AU reacts to the Nationals’ once-in-a-lifetime win

The Nationals’ World Series win brings a sports-loving wave to Washington, D.C.

AU reacts to the Nationals’ once-in-a-lifetime win
Sights and scenes from the nationals victory parade on Constitution Ave. on Nov. 2.

As students gathered on the Letts Anderson quad, Joe Buck’s excitement carried them to celebrate.

“There it is! The Washington Nationals are world champions for the first time in franchise history!” he said.

For the first time in 95 years, the World Series trophy was brought back to Washington, D.C.

The city has had an influx of championships in the past two years, as the NHL’s Capitals, WNBA’s Mystics and now the MLB’s Nationals all captured their first respective titles. This is all in sharp contrast to the rest of the millennium. It had been almost three decades since a major D.C. team had won a championship, as the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI in 1992.

The Nationals provided a way for the AU community to connect to something unrelated to policy changes and protests. Instead, AU students, faculty and alumni were universally quick to connect the Nationals to childhood or community memories.

“I went to a Nats game during Welcome Week, and it [was] one of the first times I hung out with most of my college friend groups,” said Zoey Salsbury, who graduated from the School of Communication in 2017.

Salsbury now keeps up with her fandom – and her college friends – from across the country. 

“To have moved back to Seattle after college and still be able to be connected to friends in D.C. through our joy about the Nats is super cool,” she said.

Several students were also drawn to the redemption arc of the Nationals. The MLB playoffs can be a toss-up, but it always seemed especially so for the Nationals, the perennial on-paper champions. This team felt different.

“Hands down, the 2019 Washington Nationals are the most significant Nationals team ever in its history,” said sophomore Max O’Neill. “After losing [2015 MVP Bryce] Harper in the off-season and starting 19-31, I felt like it was the end for us for a long time.”

The Nationals are a large part of O’Neill’s identity. He has been following the team since 2012, when his dad started taking him to games. This championship pulled at his heartstrings. After every postseason game, O’Neill and his dad spoke on the phone. O’Neill’s dad even snagged two tickets for Game 3 of the NLCS – which the Nationals won 8-1 over the St. Louis Cardinals – so he and his son could attend history being made.

When Game 7 rolled around, tension was at an all-time high. The Nationals trailed 2-0 rolling into the seventh inning, but there was still hope after a cerebral performance from starter Max Scherzer, who just days before was in such pain he couldn’t even dress himself. But after two seventh-inning homers found their way to the stands, the Nationals got into a rhythm from which the Astros never came back.

“When Daniel Hudson finally struck out [Michael] Brantley, we all started yelling and shouting and hugging each other,” O’Neill said. “It was an unforgettable moment, watching the team that I’ve been following for so long win one of the greatest prizes in all of sports. Of course, I called my dad afterward. Pure goosebumps.”

Junior and DMV native Vincenza Belletti’s family grew up rooting for the Orioles, but they made the switch once the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005.

“My dad grew up in northern Virginia so he always rooted for D.C. teams, and then I was born and raised in northern Virginia, so D.C. sports have always been a big part of my family's life,” Belletti said. “I've been going to Nationals games since they played in RFK Stadium [in 2007].”

Like O’Neill and many other Nats fans, she was pleasantly surprised when the team rebounded from its tough start. This past off-season, the Nationals lost Harper to the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies. Harper, proclaimed to be a baseball prodigy who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, was one of the decade’s biggest superstars, and he has been in the District's conscience since he started here in 2012. 

“My dad and I went to opening day this season,” Belletti said. ” We were really impressed with the moves the management made to rebound from missing the playoffs the previous season and fill in Harper's role. But then, of course, they lost the game, so we mentally prepared ourselves for another disappointing season.” 

Preparing for disappointment is a D.C. staple as strong as any other. Only in this instance, Belletti and the rest of Nationals nation had nothing to worry about, given the season’s end result.

It’s not just the students that have deep ties to the Nationals. Some faculty fandoms stretch back decades, such as that of Bram Weinstein, an adjunct professor in the School of Communication and a former host of ESPN’s SportsCenter.

“I’m from Silver Spring and grew up with the Orioles as the home baseball team, and I’ll always have a special place for them,” Weinstein said. “But I’m a homer by nature, so when the Nats came, it didn’t take any convincing to just accept them as our and my team.”

Outsiders see D.C. as a second-class sports city, in which sports take a backseat to politics. Having a championship-caliber team didn’t create a new wave of fans, but it reinvigorated the city’s passion for a national audience after years of coming up short. 

“It was never my experience growing up here that this wasn't a really good sports town,” Weinstein said. “The people who say that about us are the people who also didn’t grow up here but don’t have the background of growing up on these teams. With the Caps winning two years ago, and now this weird bromance thing with the Nationals, it has really shown we are a much bigger sports town than anyone gave us credit for.”

The World Series was not politics-free. President Donald Trump was booed when he was shown on the jumbotron at Game 5, and Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki received backlash after donning a “Make America Great Again” hat during the team’s White House visit. The District has always been a politics-first city, but in Weinstein’s opinion, it doesn’t have to be. 

“This town is the political center of the universe, so of course that’s going to be the A1 topic constantly,” Weinstein said. “I always find that as a plus. I think people are educated and diverse, and what I loved [about] growing up here and why I wanted to bring my kids back here was so they would be in a place where there’s an acceptance of other ideas.” 

Few would consider AU an exception to this rule. Politics come first, second and third on campus, and that type of saturation is why so many decide to come to D.C. As a result, the energy reserved for athletics is much smaller than that of a typical college campus.

The average attendance of a men's basketball game – the highest attended sport by a wide margin – is under 700 people, placing it right between St. Peter's University, which has an enrollment of 2,600, and Long Island University-Brooklyn, which has an enrollment of 3,400, according to the NCAA’s review of attendance at Division I events. The number doesn’t even hit 500 for the women's basketball team. 

AU doesn’t have the feel of other Division I sports programs, but the Nationals’ emergence of has given a spark in sports-related interests.

AU attracts students from all corners of the country, but their focus is often separate from collegiate sports. Rallying around the hometown team is always easiest, but the support for the Nationals was never hard to find on campus. A politically-obsessive school may just be learning to love sports again.

snusbaum@theeagleonline.com

This article originally appeared in The Eagle's December 2019 print edition.

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