Should America Root for the Washington Nationals?

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama throws out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Opening Day game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in this April 5, 2010 file photo in Washington, DC.Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama throws out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Opening Day game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in this April 5, 2010 file photo in Washington, DC.

We root, root, root for the home team -- there's nothing more American than that.

But what happens when the home team's hometown is sort of difficult to root for. What if -- gasp! -- it's Washington?

It's a town full of insiders, bureaucrats, lobbyists, operatives, D.C. journalists, even members of Congress. Many of those who live here don't think of themselves as from here.

So it is that the Washington Nationals seemed destined to be the team America loves to mock, if not hate. And since 2005, when a foreign franchise (Montreal) moved and revived a losing tradition of baseball in a district that isn't a state, people have paid to be among the mockers: Home crowds have notoriously rooted for out-of-towners, National Park thick with Phillies' red or Cubs' blue.

Yet something else is happening in the nation's capital this spring. The Nationals are actually expected to be good. They're likeable. Maybe even trendy.

Sure, they're full of "homegrown" talent that's no more from Washington than President Obama is from Chicago. But this is the kind of year (hello, Republican presidential contenders) when also-rans who stick around long enough can become winners.

This means America may face a dilemma. The team the nation is supposed to hate is going to win, and perhaps win enough to make you want to like it.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, the architect of the team that's bringing hope back to Washington baseball, told ABC News shortly before the team's first pitch of 2012 that he's not looking to offer lessons to his adopted hometown.

But when he looks out and sees George Will and James Carville, both in the stands at Nationals Park -- and, yes, both are free with their baseball advice for Rizzo -- he can't help but think there's something larger at work.

"If they can agree on that," Rizzo said, "why can't we get them to agree on other things?"

Political punditry is easier than baseball prognostication, and spin gets you even less in baseball than it does in politics.

But plenty of smart folks think the Nationals will finish at least a few games above .500. That may be enough to grab one of the two newly available National League wild card slots.

Stephen Strasburg, whose Major League debut in 2010 marked the last time baseball brought buzz to the Beltway, is starting his first opening day, and is set to anchor a rotation built for contention.

Teen phenom Bryce Harper figures to be in the bigs by June, joining a vibrant, young, mostly homegrown offense. Dream just a little and you can see Harper as Darryl Strawberry to Strasburg's Dwight Gooden, a second limitless-potential prospect set to blossom under manager Davey Johnson. (Dream just a bit more and you see careers that are a little more enduring…..)

Playing in a polished new family-friendly stadium just blocks from the Capitol, in a neighborhood that's starting to deliver on its promise, and even people in Washington are taking time away from the GOP delegate race to notice that real, playoff-contending baseball is set to break out inside the Beltway.

"Nationals Park is going to be the place to be in the District," Rizzo said. "It's going to be the ticket in town. It's going to be the spot."

It's not enough just yet to get fans from other places to drop their primary allegiances. (Full disclosure: I'm a Yankees fan first, foremost, and always, but I'm hoping my two young sons grow up wanting Harper or Strasburg jerseys.)

It is enough, though, to wake Washington out of a longstanding sports slumber that two decades of Redskins futility have brought.

And it may be enough to offer some lessons for official Washington:

Money matters: but you can't buy the prize: The Lerner family has proven to be generous, though certainly not reckless, owners. They've spent money to help Rizzo build a franchise, and mostly they've assembled a young core of players through the draft and savvy trades. (Meg Whitman and the Boston Red Sox could learn a thing or two.)

Seasoning counts: Candidates who burst onto the national stage without doing the right kind of groundwork typically fizzle. It's taken the Nats nearly two presidential terms in town to challenge for the big prize of a playoff spot. (Take note, Herman Cain; take heart, Rick Santorum.)

Gaffes hurt: The "Natinals" jersey that made it onto the field in 2009 is the franchise's Etch A Sketch moment and then some. (That's an "oops" that would make Rick Perry blush.)

The two-party system rules: The presidents race nightly at Nationals Park, and the one ex-president who tried to form a third party to win his old job back, Teddy Roosevelt">Teddy Roosevelt, famously never, ever won. (Sorry, Michael Bloomberg.)

Support by the establishment helps: Season ticket-holders include Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and George Will, the columnist/baseball scribe. That's a serious double-play combination.

Politics hates early front-runners. But even wounded veterans of the sports hell that has been Washington in recent decades are starting to think this franchise has more staying power than Michele Bachmann or Donald Trump.

For the team, winning would make good on the promise Washington offered in luring baseball back to town -- uniting a capital city that sometimes seems hopelessly divided.

"We're the only ones who can claim to the national pastime in the nation's capital," said Len Sanderson, a Nationals spokesman.

For the fans, it's something more.

"If they put a good team out there that has good guys and good stories -- which they have -- America could fall in love the Nationals," said Bob Heckman, 59, a transplanted New Yorker who co-founded the DC Baseball Society, a group of D.C.-area baseball fans who gather regularly for games and smart talk about them.

Enough to make America love Washington?

"No," Heckman conceded. "I've been here 34 years, and I'm still not in love with Washington."

One game at a time.

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