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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The baseball here has been for the sturdiest of souls, given the kind of baseball played here on and off for more than a century, and also given that it has had a habit of leaving.
As though the game, under the brightest lights or the dark of night, always had one foot out the door.
That is what they danced to on Tuesday night, under a bright moon in the darkest of skies, to a team that has not broken their hearts, that did not surrender, that did not run off.
In those ways, these Washington Nationals will be remembered as much for what they aren’t as for what they are, which are champions of the National League, pretty good too.
Four score and six years ago a baseball team that played in this city went to a World Series. It lost. That team eventually went to Minnesota. The expansion team that replaced it moved to Texas. More than three decades later, baseball returned, Montreal Expos disguised as something new. And until Tuesday night, beneath bistro lights hung across the outfield bleachers, before 43,976 people who stood with their jaws clenched, across generations and generations of on-and-off-again hardball stories, there had not been another World Series team here, not since 1933.
Finally, the baseball soared toward center fielder Victor Robles, pitcher Daniel Hudson raised his arms, grown men poured from the dugout behind him, and this town shed its hard and raw memories that too often came with baseball. The Nationals were 7-4 winners. They had swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games. They would play the winner of the American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees or Houston Astros, in a World Series that wouldn’t begin for a week, and then host a World Series game here for the first time in too many scores to remember.
And so in a silly, sloppy and sublime clubhouse scene not an hour later, a rap song called “Win” pounded in their hearts, and Gerardo Parra grabbed Stephen Strasburg by the waist. Strasburg laughed and accepted the invitation. The two interlaced their fingers and danced a waltz, beer spilling down their arms, a couple dozen teammates cheering them on. When the season started, Strasburg didn’t dance and avoided hugs. In the middle of October, a teammate twirled him across the room.
They had been 19-31 in May. They had qualified for October as a wild card. They had stepped across the Milwaukee Brewers, the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cardinals, and became the first team in franchise history — Expos and Nationals, beginning in 1969 — to win a league pennant.
“You think about all the miles you drive,” said Mike Rizzo, the old scout and decade-long general manager of the Nationals, “and here you are.”
When the baseball fell into Robles’ glove, almost three hours after they’d put seven runs in the first inning on Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson, Daniel Hudson turned and heaved his glove in the direction of his oncoming teammates, a series-ending and hazily manufactured tradition furthered by Sean Doolittle and him. He fell into the arms of catcher Yan Gomes. Nationals arrived from every direction. They’d clung to those seven runs all night long — barely, it must be said, in a swervy eighth inning — and together took their first long breath since that first inning.
“This is the best time of my career,” said 36-year-old Howie Kendrick, who batted .333 in the series and was its Most Valuable Player. “The best moments of my career have happened here.”
The Nationals had grown up. A decade ago they’d lost 205 games across two seasons, bad baseball that netted them Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They got good, better anyway, and won four division titles in six years, seasons that in the end had them leaning on that one foot out the door. They lost in the division series all four times.
It all speaks to the miles they put in along the Anacostia River. Ryan Zimmerman through 15 seasons in their uniform, now 35 years old, a free agent soon, for one, sat in a soaked T-shirt and marveled at the footprints laid out behind him.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” he said. “Me, the fans, the community, we’ve kind of grown up together. I was 20 years old when I got here. We were not very good.
“The way we grinded through that season and then obviously through this game, I kept telling them we’ve got to keep going, keep going, keep going.”
It’s the only way the miles come, of course. With old savvy, with young legs, with a good amount of luck. With the occasional laugh, because what would be the point otherwise? They’d cover some of that distance with horses — with Strasburg and Max Scherzer and, Tuesday night, Patrick Corbin. Their innings grooved a wobbly bullpen, when they themselves weren’t the bullpen. They formed a line behind manager Davey Martinez, who’d fought for his job in an unsightly 50 games to start the season, and near the end reminded him to remain calm, to breathe. Martinez had undergone a heart procedure a month ago, maybe because a season like this one generally requires the sacrifice of an organ or two. And they won. They won a lot. When they should have won, when they shouldn’t have, when the old barriers of playoff series came, they won a lot.
Thirty minutes after the final out, with the stadium still red with fans, the infield filled with family members, and a stage overflowing with players and coaches, Martinez leaned into a microphone and said, “These guys back here, they cured my heart. My heart feels great right now.”
The crowd cheered again.
As he’d said earlier, “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. And this is a beautiful place.”
Later, when the ballpark had emptied and the last bottles were being emptied, in a quieter moment, Martinez was asked about those roads.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said, and his voice thinned at the emotion, at the exertion. “This, right here, to me, tops everything I’ve ever been through. I mean, I’m so proud of the guys, honestly. They could have folded. They didn’t.”
And, also, “I feel like a wet dog right now.”
He laughed at the soaked clothes that clung to him and plucked at his shirt. This, perhaps, is what comes of the sturdiest souls. What happens when they stay. And fight. Bright light or darkness. Postseason curse or win a game and see what happens. Sure, dance, too. They wouldn’t have known it was possible unless they’d tried, unless they’d won that game forever ago and found it was the first one that would put them here. Those miles weren’t going to drive themselves.
“You’ve got to earn it, man,” Kendrick said. “All the things in the past, all the failures … it just makes it sweet because we’re getting older” — he nodded toward Zimmerman — “and the game keeps getting younger.”
Now they’re going to the World Series, all of them. With both feet in.
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