On March 30, 2008, a wide-eyed young third baseman named Ryan Zimmerman christened the brand-new Nationals Park with a walk-off homer against Braves reliever Peter Moylan. In that moment, as the 23-year-old “Face of the Franchise” circled the bases to a thunderous roar, it was impossible not to wonder if this was merely first of many more thrilling moments to come in that ballpark. Surely there would be pennant races and October clinchers and maybe even a World Series contested on these grounds, sooner rather than later.
Some 11 1/2 years later, Zimmerman finally found himself standing on a makeshift stage behind second base, a trophy being presented to Ted and Mark Lerner, an overflow crowd roaring with approval for the local ballclub, National League champions at long last.
As the now-35-year-old first baseman said: “Sometimes you’ve got to wait for good things.”
Yes, it took a while for the good things to come to South Capitol Street at long last. In their 15th season as D.C. residents, the Nationals won in a playoff series for the first time, then the second. And now they’re going to the World Series for the first time.
They never intended the process to take that long. Shoot, when the inaugural 2005 ballclub went into the All-Star break with the majors’ best record, some might have been tricked into thinking this was going to be an annual rite around here.
It doesn’t work like that, of course. The Nationals wouldn’t so much as finish with a winning record until their eighth season of existence. They would lose 100 games in back-to-back years. They would close down RFK Stadium and then open Nationals Park. They would be sold from Major League Baseball to the Lerner family.
They would hire Stan Kasten to be team president and then watch him leave, ultimately for the Dodgers. They would retain Jim Bowden for four years, then watch the general manager resign amid a scandal involving a Dominican prospect who falsified his name and age. They would hire Mike Rizzo to be their interim GM, then give him the job full-time, then extend his contract on three occasions.
They would go through seven different managers: Frank Robinson, Manny Acta, Jim Riggleman, Davey Johnson, Matt Williams, Dusty Baker and Davey Martinez. (None of the original six made it through three full seasons. Martinez, barring something catastrophic, will become the first to do it.)
They would send so many players onto the field wearing their uniform (two of them in jerseys that read “Natinals”). There were fan favorites like Liván Hernández and Chad Cordero and Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young and Tyler Clippard and Adam Dunn and Ian Desmond and Michael Morse and Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper and Denard Span and Craig Stammen. But there were so many other names, names you’ve probably long since forgotten: J.J. Davis and Melvin Dorta and Kory Casto and Levale Speigner and Logan Kensing and Yunesky Maya and Atahualpa Severino and Taylor Jordan and Taylor Hill and Marc Rzepczynski and Moisés Sierra.
“They’ve been texting me,” Zimmerman said of his long list of former teammates. “We keep in touch. I’ve been here my whole career. A lot of those guys shaped me as a player and as a person. When I was younger, those guys took care of me like I’m supposed to take care of these young guys right now.”
Success would finally come in 2012, when the Nationals enjoyed not only their first winning season but also their first of four division titles. That, however, only led to the first of four October heartaches, each wrenching in its own particular way, yet perhaps necessary in the larger picture.
“I took the October heartbreaks as a step in the right direction,” Zimmerman said. “We had some times here where we knew on April 1 we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We came a long way. And I think sometimes you’ve got to learn from failure and go through some bad times to get to some good times.”
They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but they did need to suffer a bit first in order to fully appreciate this.
“Somebody said to me on the way in, it wouldn’t have been as special in 2012 as it is tonight,” Mark Lerner said. “We had to go through that heartache and really want it. And this is a team that really wanted it bad.”
It’s one thing to want it, though. Everybody wants it. It’s another to actually climb that mountain and get over a hump that it turns out is far more treacherous than anyone realizes.
Yes, it took the Nationals 15 years to reach the World Series for the first time. There are some other franchises out there that would’ve loved to do it that quickly.
The Angels didn’t go to the World Series until their 42nd season of existence. The Astros made it in their 44th, then won it for the first time in their 56th. The Padres have played 51 seasons of major league baseball and have never won it all. The Rangers have played 49 seasons without a championship. The Mariners were born in 1977 and are still waiting for their first trip to the Fall Classic, the only remaining franchise on the outside looking in.
“Baseball is such a cruel sport sometimes,” said Max Scherzer, who reached the World Series in 2012 but saw his powerhouse Tigers get swept by the surprising Giants. “And we played some really good games against some really good teams and we laid it on the line. Those past teams have been really good, and we’ve come up just an inch short so many times. I’ve been a part of that and been on the losing end, and it’s just a gut punch every single time.
“When we can finally do it, and the way we handled business against the Brewers and the Dodgers and the Cardinals - I mean, just great, great ballclubs in the National League - to finally punch through, man, it’s just an ultimate feeling that you just can’t describe.”
The journey is the reward, they say. For anyone who has participated in the Nationals’ long journey, whether from the field or the front office or the stands, there’s some extra satisfaction today in knowing that.