The 2012 Washington Nationals won 98 games and the NL East, but did they win over the fans in the nation's capital and finally turn Washington, D.C. into a baseball town.
Davey Johnson saw the signs of Washington, D.C. becoming a baseball town late in the summer of 2011. In front of a crowd of 41,727, many of them Philadelphia Phillies fans, the Washington Nationals went behind in the top of the ninth of an August 21st game in the nation's capital when closer Drew Storen gave up a one-out walk followed by back-to-back singles to turn a 3-3 tie into a 4-3 Philly lead. Phillies' reliever Antonio Bastardo came on to close out the game in the bottom of the ninth and retired the first two batters, but Ian Desmond took a 1-2 pitch from the left-hander deep to left field for a two-out, game-tying solo home run and the Nats won the game in the bottom of the tenth when Brad Lidge loaded the bases and hit Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run.
The Nats' manager, who had taken over on the bench several months earlier when Jim Riggleman resigned, was asked after the game about what it was like for him as a "baseball guy" to watch the Phillies fans "invade" Nats Park and boisterously cheer the way they had when Philadelphia appeared to have the game won in the bottom of the ninth only to get disappointed by Desmond's game-tying blast. The only thought Johnson had watching a good deal of the crowd cheer for the visiting team, he told reporters, was, "You know they're going to have to sit down." Though the Nationals' skipper said he enjoyed the atmosphere a full house created and liked playing under those conditions, he said that he would prefer it if the stands were full of Nats fans.
"We want to get our fans out here," Johnson said, "but I love playing in front of a packed house and I know my guys like the same feeling, even if it's for the other team."
"I like good crowds," the then-68-year-old manager continued. "I like crowds that are in the game. Ballplayers, we like the big audience and my guys certainly weren't shying away from anything." Asked by a reporter if wins like that day's helped build up the local fanbase, Johnson said, "I'm hoping. I think anywhere I've ever been when the team starts winning, fans come out. They didn't come out the first year in New York, by the third year, we were packing them in, and that's what I'm hoping happens here."
Flash forward a little over a year, to October 11, 2012. The Nationals have unseated the Phillies they'd taken two of three from with that dramatic walk-off HBP the previous August and won the NL East, breaking Philadelphia's streak of five-straight NL East titles and earning the first postseason berth by a D.C.-based team in over 79 years. The Nationals have lost two of the first three games of the NLDS with St. Louis, however, and managed only one run in eight innings in Game 4, which was tied at 1-1 after eight and a half with Washington facing elimination.
44,392 fans filled Nationals Park that day. 45,017 were there for Game 3 of the NLDS the day before to see the Nationals get shut out 8-0. If there were Cardinals fans in attendance for the two games, which there surely were, they didn't make up the majority of the crowd as opposing team's fans had in seasons past. The fans from the nation's capital who filled Nationals Park for Game 4 were standing on their feet, living and dying with each pitch of the game and of Jayson Werth's leadoff at bat in the top of the ninth inning that night.
The one-time Phillies' outfielder who'd signed with D.C. after playing a part in four of Philadelphia's five NL East crowns from 2007-2010, battled reliever Lance Lynn for thirteen excruciating pitches before launching the biggest home run in the franchise's history into the left field bullpen. Nats fans had cheered wildly when the Nationals clinched the NL East at home several weeks earlier, but the sound they made when Werth's walk-off left his bat was heard for blocks around the Navy Yard.
The Nats' 33-year-old outfielder told reporters afterwards that though the crowd was going wild he didn't hear it at the time. "I didn't hear a thing," Werth said, "It was pretty quiet to me." Things were different in D.C., however, as the nation's capital embraced its team in a new way in 2012, especially late in the year. "Yeah, I mean, the last two games were -- the place was packed," Werth said. "I don't think it -- it hasn't been packed. We've sold out, but it wasn't like it was. You know, a lot of times, it's a little mix of other team's fans. Today it seemed like -- the last two days, it was all our fans."
"You know hopefully they will show up again tomorrow," Werth said, "and we'll do it again."
"It seems like the last two months," Davey Johnson said, backing his outfielder's take on the growth of the team's fanbase in Washington, "our crowd here has been electric. And it translates to the players. We feed off it. You know, my guys like playing for a packed house and they were up on their feet, waving those red flags and giving us red instead of white."
"It was fun," Johnson continued, "and really fun for me. I don't get excited too much , but I was excited to see the crowd."
45,966 fans turned out the next night for Game 5 and watched the Nationals lose to the Cardinals in the final game of 2012 for Washington's Nats.
For most of the summer of 2012, but especially the last two months of the season as the possibility of the Nationals holding on in the NL East looked more and more possible, Washington, D.C. became a baseball town. The Nationals moved up from 23rd in average attendance in 2010 when they drew 22,568 per game and 20th in 2011 when they averaged 24,877 to 14th overall in Major League Baseball in 2012 with an average of 30,010 turning out for games in Nationals Park.
The Nats will start the 2013 season as the defending NL East champs. In a chat with readers right after the season ended with the Nationals' loss the Cardinals in Game 5, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell said baseball will only get bigger in D.C. next season, guessing that the Nats will draw, "... just under 34,000," per game next year, "Might be more.":
"But what's different, I suspect, is that fairly quiet Nats crowds suddenly became among the very loudest in baseball in Games Four and Five. I underrated my own town! I [admit] I was shocked. It really did rival RFK when the Redskins were good and the loudest Caps crowds. (Of course, they ARE the SAME people __D.C. fans.)
"Of course, a game in May isn't going to get the reaction of a playoff game. But I bet that Nats crowds are considerably more active in '13. Now they understand the VERY significant impact that they can have on games. (You couldn't hear yourself think. The Cards have great crowds and I'm not sure which was louder.)"
While there's no doubt that Nationals fans reclaimed their own park this season, not everyone's convinced that they're the new standard in the NL East. Phillies' shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who matches even Davey Johnson in the bold prediction department, said two weeks back in an interview with CSNPhilly.com that the road to the NL East title still goes through Philadelphia:
"It still runs through Philly," Rollins said. "[Washington] had one year to win it. It was just like when the Mets took it from Atlanta, it was still up for grabs. I'm sure Atlanta felt it was still theirs, but fortunately we were able to come in and take it the next five years."
I believe those are called "fighting words"...