Over the past seven years I, and the rest of the greater DC metro area, have seen the Washington Natinals* make a lot of mistakes. The play on the field has, overall, been pretty terrible** but that has never really bothered me***. I would rather sit through an awful ballgame than not have a team to root for. Fans of Hartford hockey, LA football, Seattle basketball and the very few fans of the Montreal Expos can all tell you that there is nothing worse in sports than being an orphaned city. Everybody but you gets to watch the game that you love.
*They actually screwed up the spelling of their own team name. Talk about a wardrobe malfunction.
**The team has actually been terrific this year. I’m eating it up and loving every minute of it so don’t think that I don’t appreciate it. I’m all in on this squad and could write about them all day but I digress from my original point…
***After all, I’ve been comparing them to the Wizards and Redskins. It’s not like the close by Orioles have done much to make me jealous either.
The part of the Nationals fan experience that got my goat was never the play on the field. What bugged me was watching the marketing goons with the Nationals try to invent traditions. Traditions are earned over time. They grow as if by accident. This idea seemed lost on the Nats marketing staff who tried to force terrible ideas like the 5th inning hat wave* or stolen traditions like singing Sweet Caroline** each game down our throats. Don’t even get me started on the mascot***.
*Still the worst tradition in sports, it’s just awful, it makes me sick. Every time they start waving, I have the compulsion to apologize to any non-Nats fan sitting around me.
**This isn’t Boston. They own that one and, frankly, I think it’s a little played out at Fenway too.
***Screech, the eagle has gone through several iterations, but none of them has not been the worst mascot in the big leagues.
Somehow, they did manage to find a couple of keepers. After the brutal hat wave, the crowd salutes a group of wounded warriors and their families who are brought to each game from Walter Reed Medical Center. After each loss, the Nats play Three Little Birds which somehow always makes me feel a bit better*. But the cream of the crop is the Presidents Race.
*They never quite settled on a song to play when they won. They’ve tried several songs and nothing has ever stuck. Somehow, for a team that was probably the worst in baseball for the past seven years, this feels about right.
The race features giant mascot-style presidents from Mount Rushmore. George, Tom, Abe*, and Teddy line up every game and face off to see which former leader of the free world is the fastest. Yes, this race is a complete rip-off of the Milwaukee sausages, the Pittsburgh pirogues, and many other racing mascots of the past and present but it was by far the most successful of the forced marketing campaigns and it really fits with the park and the city.
*I’ve always been an Abe guy. At RFK stadium, the Nats’ old ballpark, each section was assigned to a president. Abe was assigned to the cheap seats in the upper deck. The combination of the fact that I always sat in the upper deck and the fact that Able Lincoln was a complete and utter badass led to me always rooting for Abe.
The baseball fans of DC needed something that they could root for besides the team on the field. Watching terrible baseball, game after game, year after year, is a pretty depressing proposition. The president’s race provided a needed distraction where everyone could get to experience victory every once in a while. Everyone that is, except for Teddy Roosevelt. At the end of the first season, the scores were pretty close between Abe, Tom, and George. Teddy however, had put up a goose egg. The next year, was more of the same. After a year plus of Teddy being shut out, people started to notice. Blogs were started. T-shirts were made. “Let Teddy Win!” signs peppered RFK stadium and later Nationals park.
There are various theories about why Teddy didn’t win from the start. However those became moot as the Nats realized that Teddy’s failure to win the race was a city-wide sensation. The presidents’ race was distracting fans from the product on the field which was a huge win for the team. They began to plan out each race. Teddy was now competitive in most races but some terribly malady would prevent him from winning at the end. I have seen Teddy trip, stumble, or fall on his own. Teddy has been knocked out by other presidents and by other mascots. He has been distracted by fans, food, and free givaways. He has finished in first only to be disqualified for various shenanigans including but not limited to riding a mini motorcycle and zip-lining to the finish. These hijinks started out cute but have become tired old gags.
Until 2010, the race helped to distract fans that weren’t particularly keen on watching their ballplayers play ball. For the past couple of years though, it has simply become another boring part of the show. Teddy has taken a mythical status as a symbol for our lovable losers*. Conspiracy theories of when Teddy will win have cropped up all over the Natmosphere. Some people thought it would happen at the first game at Nationals Park. Next came predictions of Teddy winning on Opening Day 2010, 2011, 2012. Some thought it would be on the day of Stephen Strasburg’s first start, then on Bryce Harper’s. Will it come on the day the Nationals clinch an over .500 record? Will it come on the day the Nationals clinch a playoff spot? Are they waiting for the Nats to win their division? The Pennant? The World Series? What gives? What are they waiting for?
*The most ironic part of this whole fiasco is that Teddy Roosevelt would be about the least likely of 44 U.S. Presidents to take all of this lying down. The man was an absolute badass who stormed hills, navigated rainforests, and finished speeches AFTER GETTING SHOT. How do you think he’d react if he found out that his likeness was turned into a lovable loser? I don’t know that he’d say much but I have a feeling that the other presidents would get a feel for his “big stick” and the Teddy would be the last man standing at the finish line.
I think at this point the Nationals just don’t know. They’ve encouraged this frolicking little bit of tomfoolery for their fans but there’s no good exit strategy. Not that you asked, but I’ll tell you what I think*. The Nats are a good baseball team. They are competitive and people come to the ballpark to be a part of the action. While people still watch the presidents’ race, they don’t need it anymore. Simply stop faking it! Don’t let Teddy win, just let him compete. Starting today, don’t fix any more races. See if anyone notices. I expect that Teddy won’t win that first day. He may not win the 2nd or the 3rd. At some point though, Teddy will win.
*Because I haven’t been doing that this whole time.
People will ask “why did Teddy win on this day?”
My answer would be “I didn’t even notice that he’d won. I was too busy watching the game on the field. The ballplayers looked pretty good today. How ‘bout them Nationals?”