Naatz: The painful existence of a Washington sports fan
Tom Naatz | Thursday, November 9, 2017
On the wall immediately to the right of my door, I’ve established what I like to call the “Memorial to Lost Causes.” Three banners infused with some shade of red grace the wall in this corner of my dorm room. From top to bottom, in no particular order, they read: “Washington Redskins,” “Washington Nationals” and “Washington Capitals.”
Washington’s four major professional sports teams are collectively cursed. It’s been nearly 26 years since the last time one of them won a championship; none of them have played in a conference or league final since May 1998.
The soon-to-be 20-year streak of misadventures and missed opportunities is the longest of its kind in professional sports. The Redskins have blown through a countless multitude of coaches and quarterbacks. The Capitals, behind Alexander Ovechkin, arguably hockey’s best player, have boasted hockey’s best regular season record three times but haven’t advanced beyond the second round. The Nationals brought baseball back to the District in 2005 and have won the NL East four times in the past six years, but have failed to win a playoff series. The Wizards have a talented core but still haven’t cracked the conference finals. I could describe particularly excruciating moments, but I lack the space and emotional capacity.
The cruel thing is all four franchises have been generally competitive. Every year since the Nationals came back in 2005, at least one has qualified for the playoffs. D.C. teams are good at inspiring brief moments of intense hope, followed by devastating collapse. Robert Griffin III was briefly one of the NFL’s most electrifying players before his career crashed and nearly brought the Redskins down with him. Since 2012, “Sports Illustrated” has predicted a Nats World Series victory multiple times. The Caps are a fixture of Stanley Cup title speculation. Yet elaborate choke jobs are as common in the district as traffic on the Beltway, and Constitution Avenue has yet to host a championship parade this century.
The makeup of the Washington metropolitan area complicates its sports culture. Over half of Washington residents are from elsewhere, and many of these transplants remain loyal to their hometown teams. For instance, as of 2014, the Los Angeles Lakers are the most popular NBA team in a not insignificant number of Washington suburbs. As a result, opposing fans frequently take over Washington arenas. In 2012, the Nationals launched a dramatically named though not necessarily successful effort to keep Philadelphia Phillies fans out of their stadium. After the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs last May, their fans publicly taunted crestfallen Caps fans from the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, directly across the street from the Capitals’ home at the then-Verizon Center, with chants of “You can’t beat us!”
I grew up in Maryland but went to high school in the district itself. Once, as I walked past a tourist school group on my way to class, a tourist gratuitously spat on my shoes. I think the story captures the essence of calling the district home. Living in Washington can feel like living in a museum. Because the city is so ubiquitous in national life, other people define the conversation around it. Relatedly, because of its political nature, many people automatically form a negative perception of the city and the people who live there. Washington’s political culture does have serious issues, and of course the metro area faces serious challenges. However, most of Washington’s population is just trying to make an honest living for themselves. Nevertheless, I think my shoes might have stayed dry if I lived in Chicago or New York.
But that’s why our sports teams are so important. They’re something other than humidity and traffic that everyone in the city can experience. The Nats unite senior members of the otherwise diametrically opposed political parties. On Sunday mornings, the 64-mile Capital Beltway becomes a circular, Redskins-themed parking lot. For a disparate community, our teams are a rare homegrown commodity.
Is the curse real? Well, early in the morning of Oct. 13 as I entered my room after watching the Cubs eliminate the Nationals from the playoffs, I noticed something lying at my feet. My Nationals poster had fallen from the Memorial during the course of the game. Was the universe sending a message? Perhaps. Did that stop me from putting the poster back immediately? Absolutely not.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.