Back off my Nationals!
Nearly every night at 7:05, I engage in the same routine: I flop down on my couch, turn on the Washington Nationals game and begin rubbernecking the disaster that unfolds. But as a dedicated fan of baseball's worst team, I don't feel as though I'm watching a mere car accident. Instead, every evening it feels as if I'm riding shotgun as they careen into a steel-reinforced barricade, like a crash-test dummy sprung to life who both knows what's coming and feels the pain of every collision. If there were clocks in my personal sports fan hell, they would be stuck permanently at 7:05 p.m.
If you weren't born in New York or New England, chances are pretty good that eventually you'll watch your local baseball team finish in last place. You'll invest copious amounts of time root, root, rooting for the home team, and each loss is more than just a shame. When defeat occurs so routinely, it's an excruciating experience that can cause you to question everything from the amount of rosin your team's closer uses to whether God is actually a benign being. (If he's good, how can he allow cruelty like Tuesday night's loss to exist? The Nats somehow lost to a pitcher who never even threw a pitch.)
Although it's never fun to support a loser in any sport, having your team bomb a season is particularly painful in baseball, as it takes roughly 500 hours to watch every game, a commitment equivalent to three months of full-time work. Sports are supposed to be an escape from things like work -- so who wants to leave a cubicle to head directly to what has turned into a second job? Especially a job akin to testing the strength of athletic cups by getting kicked repeatedly in the groin.
Mix in a draft process that doesn't really give fans much to look forward to compared to other sports, and it's a recipe for a spoiled summer. The prospects drafted are virtually unknown to the general public, are usually two to three years away from contributing, may never sign with the team at all (if this weren't a family Web site, here is where a 37-letter word to describe Scott Boras would appear) and sport an overall success rate bleaker than that of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. The only thing I'm now more certain of than the Nats' losing their next game is that one day my kids will be telling a therapist that Daddy drank because Julian Tavarez couldn't get anyone out.
But above all else, I'll tell you what makes being a Nats fan truly unbearable. It's not the losses, or the errors, or the fact that we have a bullpen full of worse firemen than Jim Carrey's Fire Marshall Bill. It's the fact that I seemingly can't read a column, blog or even a cartoon that doesn't use the Nats as a cheap punch line. And I'm sick of it.
Yes, Washington is a really bad team, and yes, the Nats are having an extraordinarily poor season, but they do not deserve the amount of ridicule being heaped upon them by the national media. There are really only seven reasons a team deserves to become a true national laughingstock and the butt of all jokes:
1. Its players are constantly in trouble with the law (early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers, '05 and '06 Cincinnati Bengals)
2. The franchise has a history of futility (Memphis Grizzlies, Kansas City Royals)
3. The team will challenge a single-season record for losses (2008 Detroit Lions)
4. The team has a notoriously cheap owner (Los Angeles Clippers)
5. The team has given up completely on competing (half the NBA every March and April)
6. A manager or coach goes on a tirade that should be simulcast directly on YouTube (Dennis Green, Lou Piniella, Mike Gundy)
7. The team is traditionally successful but having a bad season (Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers, Notre Dame, Duke, with the Red Sox on deck)
None of these seven reasons applies to the Nats. Their players haven't hurt anyone or committed any crimes. (Their biggest controversy came when Elijah Dukes was late for a game because he spent too much time with a group of Little Leaguers. And not in a bad way.) They have no real history to speak of, and despite the best effort of a few of their players (cough Joel Hanrahan cough), they won't eclipse the 1962 Mets' record of 120 losses this season.
Furthermore, the ownership went out and spent money on Adam Dunn and extended the contract of the franchise cornerstone and owner of the key to my heart, Ryan Zimmerman. (Although if Strasburg isn't wearing a Nats uniform by Aug. 18, I reserve the right to rescind this entire column and fill my future work with enough cheap shots to make Joel McHale proud.) The Nationals also are still trying to compete and are making moves for baseball-related reasons (acquiring Nyjer Morgan to shore up an outfield that plays worse defense than a groupie at any All-Star weekend).
There certainly will be no outbursts from the manager, as Man E. Acta is a cyborg trained to identify double switches six innings in advance but incapable of displaying any human emotion. And the idea that there is a possible bandwagon of Nats fans is more laughable than the team's radio ratings.
But even if you don't live in D.C., reasons to like this team actually exist. No one is publicly pouting and demanding a trade. The whole team signs autographs for fans before Sunday games and even closely fits the Hollywood formula for a lovable underdog.
Think about it. The Nats have young guys who haven't come into their own yet (the entire starting rotation is 25 and younger), a couple of castoffs from other teams who are enjoying mini-renaissances (Nick Johnson, Cristian Guzman) and a fatal flaw that they all have to work together to fix (an unconscionably bad bullpen that is responsible for a mind-blowing 29 of the team's losses).
Most important, they have faced plenty of adversity. Up until three years ago, the team was owned by Major League Baseball. Under that arrangement, it traded away Jason Bay, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Javier Vazquez and Grady Sizemore and in return got one guy who is still on the roster (Johnson). Not an ideal track record. If a commissioner had taken over a dead team in a fantasy keeper league and made those deals, three guys would have quit, two would have ended up in a fistfight and one would have been arrested for trying to mail the offender a blend of anthrax and hair pulled from the shower drain.
Furthermore, thanks to some impressive scare tactics employed by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, the Nats are the only team in baseball that doesn't control its own broadcasting rights. This leads to one fewer revenue stream and to a bulk of its games being broadcast on MASN2 via what appears to be a webcam. It's certainly not high-def. It's not even low-def. It would best be described as no-def.
The Nats also have faced new lobbying laws that have murdered their luxury-seat sales. The high-price tickets at all sporting events are largely sold to those who work in the local industry, which in D.C. is politics. The Ethics Reform Act that was passed in 2007 made it virtually impossible for the people within the industry who have money (lobbyists) to take people to games. Good for the country, bad for the Nationals. Can you imagine if other critical ticket bases were targeted in such a manner? What if guys who lie to girls about being producers couldn't go to Lakers games or people with outstanding warrants couldn't buy Raiders tickets? Both franchises would be devastated.
Put it all together, and you have a plucky team struggling against the odds to become a winner. It's the backbone of every baseball comedy from the past 30 years. Throw a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on the closer, and you could shoot "Major League 4."
Maybe that takes it a bit far, but the point remains. The Nats probably don't deserve to be loved by all, but they don't deserve to be universally hated, and fans of the team are suffering enough without the glut of below-the-belt barbs and cheap shots. There is no need to add such literal insults to our metaphorical injury.
I know I run the risk of being like the overbearing mother who tells all the bullies in school to stop picking on her boy, leading the poor kid to spend more time with his face in the toilet than Tara Reid, but I still hope that the next time a writer is filling out his version of a baseball Mad Lib, he'll come up with a noun other than "Washington Nationals."
May I suggest "Pittsburgh Pirates"?
Toby Mergler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.