WASHINGTON – When a baseball postseason finally came back to this city after 79 years, the Washington Nationals did not dance in their clubhouse. Players didn’t dance on tables, don goggles, spray alcohol or do any of the silly things baseball players do when something has been clinched.
The first postseason in eight decades was greeted with just a touch more euphoria than any other victory: with handshakes and high-fives and a subdued champagne toast in the clubhouse.
To the Nats players, Thursday’s clinching of the playoffs doesn’t mean much. All they have won is a spot in the postseason – an assurance of at worst making this year’s new wild-card game. They say the real celebration will come when they clinch the National League East. That probably will happen next week.
“We’re not really thinking about the wild card,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “We’re thinking about winning the division.”
“We’ve got a bigger picture in mind,” added shortstop Ian Desmond.
But what the Nationals did in beating the Dodgers 4-1 on Thursday night is big – far bigger than the Cincinnati Reds clinching another postseason berth. Parts of three franchises in two different leagues have passed through Washington since the last time a team here – then known as the Senators – went to the 1933 World Series. In those 79 years between Octobers that mattered, this city has inaugurated 13 presidents, buried two and impeached one.
Generations have arrived, settled and left. Millions of people have been born, grown old and died without ever knowing a Washington with playoff baseball.
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The first Senators team departed for Minnesota in 1960 – its final 27 seasons after that glorious 1933 spent in futility. The second was created the next year but lasted just longer than a decade with just one winning season before heading to Arlington, Texas. Between 1972 and 2004 Washington went without a team until the league moved the Montreal Expos here in the spring of 2005, giving Washington seven more lousy seasons until this one.
Perhaps to the Nats the clinching of a postseason spot is worth little more than an asterisk beside the team’s name in the standings, but in a place that went without a franchise for 33 years and had a loser for another 45, Thursday night was kind of a big deal.
Of course, baseball has changed significantly since the 1930s and making the postseason means something far different than it once did. Until 1969, the only playoff teams were the two winners of each league who met in the World Series. Then for the next 2½ decades the winners of each league’s two divisions went to the playoffs. Now five teams make the postseason in each league. Simply getting in the playoffs doesn’t have the same magic it once did.
That’s why the players didn’t think they should have a party.
Strangely, the Washington players never made a formal decision against a celebration this week. Nobody called a team meeting. Manager Davey Johnson didn’t deliver an edict. No memos were handed around the clubhouse. No policy was declared. Rather this was an organic choice; a silent understanding among team members to refrain from going wild until the National League East is won.
“I actually just asked Jayson Werth: ‘Are we doing anything?’ ” infielder Mark DeRosa said as he stood in the clubhouse before Thursday night’s game, repeating the mantra of his teammates that a wild-card game is not the same as the certainty of knowing they will play in the division series. “Just getting to a one-game playoff does not guarantee you a five-game series.”
But isn’t this different, he was asked. Doesn’t 79 years without the postseason mean people in Washington look at the clinching with a more excited gaze than usual?
“Rightfully so,” DeRosa said. “I also think we played really hard for five months and we’ve been in first place for a lot of that time. We have a five-game lead with two weeks to go, we have our eye on a division title.
“I don’t think you go to spring training trying to clinch a one-game wild-card berth,” he continued. “I think the goal is to win your division and give yourself the best chance to win the World Series.”
There’s also the fact the Nationals carry with them the history of the old Expos. And while Montreal did not have much baseball success in its 35 years, it did come within a game of the 1981 World Series. So while Washington has gone without postseason baseball since the middle of the Great Depression, the franchise itself has had a tiny bit of playoff success.
“It’s only been [seven] years [without the postseason] for fans in this area, for D.C., the Washington Nationals,” Desmond said.
Still, eight decades is a long time. A division title might mean more, but in a longing for a postseason spot – no matter how contrived it might be – it was worth more than a few handshakes and high fives.
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