Life as a Washington, D.C. sports fan is an exercise in disappointment. Of the cities with at least one team in each of the four major American sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA — Washington is the only one to not have any team reach the semifinals since 1998. In other words: No team I support has even come within a round of a championship since I was three.
But a recent turn of fortune has put three of the city’s four teams in title contention. After so many disappointments, I just want the same thing as R&B duo K-Ci & JoJo: Tell me it’s real.
The past failings of Washington teams are a poisonous melange of terrible teams and great teams that choked spectacularly. This tragedy is best encapsulated by the team I follow most closely: the Washington Nationals. The national pastime returned to the nation’s capital in 2005 after a 35-year absence when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington. The team did not win more than half of its games in any of its first seven seasons, bottoming out as the worst team in baseball in both 2008 and 2009.
But those two putrid years yielded a pair of historic first-overall draft picks: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. With those two players came success, as the Nationals were the best team in baseball in 2012. That October, they held a 6-0 lead in the decisive game of their first-round playoff series and were a strike away from advancing to the National League Championship Series before blowing a save to lose in the most painful way imaginable.
Since then, the Nats have won two more division titles but still have never won a playoff series.
The 2017 baseball season starts in under a month, and the Nationals are in a strong position to contend again. They won their division despite a down year from Harper last year before losing in the first round of the playoffs once again. But the team is primed to be even better this year than in 2016. Prized rookie Trea Turner will have a full season in the majors after taking the league by storm for the second half of last year. General Manager Mike Rizzo loaded his team up this offseason — sending away a trio of prized prospects for outfielder Adam Eaton — with an eye toward a title in the next two years before Harper and All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy reach free agency.
Washington’s hockey team, the Capitals, have a similar story. Behind three-time MVP Alex Ovechkin, the team has twice had the best record in hockey in the past two seasons only to bomb out of the playoffs early. Nearly 80 percent of the way through this season, they are once again hockey’s best team. The Caps made a splash at the trade deadline, acquiring the best player on the market in defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. With stars like Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and young goalie Braden Holtby under contract for the foreseeable future, their success seems sustainable.
The Washington Wizards disappointed in the usual way: performing awfully. They won under a third of their total games from 2008 to 2013 before returning to respectability in the past few years. With a new coach this season, their young stars have broken out to put them within reach of the franchise’s best record since the Carter administration. Point guard John Wall has continued his All-Star play, while sharpshooter Bradley Beal has finally stayed healthy and small forward Otto Porter Jr. has emerged as one of the top shooters in the sport. Each of those players is under team control for a while as well, though Porter can become a restricted free agent this offseason.
Any reasonable — or perhaps naive — reader would feel very optimistic about the future of D.C. sports after reading the above. These are three well-run organizations, with a strong balance of current stars and promising youngsters. But any Washington fan will tell you how often a similar story has played out in this city.
The Wizards were sure to have quick success when they chose Wall first overall in the 2010 draft, but it has taken seven years for the team to be taken seriously. A championship was imminent for the Capitals when they had hockey’s best record in 2010, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Nationals were primed for a long reign after their first division title in 2012, but they have made the playoffs just twice since then, never once winning a series.
Of course it is irrational but, after being burned so many times, bracing for failure just makes more sense. After all this time, there’s only one thing I want to hear: that it’s finally real.
Andrew Flax ’17 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.