WASHINGTON – In a scene that resembled nothing like the storming of San Juan Hill, the Washington Nationals ended the seven-year denigration of Theodore Roosevelt's good name. After more than 500 defeats they finally allowed a giant-headed visage of the 26th president to win their daily President's Race.
This needed to be done. What started off as a joke in the summer of 2006, the team's second in Washington, when the Nats were mired at the bottom of the National League East and the stands at RFK Stadium were empty, had gone on long enough. The other three presidents in the race – stolen from Milwaukee's famous sausage race – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln jockeyed nightly for victories in the middle of the fourth inning at RFK and later Nationals Park while pathetic Teddy became a punch line; the running gag of a franchise going nowhere.
The reality is that Roosevelt was hardly a buffoon. He was a valiant colonel who was once given the Medal of Honor. He was an effective president who promoted an aggressive social agenda, pushed for the completion of the Panama Canal and left a legacy preserving parkland. He even survived an assassination attempt in 1912.
Hardly a joke.
And now that the Nationals have stopped being baseball's laugh line, the time had come to stop humiliating Teddy's legacy – a losing steak placed at 525 races by the blog Let Teddy Win and move on to better things.
The actual "victory" given Teddy was filled with its own brand of symbolism. Having already clinched the National League East, the Nats were playing the Philadelphia Phillies – their longtime tormentor from the north, who tumbled to irrelevancy this season – for the No. 1 seed in the coming playoffs. After the last out in the top of the fourth, the four presidents entered the field, with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln in their customary lead. Teddy trailed far behind. But suddenly a miniature version of the famous Phillie Phanatic ran out and tripped the other three, allowing Roosevelt to safely cross the finish line as the crowd of 37,025 chanted: "Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!"
Everybody laughed and Washington's campiest inside joke was at last over.
Teddy won! Giggles all around.
But there has been a sense for more than a year now that the Nationals had to get past the Teddy losing thing. The team was growing up. Good players were arriving, A new culture was growing inside the clubhouse. Last year, about two months into his first Nationals season after spending the previous four years winning in Philadelphia, outfielder Jayson Werth went on a strange rant about all that ailed the still-struggling Nationals.
Later, when trying to put into words the lack of a competitive attitude he finally snapped:
"Why doesn't Teddy get to win?" he asked.
He did not elaborate.
Still, his words had merit. Obviously the President's Race wasn't the reason the Nats finished last or next-to-last in the NL East their first six years in Washington, yet the fact the losing streak had become a focal point at the ballpark was at least a silent indicator the franchise didn't take winning seriously.
Now that the Nationals are heading to their first postseason with baseball's best record, it was a good time to take the attention off the running presidents and put it fully on the team that has a chance to do great things. In Washington's greatest baseball year since 1933, the Nats still only averaged 30,000 fans. They were not sold out on the night they clinched the postseason for the first time or the night they took the NL East. Crowds have, at times, been loud, but baseball has been slow to catch on here. The running storylines for much of the summer were not about winning streaks but the shutdown of pitcher Stephen Strasburg and a battle between team management and the Metro subway system over how late trains will run during the playoffs.
Teddy's losing streak was just another thread of conversation that had little to do with performance on the field.
"I'm glad Teddy won so we can stop talking about it," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "People get more excited about a mascot race than baseball."
On Wednesday, the Nats gave reason again as to why they can succeed this month despite the loss of Strasburg. Zimmerman hit a home run off Cliff Lee and fourth starter Edwin Jackson held Philadelphia to one run in seven innings and gave hope that maybe he could deliver such a performance in the postseason.
Before Strasburg was pulled from the rotation last month, Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said the Nationals are the best team he has seen all year. Even without Strasburg, the Nats can be very good. Slowly, this realization is coming. Strasburg has become an almost invisible presence, fans have moved on to the team that is currently playing. The first postseason appearance and division title have been celebrated. Talk is shifting to Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann and Bryce Harper and an excellent bullpen.
All that was left was to let Teddy win a President's Race and move into a new era.
At last, the Nationals did.
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