The 2019 season was a long time coming for the Nationals. After eight years as contenders, after 15 years in the District, after 51 years as a franchise and after 95 years without a World Series title in D.C., this Nats club was the one that finally broke through and hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Along the way, the members of this championship team won over everyone’s heart, forever etching their place in Washington sports history. No matter what happens for the next 95 years, the Nationals always will be 2019 World Series champs. Nobody can ever take that away from them.
How, though, might this particular team and title ultimately fit into the larger, long-term story of baseball in Washington? Was this a blip, a one-time success story that will never be repeated again? Was this just the first of many titles to come, the one that opened the floodgates for a sustained run of multiple championships?
Sometimes it’s not hard to figure out how a championship squad fits into that franchise’s broader history.
When the Yankees ended a long - at least, by the unprecedented standard set in the Bronx - drought and won the 1996 World Series, it certainly felt like merely the first step in the club’s return to the preeminent position atop baseball’s mountain. Sure enough, the Yankees would go on to win four titles in five seasons and six American League pennants in eight years.
At the other end of the spectrum, there have been a few champions this century - the 2003 Marlins and 2005 White Sox immediately come to mind - who just felt like they were destined to enjoy their big moment and then fade back into the shadows after that.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell if a championship is a harbinger of things to come or not. The Giants’ 2010 title run came out of the blue and was immediately followed by a disappointing 2011 season. But that sure wasn’t the end of the road for them. San Francisco would win a second title in 2012, then a third in 2014 to establish itself as the closest thing this sport has had to a dynasty in the 21st century.
Then there are the 2016 Cubs, a super-talented and young group that broke one of the longest curses in North American sports history and looked poised to turn this into a regular thing. They haven’t been back to the World Series since, they fired the only manager who has brought a championship to Wrigleyville in 110 years and now they’re supposedly willing to trade away a former MVP and foundational star. Who saw that coming?
So what does that make these Nationals?
In some respects, this year felt like the culmination of a long journey, with a good number of prominent players having been involved most (if not all) of the time. Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon had experienced plenty of October heartache before finally getting a chance to experience the most joy baseball has to offer.
The oldest roster in the sport came together at just the right time to pull off a remarkable title run, and the odds of that happening again figure to be slim. None of those guys - nor Howie Kendrick nor Kurt Suzuki nor Aníbal Sánchez - are getting any younger. Their best days may well be behind them now, and that may mean 2019 will forever represent the pinnacle of their respective careers.
But let’s also give Mike Rizzo credit for building a roster with long-term success very much in mind. Who wouldn’t want to take their chances with a team that includes Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Victor Robles, with Carter Kieboom on the way soon and Luis Garcia perhaps not too far behind?
Sure, the 2020 roster will look different. Rendon is gone. At least a few others from the World Series roster probably will be gone as well. But this team isn’t in teardown mode. There’s still more than enough talent around to remain a contender for several more years.
Is there enough to make another deep October run? It’s far too soon to make that kind of prediction. Rizzo has plenty of work left to do before pitchers and catchers report in a mere seven weeks.
But if the highly accomplished general manager is able to pull off his usual winter magic, the Nationals will show up in West Palm Beach with every reason to believe they can put it all together again.
So as the clock winds down on 2019, take time to appreciate what happened this year and how long it took for the Nats to get here. It was an all-time run by a franchise that had teased us too many times before only to let us down.
Then take a moment to contemplate how we’ll all look back on this years from now. Will we ultimately remember 2019 as that one time the Nationals got over the hump? Or will we remember it as the year this franchise took a huge step forward, never looked back and established itself as a true powerhouse capable of winning multiple championships?