In the middle of a campaign season bombarding voters with reasons to resent Washington, D.C., the success of the Washington Nationals is offering the nation a contrary, positive image of the capital.
“Basically, any town, any sports town, loves a winner. It always has a ripple effect on the town,” said Peter Mirijanian, a veteran Washington public relations professional who runs Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs. “They’re just one more thing that makes the town attractive.”
It’s a tall order to break through the barrage of negative advertising that often uses views of the Capitol Dome to symbolize political gridlock and big government.
But sports fans who watched the extended celebration at Nationals Park when the team clinched the National League East division title Monday saw a more attractive nation’s capital. The television images of screaming fans and players dumping champagne on each other served up a much different scene than viewers are used to seeing in ominous campaign ads or in C-SPAN coverage of partisan name-calling in the House and Senate.
“It begins to change the conversation of what Washington is,” said Andrew Feffer, the Nationals’ chief operating officer. “It elevates and amplifies the brand of the city. Washington becomes synonymous with a sports town, not just a politics town.”
There is a shift under way in the branding of the team that reflects a transition in D.C.’s image.
“They went from Senators to Nationals. You can draw your own conclusions about what that means,” said Mirijanian, implying that a name suggesting a proximity to Congress carries more baggage than a more neutral term, such as National.
Feffer said he hopes his team can help “bring people together” and create a Washington environment where “Democrats, Republicans, Hill staffers … can root for the hometown team together.”
“It’s becoming much more of a dynamic place,” Feffer said. “Ten, 15 years ago, the city was dominated by politics and government. Now, Washington … is much more of a diverse economy,” he said, adding that the area’s increased diversity has attracted technology firms, a booming restaurant scene and many other things that make the capital more cosmopolitan.
National media coverage of the Nationals’ success has reflected Washington’s new vibe.
In ESPN Magazine, Tim Kurkjian wrote last week: “Washington Nationals utility man Steve Lombardozzi has lived in Columbia, Md., about equal distance between Washington and Baltimore, for 20 years, since he was 4. He is too young to truly understand the tremendous story that is developing in and around the Beltway, a story of hope and redemption and magic, a story that has never been told in that area, a story that wasn’t supposed to happen this season.”
Kurkjian was writing about not just the Nationals, but also the less-expected turnaround up I-95 by the Baltimore Orioles.
But while Baltimore has had its share of winning baseball – with World Series victories within living memory, its crown jewel stadium Oriole Park at Camden Yards and superstar players including the now-retired Cal Ripken Jr. – Washington has not had that kind of good feeling attached to it for decades.
The NFL’s Washington Redskins had a string of Super Bowl success in the 1980s and ’90s, when they played at Capitol Hill’s RFK Stadium. But those days are gone, and the Redskins have decamped for FedEx Field in suburban Landover, Md.
“The fact of the matter is that, back in the heyday of the Redskins, it was a less partisan town. You didn’t have Congressmen rushing home on the weekends and sleeping in their offices,” Mirijanian said.
It’s not just the players who are attracting attention to the Nationals and their host city. A long-developing drama over the in-house entertainment has also captured public interest, even moving America’s best known documentarian to put his stamp on things.
Ken Burns, the man behind “The Civil War,” “Prohibition” and, yes, “Baseball,” has produced a mini-documentary on the Nationals’ presidential racing figure of Teddy Roosevelt, titled “Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Ride.”
Despite cries of “Let Teddy Win” during the foot race in the middle of each home game’s fourth inning, Teddy always fell short to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln – until Wednesday’s game, when something resembling the Philadelphia Phillies’ mascot, the Phanatic, knocked out Teddy’s rivals and allowed him to cross the finish line first.
“He is Mount Rushmore’s Rodney Dangerfield,” Burns says of Teddy in the film’s narration.
Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as famous a scold of Washington’s ways as any, got into the act, vowing in Burns’ film, tongue firmly in cheek, to pursue action if Teddy’s fortunes did not change.
For the Nationals’ Monday night game, McCain cut a short film in which he gave Teddy a pep talk. And after Wednesday’s race, McCain was ecstatic, tweeting: “#Teddy won! #Teddy won! #Teddy won! We’ve defeated the massive left-wing conspiracy!”
Losers No More
Washington baseball, despite a World Series win in 1924 and famous talent including Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, has long been associated with losing.
“First in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” was a popular enough view of Washington baseball that it figured in the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” which posited that the only way the Washington Senators could edge out the New York Yankees was by making a deal with the devil.
Two Senators teams moved away. The first left for Minnesota to become the Twins, who have won two World Series titles there. The second departed for Texas, where the Rangers have been in the past two Fall Classics. A World Series matchup between the Nationals and Rangers remains a possibility this fall.
When the National League’s Montreal Expos left Canada for D.C. in 2005, losing baseball returned to the capital. After a .500 season in 2005, the Nats lost more than 90 games twice and more than 100 games twice before starting to turn things around last year at 80-81. This year, they boast baseball’s best pitching rotation, a stingy defense and a power-hitting offense.
But while the team has established itself as a winner and the crowds are growing at Nationals Park, that doesn’t mean that Washington’s famously transient citizenry is united behind the team.
“Parentheses: I’m a Yankee fan,” Mirijanian said of his hometown Bronx Bombers. “I’m rooting for a Yankees-Nats World Series. I have not adopted the Washington teams in my 25 years here.”