

At one evening game this week, Seth Waxman, who served as President Bill Clinton’s solicitor general, was shown on the giant video scoreboard dancing between innings.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a sports enthusiast who for years has shared Nationals season tickets with a group of friends, has made a point of going to every Nationals home postseason game. The Donald Trump appointee told senators during his confirmation process last year that he had attended all 11 postseason games played up to that point.

Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, loves the Nats, although they are his second team, after the Minnesota Twins.

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, has been a season ticketholder for seven years. And former Trump campaign deputy manager David Bossie has had season tickets since the day they were announced, in 2005.

Bossie, who has had time only to attend one regular season game this year, said that “when the Washington Nationals make it to the World Series, I’m hopeful that we can put politics behind us and everybody enjoy our national pastime together.”

Juan Williams, a Fox News political analyst and author, said he uses a Nats mug on the Fox set and is surprised how many people notice and say: “Your politics, I don’t know, but we’re both Nats fans!”

“It’s like a gathering spot. If we were in a jungle I’d say it’s a watering hole,” Williams added. “It makes us human to each other.”

The enthusiasm spread to courthouses, where a lawyer asked a judge for a brief extension because of the Nationals playoffs, citing the “unflagging support of a certain 9-year-old boy” who wanted to watch the games, according to BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman.

As they moved closer and closer to the National League crown, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer tweeted congratulations to “my Washington Nationals” and Fox News’s Bret Baier has chimed in on Twitter to root for a series sweep. In a recent interview, columnist George Will identified his favorite Nats player (first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, with the franchise since the 2005 season when it moved from Montreal, though he never played there).

The Nationals will face either the New York Yankees or the Houston Astros in the World Series. The Astros are ahead 2-1 in the American League championship series, after beating the Yankees on Tuesday night.

In an earlier playoff run, McConnell’s Democratic rival Harry Reid rooted for the Nationals. So, too, did former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

In September, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor threw out the ceremonial first pitch as part of the team’s recognition of Hispanic Heritage Day.

Last season’s 2018 first-pitch throwers included Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights icon, and Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who was recovering from gunshot wounds.

It’s not just the visitors who sew Nationals Park into the fabric of the nation’s capital. Racing presidents, towering figures that are caricatures of four chief executives, entertain the crowds during inning breaks.

Inside the ballpark, a food stand calls itself Steak of the Union. There’s a Georgetown Grill, named for the tony, historic district, and outposts of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of Washington’s most famous restaurants, which counts former President Barack Obama among its patrons.

During an era of overseas conflict, the Nationals pay homage to those in service. Fans take off their caps for a salute to the military at the end of the third inning, and four games were deemed to be a patriotic series, with pregame ceremonies to honor members of the armed forces.

(Updates with McConnell comment in seventh paragraph)

--With assistance from Greg Stohr, Jordan Fabian and Laura Litvan.

To contact the reporters on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Laurie Asséo

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