WASHINGTON — On the morning of the first World Series game in the United States capital in 86 years, the usual signs of a team in the midst of an exciting playoff run were there.
Red, white and blue bunting hung on patio fences and bridge railings along the Anacostia River, not far from Nationals Park.
People out walking dogs did so in red hats and jackets sporting the curly W logo of the local baseball side. A remarkably peppy morning-television reporter interviewed a restaurant owner about the drinks specials he planned for game night, and then a fellow played “Baby Shark,” the unofficial anthem of the Nationals’ postseason, on the saxophone for the live audience.
Just like any other city caught up in the throes of an unexpected championship charge, with people of all kinds coming together as one.
Then there was MLB umpire Rob Drake, who tweeted something the other night that helpfully underscored that this is Washington, at the heart of a bitterly divided nation, and a feel-good baseball story isn’t going to paper over all of the cracks.
Drake posted a tweet late on Tuesday that said he would be buying an assault rifle because if Donald Trump was impeached “YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL WAR ON YOUR HANDS.” The all-caps yelling, and the spelling mistake, really gave it the proper zest of a random internet crank. Or the President.
Major League Baseball said it was investigating the remarks, and Drake apologized on Thursday, with the curious explanation that he didn’t realize how violent it sounded until after he read what he posted.
Drake, who isn’t part of the umpire crew for the World Series, is like a lot of Americans in that he has strong thoughts on impeachment. An inquiry into the possible removal of the U.S. President, after he sought Ukrainian help with digging up dirt on Joe Biden, a political rival and possible presidential nominee for the Democrats, has been ticking along in Congress for weeks.
Republican leaders, and some of Trump’s allies in the media, have refrained from being quite so blunt in their language as Drake, but they have expressed similar sentiment about the impeachment process, suggesting it is illegitimate and decrying the process as fixed. Trump himself has compared it to a lynching, and refused to soften that stance when it was pointed out that the term is associated with a particularly awful time in U.S. history.
And yet, amid all that bitter political fighting, the Nationals and their plucky underdog story have popped up now and then as a pleasant diversion. Take, for example, the press conference in the White House a little over a week ago, when Mick Mulvaney, chief of staff to Trump, began with a joke: “I did want to come out here with my Nationals hat on but they told me that would violate some kind of rule,” he said. Everyone had a nice chuckle, and then within minutes it was back to the usual sniping. This was the press conference in which Mulvaney insisted that Trump had asked for a favour from Ukraine in exchange for aid money, and that it was no big deal. He later issued a statement saying he did not say what he said, in a room that was full of recording devices. So, another typical day in Washington.
And last week, when a Democratic candidates debate was up against an NLCS game between the Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals, it was sports that won out. “Normally the bars of Capitol Hill would have been packed with debate-watching parties,” said a report in The Associated Press, “but baseball seemed to decisively dominate politics.”
In the era of Trump, sports and politics have often been lumped together. The first Super Bowl after his inauguration, in 2017, took place right after the infamous ban on travellers from certain Muslim countries, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick spent the week blandly refusing to answer questions about their friendship with the occupant of the White House. Trump has fought loudly with the National Football League as players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, once calling such players “sons of bitches” in a speech in which he also lamented the sport’s concern over violent hits. LeBron James has called him a bum, and coaches such as Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have said essentially the same thing, but a bit more eloquently. Various championship teams have refused the traditional White House visit, while some have gone and attracted various levels of criticism for doing so. There is no way to maintain utter neutrality with Trump, even for what would normally be an innocuous handshake.
And so, when word filtered out on Thursday that the U.S. President would attend Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday, if the Nationals haven’t won the title by then, it immediately touched off questions about how the appearance would work. Would Trump throw out a ceremonial pitch and risk bouncing it 15 feet from the plate? Would the President, who loves to brag about his adoring rally crowds, take the chance that he would be greeted by a cascade of boos? (Washington proper is a heavily Democratic city, but Nats fans, being baseball fans, probably skew older and thus more Republican.)
Anibal Sanchez, the Game 3 starter, was asked if he had issues with Trump attending the Series, given some of the way he has characterized Latinos in his frequent complaints about illegal immigration. “He’s the president of this country,” said Sanchez, who is Venezuelan. He said if Trump wants to come to the ballpark, “Of course everybody has to respect that situation.”
Word from the White House came that Trump would not throw out a first pitch — tough to do with body armour on, they said — but then the Nationals clarified on Friday that they had not asked him to do so.
If it gets to a Game 5, Jose Andres will throw out the first pitch. He’s a chef and restaurateur who donated meals to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria, and he also provided free food to federal employees who lost work during a government shutdown. Andres also pulled out of a deal with Trump’s D.C. hotel over the President’s comments on Mexican immigrants.
If there is no way to stay neutral with someone as divisive as Trump, it would appear that the Washington Nationals have taken a side.