Marty Niland: Nats fans demand more than, "Wait'll next year and hope"

Baseball is said to be a timeless game. The rhythm of the game and the season bring generations together, and phrases like "Bang! Zoom!" and "See you later!" have a special meaning around here in the spring, summer and fall.

Year after year, we pack the ballpark, gather around the television, tune in to broadcasts, even shuttle the kids to Little League practice and games, united by traditions and the history behind them.

But as enduring as the national pastime is supposed to be, it has evolved with the rest of the nation and the world. The game's pastoral innocence has morphed into the no-nonsense business attitude of the 21st century. It's not hard to see how times, attitudes and expectations have changed over the years, transforming baseball into hardball.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Washington, where the Nationals are playing their 14th season with the highest of expectations. Their lifespan is less than one-third the time the nation's capital had no team to call its own. Yet in that time, a city that supported two teams through seven decades and celebrated a winning season in 1969 as if it were a championship has become restless. Fans who rioted at the prospect of losing a last-place team in 1971 and were exuberant to get one back in 2005 now demand more than a perennial winner and playoff team.

We rode streetcars to Griffith Stadium to watch Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin lead teams to three pennants and a World Series championship, and we read recaps in the newspaper. We followed on the radio when Dutch Leonard and Cecil Travis starred on mostly losing clubs, and on TV during rebuilding years behind Camilo Pascual and Harmon Killebrew. In the decade after that team deserted us, we drove to see Frank Howard hit moon shots into RFK Stadium's upper deck and caught highlights on the local TV news.

By the time Livan Hernandez threw the Nats' first pitch at RFK Stadium, major league games were broadcast on pay TV networks like MASN. Nowadays, we hop Metrorail and ride-sharing services to Nationals Park, where replays of Bryce Harper's blasts and Max Scherzer's fist pumps, along with food and seat upgrades, are at our fingertips on our mobile phones. Teams and players break news on social media, where we instantly celebrate, commiserate and bring the snark.

Fans have always wanted their teams to win. But in the time Washington had no baseball, professional football, with an urgency and immediacy that satisfy our need for instant gratification, took root as the dominant sport in the region and nation. Now it seems we want the same from baseball.

We cheer and groan watching replays on the scoreboard, along with umpires who freeze a half second of video to watch for a millimeter of space between a base and a finger, or a flicker of light between a glove and a wrinkle in a uniform sleeve. Nobody thought to look for such minutiae 14 years ago. Now it can help send a star-studded team like the Nats home for the winter and cost one of the winningest managers of all time, like Dusty Baker, a shot at a World Series title and the Hall of Fame.

With the 2018 All-Star game in town and a team full of potential participants, Washington will be the center of the baseball universe, and the high expectations are clear. The team acknowledged as much in hiring manager Davey Martinez, saying the rookie skipper can take the team past the National League Division Series. It is banking on veterans like Harper and Gio Gonzalez to have career years as they head toward free agency. The pressure is also on Mike Rizzo, possibly the best general manager in the game, who currently has no guaranteed employment in 2019.

In the 1950s musical "Damn Yankees," Washington's manager and players encourage each other in the show's signature dance number, singing, "You've gotta have HEART..." In a 2018 reboot called "Damn Cubbies," they would likely change the lyrics to, "You've gotta win NOW..."

Welcome to the big leagues.

(Note to any readers in showbiz: This post is protected by copyright.)

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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