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Nationals’ loss ends another season of futility for D.C. sports fans

It’s been 25 years since the city celebrated a major sports championship

It’s 3:42 a.m. on Friday the 13th. The Costco Halloween bag of Snickers, Kit Kats, Twix and M&Ms has been reduced to a mosaic of wrappers strewn about the family room. The 7-year-old upstairs is three hours from being told yet again that his favorite team has expired for the season.

You go back to the blown calls, the passed balls, Jayson Werth inexplicably losing that ball in the lights, and you dread the moment he asks, “Did they win?” Because you live in D.C. And you have come to understand that hearing depressing news about pro sports teams is part of your civic identity, a stomach-churning routine that has been going on for parts of three decades.

When Bryce Harper struck out and the Washington Nationals lost 9-8 to the Cubs, the longest nine-inning game in major league history — a four-hour, 37-minute marathon of masochism — came to a familiar, punch-in-the-face end for the home nine and its fans. But it was more than one bad-karma franchise that failed to meet expectations again.

It’s been a quarter-century since there was a championship parade along Constitution Avenue to celebrate a major-revenue professional sports team in Washington, the second-longest drought for a North American city with at least three teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB behind Minneapolis. That’s when the local NFL team last won the Super Bowl. No city has a longer drought (19 years) of failing to win even a league championship series or conference final in the four major sports leagues than Washington. Think about those numbers.

Depressing news about pro sports teams is part of your civic identity – a stomach-churning routine that has been going on for parts of three decades.

If you are 25 years old today and live in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, you have never known the euphoria of cheering for your athletic heroes waving from a float, with a trophy held aloft. Through infancy and toddlerhood, when your parents bought you cheeseball onesies with team names on them, to adolescence and beyond, you’ve only known pain, loss and more pain.

Twenty-five freakin’ years of living in the land of Just Good Enough to Gouge Your Right Ventricle Out.

The annual siphoning of fans’ souls in Washington is becoming as toxic as the divisive politics of the nation’s capital.

Part of reporters’ jobs covering championship teams from every city with an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB team now involves finding out whether their respective teams and star players will attend the White House photo op to put a bow on their historic seasons. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals’ rivals who snuffed out Alex Ovechkin and his linemates’ season in a Game 7 in April, were feted the other day by President Donald Trump at the White House. The Golden State Warriors were probably not going to go and then got disinvited.

Media who cover Washington teams never have to worry about that, because no one is invited and no one is going.

These are First World problems, of course. We are not pleading for water, like Puerto Rico. We are not looking for loved ones in the embers of Sonoma County, California, or scouring our waterlogged file cabinets in Houston and New Orleans, hoping our insurance policies came with act-of-God flood coverage.

Still, it feels like the benefits enrollment window has opened for a few weeks and these are your options:

  1. a) The Capitals and Wizards disembowel you in May
  2. b) The Nationals siphon your soul in October
  3. c) Washington’s owner and his football team get in their own way before December, causing you to pay gastric premiums unexplained in your season-ticket contract with the club.

For such a segregated city, Washington sports occasionally felt like a healing balm, both civically and racially. The past couple of decades weren’t exactly what the locals remember as the halcyon days of RFK Stadium, where black and white, rich and poor, congressman and carpenter sat next to one another and made the steel in the stands vibrate as John Riggins rumbled toward the end zone like a beer truck with a broken parking brake.

But so many D.C. teams have been on the precipice of greatness in the recent past. Three times the Capitals finished with the NHL’s best regular-season record. The Nationals won the NL East four times in the past six years, and in 2012 they were a strike away from the National League Championship Series. The Wizards were thisclose to the Eastern Conference finals, their Game 7 loss last May to the Boston Celtics another gut punch. Washington’s NFL team has won but two playoff games since Dan Snyder purchased the team. Yet, there was a palpable magic in the air five years ago, brought by a scintillating rookie quarterback.

At a time when sports have become so divisive politically, the games still united colors and creeds here, putting everyone under one, unsegregated, go-team-go banner that stretched through the decades. From Sonny Jurgensen, Frank Howard, Wes Unseld, Dale Hunter and Doug Williams (the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl) to Ovechkin, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, John Wall, the late Sean Taylor and, lest we forget, Robert Griffin III in 2012.

And then came another brutal finish — another dropkick to the esophagus.

At 3 a.m. you can start reading the season obituaries. They’re all accurate, and they all make you feel the same: like you live in Loserville.

“Werth didn’t know where to start when trying to decipher what had happened on a night when he lost a ball in the lights, leading to a run, in a one-run postseason loss that mainlined mayhem and likely ended his time in Washington.” – The Washington Times

“The Washington Nationals Are Obviously Cursed and Will Never Win a Playoff Series” – Headline in The Ringer

My friend and former colleague Tom Boswell wrote in The Washington Post: “If you must lose, making 43,000 people stand and scream for close to five hours — and perhaps turning plenty of them into baseball believers in the process — isn’t the worst way to expire.”

No, Boz, you’re wrong. It is the worst way to expire. A sweep would have been preferable to another searing, cruel end in this town. The image at the end of each season in Washington remains a locker room of dejected men staring into their cubicles, watching the red-capped bottles of beer get wheeled out and the plastic tarp, the one spread out to protect their valuables in advance of a celebration, rendered as useless as Max Scherzer’s arm or Harper’s bat on the last night of another crestfallen ending to a season.

The real pain began for the Nationals exactly five years ago. They led 6-0 in the deciding Game 5 of their NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, a virtual party in the stands beginning as the NLCS surely awaited.

Just like that parade over the past 25 years, it never came.

Mighty Casey in this parable doesn’t just strike out in D.C. He gives up 26 points to Kelly Olynyk in a Game 7. He is stonewalled by a nondescript goalie in Game 7. He blows out his knee in a pile of mud on a badly manicured field in Landover, Maryland, and he’s stunningly out of the NFL less than five years after being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

And all that is left are the candy wrappers to dispose of before dawn, that 7-year-old kid upstairs, wiping his eyes and running into your bedroom at 7 a.m., wanting to know if his team won. And that final, deflating feeling when you have to tell him, straight-out, “No, buddy. They lost.”

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.