There’s this awful fear in sports fan culture of being too excited about a season; that the sports gods, wherever they may reside, will take that excitement and visit upon it injury, suspensions, and abject failure in response to that excitement. There is nowhere more polluted with this myth than sports radio, where most of the on-air hosts for local outlets spend their days tearing apart even the smallest rift in a team for ratings, and DC is no exception. There’s this pervasive myth that the only happy sports fan is the one who’s panicking over the latest injury rumor.
This trend has resulted in proclamations of the Sports Illustrated Curse, amongst others, despite the fact that Michael Jordan’s many appearances there did nothing to hinder his career, nor did it stop the Seahawks from winning the Super Bowl in 2014. But I get where this whole thing comes from. A good baseball season is a bit like being in a spell, convinced that what you’re experiencing is some peculiar form of sorcery.
I grew up an incredibly superstitious fan of the Oakland Athletics, holding my breath across the Carquinez Bridge on the way to the Coliseum, because if they didn’t, Mark McGwire or Mike Gallego (my two favorites) would befall some peculiar injury and not start that night. I don’t know where it came from, I was just grateful the bridge span is only half a mile long.
There are all manner of fan superstitions out there related to winning, be they special jerseys, hats or pins, what gets packed in your shoulder bag, how certain signs are marked in your scorebook. For some they are a comfort, for others still a compulsion, and I don’t mean to call judgment down against fans who are just getting the most out of their experience.
What I am here to do, Nats fans, is free you to be enthusiastic and excited for this season.
This is absolutely a team that should make you cheer and dream. You should go to the park, or flip on your radio, TV or app, and feel good about what’s about to happen. Every pitcher the Nats send out to the bump in the first is a legitimate No. 1 in their own right. Scherzer, Zimmerman and Strasburg can overpower batters or finesse them, and Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister can confound them. While the bullpen isn’t quite matched with the starting rotation, this is a team you will want to remember.
We could step through Jayson Stark’s piece on why they’ll win it all — even if you read all of his caveats and take them to heart, there’s still a lot to love. As Thomas Boswell wrote this week, the rotation isn’t a guarantee, but there’s no guarantee you’ll survive your next Metro trip, or won’t be flattened by a crazy Uber driver as you walk downtown.
I’m not saying that Nats fans should be cocky or obnoxious — that would be irresponsible and stupid — but I think there’s a lot of confidence that’s warranted on behalf of this year’s team. Yes, you’re going to have people pointing to offensive defects in this lineup, people who write for this site, even, a bench that might be as frustrating as last year’s, and an injury bug that puts six Nats out of reach for at least the first week of the season.
It doesn’t matter. Or, rather, it shouldn’t be enough to let the fear set in.
None of those are defect enough to cripple this team from now until October, and there’s plenty of time before the trade deadline to fix problems should they arise. Yes, it has been a long, long time since a DC sports team found themselves in such a good position to win a championship. Yes, a sports championship in DC has the chance to upset the applecart, in terms of which franchise is this city’s favored child. Yes, it has the ability to move a whole generation of young sports fans.
My swimming coach in college got asked a lot by his pupils how to handle their nerves on the eve of a big race, and that same advice is what I’m going to give to you, dear Nats fans: There’s no fear, no pressure, when you are where you wish to be.
Ten years ago, as DC readied itself for the return of Major League Baseball, there were no expectations of that team. They played their hearts out, came out a .500 ball club, and finished nine games back in the division, in dead last. We saw six straight seasons of sub-.500 purgatory, two of those seasons so bad, their season highlight reels are measured in seconds, not minutes.
The turnaround in the last three years is nothing short of miraculous. This team has averaged 93 wins a season since then, racking up 280 victories in three seasons, and two trips to the playoffs. With a starting rotation that compares favorably to the 2011 Phillies, the 1997 Braves or the 1971 Orioles, the Nationals are in rarified air, and that should be absolutely exhilarating.
Rejoice, Nats fans, there’s much to look forward to. It’s a long season, but there’s incredible depth in this club. Fret a little, yes, it’s healthy, but there’s no need to panic.