Here’s a statement of fact that, until fairly recently, could only be uttered with extreme sarcasm: It’s pretty great to be a DC sports fan.
Earlier this week, the Nationals wrapped up an incredibly improbable run to capture their first World Series title, sweeping the city (and some of their fellow DC athletes) up in the fervor en route to the championship Wednesday night. This run came just over a month after the Washington Mystics, once more celebrated for their attendance banners than a winning record, brought home their first championship two decades in the making.
Back when Caps’ former coach Barry Trotz first arrived in DC, something he spoke about often was this idea of one team just needing to break through and the rest would follow. “It’s going to be contagious. I’m telling you, it’s going to affect all the sports,” he said back in July 2015. “We’re looking to be one of those cities when their sports teams are competing against each other, competing for championships.”
Just a handful of years later, we’ve seen it come to fruition. The Caps’ Cup ushered in a new era where suddenly, in the immortal words of radio guru John Walton, it’s ok to believe.
Obviously that’s not to say that the Caps themselves were responsible for the way the Mystics took care of business against the Connecticut Sun or the manner in which the Nats became a buzz saw through the MLB postseason. Both of those runs were solely on the shoulders of the excellent teams that executed them, the stars and role players and coaching staffs and front offices who came together to make magic happen.
What the Caps did do is give a little relief to a city and a region that has been starved of sports success for so long. That Cup win (and the magical, chaotic summer of celebrations that followed) allowed everyone to take a deep breath… and finally relax.
The mental side of being an athlete is complex and layered; so too is the mental side of being a fan, and it often feels as if the latter has the ability to influence the former. Anyone who attended a Caps playoff game in the days before the 2018 Cup remembers it well – that collective tightening in the stands when the slightest thing would go wrong, to the point where the walls of the building almost seemed to close in on you. The team continuing to fall short - often in the most heartbreaking fashion - seeped into the minds of fans everywhere, and shaped the negativity that was sent back towards the team.
And it wasn’t unique to the Caps, as anyone who has followed the Nationals, Mystics, Wizards, or even their dopey drunk cousin of a team out in Ashburn can certainly attest to. There was plenty of heartache and frustration to go around, and it came around with a vengeance whenever there were postseason proceedings underway. The feeling in every arena or stadium was palpable, from the cheapest seats to the benches and sidelines below.
On June 7, 2018, that all changed.
That win by the Capitals in Game 5 to capture the first Stanley Cup in team history - and the first “Big 4” (sorry, DC United) championship for the city in 26 years - mattered, and not just to the Caps or to Caps fans. It mattered to the city, to the region, to anyone who had grown up with or taken on the challenge of being a DC sports fan. And it mattered to the athletes on the other area teams, as well.
You could see it in the way that the players have picked each other up and supported each other through each postseason. You could see it in the way fans flocked to the Mystics this fall and didn’t panic when there was a setback, or stayed to cheer on the Nationals through the final out of a World Series Game 5 loss that put the team down 3-2. Fans had replaced fear with hope, instant dread and anger with support – and the pressure to be That Team, the one that could finally break the curse that had surrounded this city for so long, was gone.
If we could feel it in the stands and on our sofas, you can damn well bet that the players could feel it, as well.
Now, how much that mattered to them in the end, we’ll likely never know – and for sure there’s an element of “it fits the narrative” to all of this. As fans, we want to believe that our support matters, that we were at least a small part of the team’s success, and ultimately that may not really be the case.
But it is hard to imagine watching two successive championships these last few months without knowing in the back of your mind that a win was possible because a win had already happened – that we could actually have nice things in DC. That what Nats manager Dave Martinez said was true about bumpy roads leading to beautiful places.
And that Trotz had been right: All it took was one team to turn this into a District of Champions.