Feinstein: Nationals Fans Are Frontrunners

Dan Snyder has made his franchise irrelevant, causing D.C. fans to latch on to another team – one that is actually successful

John Feinstein
October 30, 2019 - 8:29 am
Anthony Rendon Nationals World series

USA Today Images


Forty years ago, when I was the Maryland beat writer for the Washington Post, I had to write what was called a “follow” every Sunday after a Saturday football game. The key to the story was getting Coach Jerry Claiborne to talk about what he’d seen on the film—and back then it was actually FILM—since, like most coaches, Claiborne would frequently answer questions after a game by saying, “I’ll have to look at the film.”

Claiborne—who I always liked, even though we clashed often—was the epitome of the old-fashioned southern football coach. He demanded that the developed film be on his front doorstep at 5 a.m. on Sunday so he could start looking at it before he left for church. After church, he would go into the office and meet with his coaches to discuss plans for the following week.
Then—and only then—would he talk to me on the phone.
I didn’t have Sundays off in those days. I was always assigned to cover the Redskins—yes, back then we all called them that—as the sidebar writer—home or away. That meant I had to talk to Claiborne while the game was going on from a press box—home or away.
One Sunday, during a game at RFK Stadium, a loud roar erupted for a Washington touchdown while Claiborne was mid-answer. I had to ask him to repeat himself since I hadn’t heard a word.
“You’re at the Redskins game aren’t you?” he said to me—the tone accusatory.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “Every Sunday. Not my call.”
I wasn’t lying. Covering the Redskins in any form was considered a huge privilege in those days. I’d grown up in New York as a (sigh) Jets fan and actually found the Post’s blanket coverage of the team way overboard. Early in my first season on the Maryland beat, George Solomon, the sports editor, walked over to my desk on a Friday afternoon and said to me, “You’re doing a great job on the Terps, really good work.”
I had just moved back to sports two months earlier and didn’t quite know Solomon’s MO yet. Six months later, my response to the opening comment would have been, “What do you want George?”
Now, I innocently said, “Thanks George,” loving the compliment.
“So,” he continued, “I’ve got a bonus for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a media credential and a parking pass. “Go to the game Sunday. Have a good time. I even got you parking.”
Still flattered and still not understanding, I said, “George, thanks, I appreciate it. But, believe it or not, I have a date Sunday.” Remarkably enough, I DID have a date.
“You can reschedule,” George said. “You should go.”
I shook my head. “I’m not so sure about that. And, anyway, I don’t want to reschedule.”
George put the credential and the parking pass down on my desk. “I need a sidebar,” he said—and walked away.
Unfortunately, even though I didn’t spend nearly enough time agonizing over every sentence the way I was supposed to—according to George—I did a good enough job that I was made the regular sidebar writer.
And so, there I was explaining to Claiborne that, yes, I was at the Redskins game because my boss wanted me there.
“You know something,” Claiborne said. “When I pick up the paper—every single day—it’s just Redskins, Redskins, Redskins.”
I couldn’t argue. I was constantly arguing for more space on non-Redskins stories and, most of the time, losing. Once, when I was covering a Davis Cup final and John McEnroe won an incredibly intense five-setter in the deciding match, I called the desk and asked how much space I had to write about this epic, historic match.
“You’ve got 24 inches,” George Minot, the day editor told me.
“Twenty-four inches!” I screamed. “I can’t write this in 24 inches. I need at least 40.”
“That’s fine,” said Minot, who had a dry sense of humor. “Write 40. We’ll use the best 24.”
The Redskins were playing that day. I was lucky to get the 24.
I never thought that would change, even a little bit. But Dan Snyder and his acolyte Bruce Allen have done the impossible: they’ve turned the town against the team that once defined Washington sports.
It isn’t because they’re bad guys—even though they are—and it certainly isn’t because they and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell keep insisting that they—three white men—know what is or is not offensive to Native Americans. There are African Americans who aren’t offended by the n-word and some who use them in rap lyrics; that doesn’t mean the word isn’t offensive.
