WASHINGTON — Every baseball season takes on its own unique flavor, the personalities of the team meshing with the storylines that emerge to create a composite that lives in our memory. For many Nationals fans, the foundation upon which their view of the team was built was laid in place in 2012, the first year since the move to the District that the team posted a winning record and made the playoffs. That team was fresh and flush with excitement, full of big, lovable personalities and bereft of the kind of anxiety and tragedy that affects teams of expectation.
Fans sang along to “Take on Me” in Mike Morse’s fourth at-bat of the night. They chomped as Roger Bernadina came off the bench to pinch-hit. Gio’s “house party” was still fresh and new. The howls echoed for Jayson Werth’s “Werewolves of London.” They cheered as roommates and best friends Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen Clip N’ Saved games out of the bullpen.
The face of that team was still Ryan Zimmerman, a human shrug emoji, the kind of eminently likable athlete that aging broadcasters gush over as the kind of role model they wish their daughters would date. Even fans of teams in other markets readily admitted they would be happy to see the Nationals win back then.
The hero this Opening Day in Atlanta was free agent acquisition Daniel Murphy, who had four hits, including a home run and the game-winning double in extra innings. That’s the same Murphy who, amid Major League Baseball’s attempts to be more inclusive last season, said he “disagree[s] with the lifestyle, 100 percent” of homosexuals. While athletes have certainly said worse, his comments aren’t the type to endear him to a fairly progressive Washington fan base.
And who closed the game out, locking down the final three outs to preserve the first victory of the season? Jonathan Papelbon, of course.
While Bryce Harper may have put last year’s choke-slamming incident behind him, many fans haven’t been as quick to forgive and forget. Despite an offseason of fans saying they wouldn’t come to another game, or would even dump their season tickets if he remained on the team, despite pledging literally thousands of dollars to charity if the team would get rid of him, the Nationals kept Papelbon. There will, no doubt, be boos from those who do attend Thursday’s home opener when number 58 is announced.
Morse and Bernadina are long gone. Clippard and Storen have each been traded over the past two offseasons. Werth has since spent a couple of weekends in jail after a reckless driving charge.
Even some of Zimmerman’s seemingly impervious shine lost some sparkle when Al Jazeera named him in a documentary about sports doping this offseason. While Zimmerman forcefully denies any wrongdoing, to the extent that he has sued the network for defamation, his reputation has been undoubtedly tarnished.
But of course, he’s not the leader of this team anymore. Despite what he says, Harper is, and everybody knows it. Harper, who is unapologetically great and doesn’t care what you think — even you, Bill Maher. Who thrives off the boos at Turner Field, and at every other ballpark he’ll visit this year.
If you appreciate these qualities, that might actually make Harper the most likable player on the club. His desire to Make Baseball Great Again represents the injection of unbridled passion the sport needs, as its young superstars drag its virulent ghosts into the 21st century.
The story of the 2016 season has yet to be written. But it will be written by this group of players — with their bravado, their warts, their closed-mindedness, their criminal history and their occasionally violent tendencies — whether you want it to be or not.
This is your team, Nats fans. You might as well take Harper’s lead and embrace the hate.