Nats follow 'Flags Fly Forever' plan to title

October 31st, 2019

One of my favorite sports adages is “Flags Fly Forever.” It’s catchy -- it’s alliterative! -- and it sums up what I’d argue should be the driving principle for all sports teams: Winning championships make you legends.

Baseball is a sport that has become obsessed with efficiency, with assuring that teams have long-term strategies in place, to be planning for the future while managing the present. That is all smart and prudent and proper. But Flags Fly Forever understands that the truest efficiency is infinity: When you win a title, it is yours and your fans' until the end of time. David Freese hasn’t been a player in St. Louis for six years. Hideki Matsui has been out of the Bronx for a decade. But they’ll live in those places forever. They’ll never be forgotten.

The Washington Nationals captured their first World Series title on Wednesday night in dramatic come-from-behind fashion, becoming the first team to clinch a Fall Classic in which the road team won every game. And perhaps no team has understood the idea behind Flags Fly Forever more than the Nats. Many teams put off truly trying to contend for some indeterminate day in the future. But the Nationals realized that their best chance to win was to win now, and they went for it. That they actually went out and did it is a reason to cheer in their success … and hope other teams follow their leads.

For the last few years, a lot of these teams that have “went for it” have been punished. The Detroit Tigers, in large part to try to win a title for their since-passed owner Mike Ilitch, spent big money on veteran players and traded away youth, hoping to squeeze a title out of an aging core. It didn’t work, and now the Tigers are paying the price. The Mariners went through something similar, and the Giants, and even to a lesser extent the Phillies, suffered by keeping their championship cores in place to try to eke out one more title. They’ve all had to pick up the pieces in the wake of falling short, and in many ways, they still are. And the fact that they never won that title lurks over their strategies: No one wants to go all in to win and not actually win. It has led to an unfortunate tentativeness. They’ve become cautionary tales.

But the Nationals are what happens when it works. The Nats knew that after the 2018 season they were likely to lose , and that after the '19 season, they might lose and . (It is worth noting that none of those things is preordained, and frankly, they should go out and try to keep both those players this offseason. But that’s a different column.) Perhaps it was a sense of finality, perhaps it was the lingering pain of past postseason failures, perhaps they decided to just floor it and see what happens. But the Nationals were not tentative in the construction of this team.

Look at what Washington gave up to solve perceived problems with the team. When the Nats needed a top-of-the-order hitter who could play a solid outfield defense, they traded for from the White Sox in December 2016. They gave up a ton, including , who was one of the best pitchers in the American League this year. (Imagine if he’d have been a part of that Nationals rotation.) The bullpen has been a longtime bugaboo for the Nats, so at the '17 Trade Deadline, they got and from the A’s; they then watched turn into a top-shelf reliever and become one of the top pitching prospects. In a zero-sum world, those might be considered suboptimal long-term moves. But the Nationals wanted a title, desperately, and they went for it, giving away future stars to do it.

And the Nationals did not just idly let Harper leave for Philadelphia, pleading poor and shrugging their shoulders. They went out and signed , the top starter on the free-agent market last offseason, even though they’d already inked to a long-term deal and extended Strasburg. The Nats had many opportunities to pack it in, move on from their current core and build for the future. It even would have made some sense: , and would be cornerstones for any franchise. But they didn’t. They planned on winning now. They never talked themselves into theoretical future glories at the expense of concrete current ones.

And they were rewarded for it Wednesday night. All those players they either brought in or extended as part of a team that could win right now made a difference. Eaton, Scherzer, Howie Kendrick -- the ultimate veteran utility widget ideally deployed for a team that isn’t screwing around with “contention windows” -- they all came through in massive moments. The Nationals played like a team that wasn’t thinking about tomorrow.

The Astros, when punched in this series, had a tendency to sort of take it; they did not have many valiant comebacks, looking instead like a team that expected to win and was a bit befuddled when it didn’t. But the Nats played like this was their one chance to win. They were similar in that way to the 2015 Royals, a team that had a feeling it wouldn’t be together much longer. The Royals are struggling now, paying the price for that success. But that '15 flag is still flying.

The Nationals are not done trying to win baseball games. Any team that has Soto on it is going to be a team to be reckoned with. The Nats may bring back Rendon or Strasburg, or they may bring in replacements for each. They will not become what the Royals are. But they have shown that when opportunity presents itself, they will not nod to the future. They will try to win right now.

Fans don’t care about efficiency. They care about wins. They care about flags. And because the Nationals understood that … they now get to wave one of their own.