Washington is getting excited these days about two heroes, but they're not named Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. They're Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman.
For those of you who don't follow baseball (and that's your loss), Strasburg is the brilliant young pitcher for the Washington Nationals, and Zimmerman is the star third baseman. As of this writing, they've help propel the Nats into first place in the National League East. Only Ron Paul winning the Republican nomination could have been a more surprising development.
Nothing can define a region more clearly -- or create a sense of unity more effectively -- than a successful sports team. Think of New England's Red Sox Nation or Green Bay's Packer Backers or the nut-balls who drive their RVs across the Southeast on fall Saturdays following the University of Alabama football team. (It's possible to be buried in an officially licensed Crimson Tide coffin.) The Nats have not quite reached that level of fanaticism, but this city sure could use a strong infusion of community pride and spirit.
Many local residents are transplants who retain ties to their hometown teams. Steve grew up in New Jersey rooting for the Yankees and he still does, even after living here for almost 35 years. On summer nights, in the age before satellite radios, you could visit the grounds of the National Cathedral (the highest point in the city with the best reception) and cars would be lined up in the parking lot listening to games back home in St. Louis or Cincinnati or Detroit.
Moreover, the area is split among three distinct geographical regions -- Maryland, Virginia and D.C. -- so people here lack common institutions as well as a common history. Washington kids don't grow up chanting "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" (Kansas) or "Hook 'em Horns" (Texas) or even -- thank goodness -- "Wooo Pig Sooie" (Arkansas). The closest they can come to a local anthem is the fight song of the Washington Redskins, which includes the deathless lyric "fight for old D.C.". (Sweet, but not exactly Notre Dame's "Shake down the thunder from the sky.")
In fact, the capital's cohesiveness is growing weaker, not stronger. Swifter air travel makes commuting easier --turns out Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta flies home to California many weekends on military aircraft. Many lawmakers, particularly conservatives, run against Washington as Gomorrah-on-the-Potomac, so fewer of them are bringing their families -- and their loyalties -- to town. Add in the poisonous partisanship that clings to Congress like a toxic cloud, and the result is a region splintered into countless jagged pieces.
Until recently, when teams like the Phillies or the Mets played at Nationals Park, there were more fans rooting for the visitors than the locals. But that now seems to be changing. The New York Times reports that Nats' season ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and TV revenues are all up.
To understand how startling this is, you have to know the sad history of baseball in the capital. Two different teams called the Washington Senators played here for a combined total of 71 years and won exactly one championship, in 1924. Their famous futility spawned a popular Broadway musical, "Damn Yankees," in which a frustrated Senators fan sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a winning season. The team kept living up to the vaudeville laugh line about them: "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."
The departure of the Senators for Texas in 1971 left the capital without baseball for the next 34 years, and several generations of kids grew up here with no team to root for, even a bad one. When we moved back in 1977 our kids became huge Redskins fans, and still are, but pro football has only eight homes games a year and lasts for four months. Baseball teams play 81 home games over six months -- a vast difference.
When the hapless Montreal Expos moved here and became the Nats in 2005, they retained their losing ways. In its first seven seasons, the team never had a winning record, or finished higher than third in its division.
But now our three grandsons, all Little League players, have something to cheer about. They refuse to support the Yankees and taunt Steve about it, but their jibes miss the mark. The whole point of baseball is to root for your own hometown team. Steve even bought a Nats jersey and will wear it this Sunday when he takes the boys to the ballpark. Fight for old D.C.!