Nats fans ready to root for home team this October
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HINGTON -- Once Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright throws the first pitch of Sunday's National League Division Series opener, the nation's capital will have a rooting interest in playoff baseball for the first time since 1933.
The Nationals, by way of the one-year exception to the new playoff rules, will begin their postseason run with two games in St. Louis before returning home for Game 3 on Wednesday. But after a thrilling 98-64 season that produced the best record in baseball, an NL East title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Nats fans don't mind waiting a little longer for their taste of the postseason.
"I've lived here my whole life, and [Sunday] is going to be the best day in my 23 years on the planet, because the Redskins play at 1 [p.m. ET] and the Nats are in the playoffs," says Ian Rose, a 23-year-old masters student at Georgetown University and D.C. native.
Rose, as part of a younger crop of baseball fans, didn't have to endure the 40-plus years without baseball in the capital after the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972. But he and his peers are nevertheless unaccustomed to winning baseball given the way the Nationals began their tenure in Washington.
Upon relocating to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium after 35 years as the Montreal Expos, the Nats played .500 baseball in 2005 before six consecutive years of losing records. In 2008 and 2009, the team lost 102 and 103 games, respectively.
Even after the Nats improved to 80-81 in 2011, the playoffs seemingly remained several years out of sight -- especially given Washington's sour luck with its other sports teams.
"I've never really felt this proud of my teams or my city before," Rose said. "We've seen the Caps flame out in the [NHL] playoffs, had a terrible Redskins team for my entire life, the [NBA's] Wizards are perennial doormats and the Nats have [struggled] for eight years."
Of course, in a year that has managed to live up to the "Natitude" marketing slogan the team initiated before this season, that pride has extended throughout the Nationals' fan base. More veteran Washington fans, seasoned enough to remember one Senators franchise moving to Texas and another becoming the Minnesota Twins in 1961, have slogged through decades without baseball in their hometown, let alone the losing seasons that came in the 2000s.
"What I remember most is the team when they were the Senators in 1961, '62. They were an expansion team," says Ken Blank, a 55-year-old physician from Potomac, Md.
"[This season's] been an exciting time because, of course, the old saying was, 'Washington: first in war, first in peace, but last in the American League.'"
Indeed, Washington baseball was infamous for its poor performance in the old AL. But in the eight years of the Nationals' existence, the divides between an older fan base without one specific team to root for -- Blank admitted to "looking at" the Orioles before occasionally following the Rangers and the Twins -- and the younger generation familiar only with struggling Nationals teams have closed.
"I lived near [R.F.K.] Stadium, so I kind of watched it being built," says Claudia Askew, 49, a public speaking trainer living in southwest D.C. "It's just taken people a while to just get used to the fact that after all of these years, we finally have a team."
While a younger fan like Rose can empathize with the loss of the Senators and many subsequent substandard years of baseball, a more tenured fan like Blank can revel in the appeal of a Nationals team led by young stars such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Blank even recalls Strasburg's brilliant debut back on June 8, 2010, when the right-handed phenom struck out 14 batters in seven innings.
"I've seen a lot of games, I've been to a lot of games, and I've never been to any game that came close to having that kind of atmosphere," says Blank.
Speaking of atmosphere, Nationals Park is all but assured to have a raucous one of its own come Wednesday. After all, the team's attendance rose by more than 21 percent this season, with an average of 5,000 more fans per game coming through the turnstiles on South Capitol Street.
The Nats' strong performance has undoubtedly been the driving force behind the uptick in attendance, and with the team's undefined postseason future, fans are flocking to find seats at the ballpark by Wednesday.
"I have tickets for every NLDS game as of now," says Rose. "I'll try to make it down to Nats Park as much as I can. Otherwise, I'll just catch the games either a buddy's house or at a bar.
"Or I don't know, I think I'm too nervous to watch at a bar. I'll probably just be on my knees praying in my house."