WASHINGTON — Mark Lerner’s first letter to then-commissioner Bud Selig after his family bought the Nationals asked to host the All-Star Game.
“It’s something I’ve wanted from the moment we got the team,” Lerner said.
Thirteen years after Major League Baseball returned to Washington and almost that long since Mark and father Ted Lerner were chosen as owners of their new hometown team, they finally get to throw their party. The fourth All-Star Game in the nation’s capital and first since 1969 is a celebration of a new generation of Washington residents rediscovering the connection to baseball that for so long wasn’t a part of the town’s sporting identity.
“When we first came here, baseball had been gone for so long — basically an entire generation,” longtime Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman said. “You almost had to re-learn how to be baseball fans. In the 13 years or so now, it’s been fun for me to be here from the beginning because the organization, the team has kind of grown along with the fan base. I think it’s been fun for both of us kind of starting out. The organization and the team lost a lot. The fans were better than we were as a team at the beginning, but we kind of grew up together.”
When the relocated Montreal Expos moved in 2005, Washington had gone 33 seasons without baseball, save for the Baltimore Orioles 40 miles away. Three incarnations of the Senators — 1891-1899, 1901-1960 before becoming the Minnesota Twins and 1961-71 before becoming the Texas Rangers — came and went, leaving a gap in Washington that almost seems inexplicable in retrospect.
“It’s just the business of baseball,” Nationals All-Star pitcher Max Scherzer said.
Even though Mark Lerner doesn’t profess to be among the 14,460 at the final game in 1971 at RFK Stadium, he went to plenty of other games as a kid and as an adult dreamt of bringing baseball back.
“I sat in the upper deck and tried to get foul balls because nobody was sitting up there,” Lerner said. “I really believed that there would be another team within 10 years, and it just never happened. We tried a number of times.”
The Expos’ woes in Montreal made it happen in 2005, and the Lerners bought the renamed Nationals from MLB in 2006. After three seasons at antiquated RFK that was home to the NFL’s Redskins, the final step was the opening of Nationals Park in 2008. It gave the team a modern home and revitalized an area in southeast Washington that was on the way up but needed a boost.
“Nationals Park has had a catalytic effect on the capital waterfront,” said John Falcicchio, chief of staff for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “It creates a vibrancy to a neighbourhood that is thriving.”
The mayor’s office hopes the All-Star Game showcases just how much Washington has changed over the past 50 years. It’s certainly a much different sports town with the Wizards of the NBA and the now-champion Capitals of the NHL playing downtown and the Redskins in suburban Maryland.
After four playoff appearances in the past six seasons, Lerner sees Nationals hats all over town and is proud of the progress made cultivating fans in and around D.C. Phillies and Mets fans are still around, but they aren’t quite the invading forces they used to be.
“Those 8- and 9-year-olds that we were courting when we got the team are now driving and some of them have families, and that’s how we build a long-term fan base,” Lerner said. “If you sat in the audience in the 2008 season versus now, it’s totally different, and I think we’ve built that loyalty and people rediscovered the love of the game and built the love of the game.”
After an injury sidelined reliever Sean Doolittle, the Nationals have two All-Stars: Scherzer, who could start in his sixth appearance, and outfielder Bryce Harper, the 2010 No. 1 pick and 2015 NL MVP in the final year of his contract. Zimmerman wants to stay in the background and let the All-Stars have the spotlight, but the team’s longest-tenured player now owns a bar and restaurant next to the stadium and will be part of the festivities given his strong ties to the city.
“It’s still a celebration, I think, of baseball in the city,” Zimmerman said. “I think more the community and people that I’ve met that have kind of loved baseball in this area for so long, this is also for them, as well.”
Harper got to Washington in 2012 as a 19-year-old and even in that time has developed an appreciation for it as a baseball town and will be front and centre for the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.
“D.C.’s a great town to have it in,” Harper said. “A lot of good places to eat, a lot of good places to relax and a lot of good places to go and see really cool things. We’re right down the street from the monuments, right down the street from the White House. Just an amazing place to have a game.”
In his fourth season as the Nationals’ ace, Scherzer learned quickly how intense the rivalry is with the Orioles, a battleground of some fans who changed allegiances and others who stuck with Baltimore. He would welcome the honour of taking the ball in his home stadium in a town that delivered exactly what he hoped for when signing in Washington.
“This is a good baseball town — a good sports town in general,’ Scherzer said. “It lived up to expectations. We’ve had great support throughout the season and especially in the post-season. That’s what I expected, and that’s what the fans have done.”