The reason the town has turned on Snyder’s team is simple: it hasn’t won anything meaningful since he bought the team 20 years ago and he and Allen have taken zero responsibility for the failures. They fire coaches and general managers—they don’t even have a GM right now because, heck, if you’ve got Allen, who needs a GM? Snyder never speaks to the media and Allen rarely does and then he says absolutely laughable stuff like, “the culture around here is actually pretty damn good,” when the case can be made that no team in sports has a more toxic culture.
It’s been getting worse and worse for years. Once, you couldn’t come close to getting a ticket to a game; now people run from the room screaming if you offer them a ticket. Every game in the stadium formerly named for Jack Kent Cooke is filled with fans wearing jerseys of the visiting team. Snyder should be grateful. If not for them, the stadium might be three-fourths empty—or worse.
And now, with the Washington Nationals one game from winning a World Series, the worst thing possible has happened to the football team: ALMOST NO ONE CARES. That’s far worse than people screaming and yelling and crying for a coach’s head or for the backup quarterback to play more.
My Post colleague Dan Steinberg had an amazing stat last week after the Nationals took a 2-0 lead over the Astros in the World Series. According to Dan, there were FIFTEEN stories in the Post’s online edition that day that had more readers than any story on the football team. This is no more surprising than learning that the earth is flat—unless you’re Kyrie Irving.
The Nationals have achieved sudden popularity because they might bring a championship to Washington. This is different than the spring of 2018 when the Capitals finally ended years of postseason futility by winning the Stanley Cup. The Caps fan base is absolute—the building has been sold out virtually every night since they first became a good team with Alex Ovechkin as their star back in 2008.
Baseball fans in Washington are frontrunners—as are the football fans and the basketball fans. The Nats averaged 27,898 fans per game during the regular season—which put them 16th in average MLB attendance. This from a team that has been a consistent contender dating to 2012, making postseason five times. Even in the last couple of weeks of the season, when the Nats were trying to clinch a wild card spot and then, home field for the wild card game, the nightly crowds were regularly under 30,000.
Now though, everyone wants to “be there.” DC is an event town. The Nationals moved from Montreal in 2005. The first time my brother asked me to help him with tickets was in 2010—the night Stephen Strasburg made his debut. It was an EVENT. Next year, attendance will go up because the Nats finally proved they could win in postseason.
And so, the perfect storm has occurred: the city that obsessed about its football team when it went 33 years without a baseball team, has become a baseball town because the baseball team reached the World Series for the first time since the the Senators got there in 1933 and Snyder has driven people away from his football team with his personality and his bungling. 
I have no idea what will happen in game seven tonight, but I never thought I’d live to see the day. Not game seven—the Post and the local media in DC virtually ignoring the football team.
Sadly, Jerry Claiborne didn’t live to see the day. He died on September 24, 2001, having finished his coaching career at Kentucky with a three-school record (Virginia Tech, Maryland, Kentucky) of 179-122-8. He never got the credit he was due at Maryland, where he turned the program around, even reaching a Cotton Bowl—back when that was a big deal—in 1976.
On the day Claiborne died, the Redskins cut Jeff George—who was one of the first of Snyder’s massive mistakes. The front page of sports was covered with George stories and columns—with more coverage inside. In the bottom right-hand corner of the front was the story about Claiborne’s death.
“Redskins, Redskins, Redskins.”
Last Friday, as the Nationals prepared to host DC’s first World Series game in 86 years, almost the entire front page was covered with baseball stories. In the bottom right-hand corner—the exact same spot where the story of Claiborne’s death had run—was the game story on Washington’s loss to the Vikings the night before; a ho-hum defeat that dropped the team to 1-7.
Somewhere, Claiborne had to be smiling.
Me too.
John Feinstein’s latest book is, “Benchwarmers,” the story of a sixth-grade girl who wants to play on the boys soccer team and, even though she is one of the best players, is denied a spot on the team by a misogynist coach. His book, “The Prodigy,” which chronicles the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters, came out in paperback last month. So did his most recent non-fiction work, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com