Analysis | Imperfect but uplifting, Nats’ World Series victory lap arrives at last

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The five years since their World Series title have not been easy for the Washington Nationals.

Instead of a victory lap in the season after their title, they got a global pandemic. Instead of many more years of contention with a talented core, they slid swiftly into a rebuild and picked that core apart. The contracts they gave beloved stars did not yield on-field production. The contracts they did not give other beloved stars led to painful partings. Some wounds were self-inflicted. Others were unavoidable.

So it was a pleasant surprise Saturday afternoon when the skies remained clear and the sun was warm, creating a perfect setting for an imperfect celebration of the championship that altered this city’s baseball history.

It was imperfect because it was, in some ways, painful.

The Nationals scheduled the celebration to coincide with a visit by the Houston Astros, whom they beat in that 2019 World Series. The Astros have fared much better than the Nationals since losing that series, playing in two more and winning in 2022. Several of their key stars from 2019 remain in Houston uniforms. Their presence at Nationals Park on Saturday was a reminder of just how good the Nationals had to be to beat them. But it also offered a reminder that the Nationals’ decline was not a natural byproduct of their success.

The celebration also was imperfect because it was incomplete.

Had they been able to celebrate their title fully in 2020, most key members of the 2019 team would still have been in Nationals uniforms and could have participated. But most stars from that team were playing elsewhere Saturday. Those who could return were the retired ones — Adam Eaton, Brian Dozier, Aníbal Sánchez, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick, Javy Guerra — or current team employees Ryan Zimmerman, Sean Doolittle and Gerardo Parra, who are now focused on the Nationals’ next generation.

“I think everyone [missed out], even around the city and stuff. You win the World Series, and all of a sudden everything is shut down,” Dozier said. “That affected a lot of things around the stadium, season tickets, everything.”

Stephen Strasburg was not in attendance, either. He just recently agreed to the terms of his retirement after a lengthy dispute with the team. The Nationals invited him to Saturday’s celebration, according to team officials. They said the World Series MVP chose not to attend.

“I think the guy should be celebrated and thought of as an icon and a legend around here. I think he is. I think most people still think that way about him. They should,” Zimmerman said. “So hopefully, now that this is all resolved, we can properly celebrate him at some point. That’s above my pay grade, though.”

And like Strasburg, whose legacy changed forever because of that World Series run, the members of the 2019 Nationals in attendance Saturday offered reminders of why that title is worth celebrating now and always. To varying degrees, it changed their lives forever.

Dozier, for example — the dancing, shirtless heart of the 2019 Nationals — has had three kids in the five years since the title. The reunion gave them a chance to see parts of their father’s life that they did not get a chance to experience. And the World Series, he said, gave him the freedom to experience parts of their lives he might not have experienced otherwise.

He remembered signing with the New York Mets for the covid-shortened 2020 season in which his family could not be with him. When he got home, Dozier’s daughter asked him never to leave again. So even though he had an offer to play for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021, he decided to retire. He had done what he wanted to do.

“We got to experience the ’19 season,” he said. “So I hung ’em up early.”

Zimmerman had done almost everything he could for the Nationals by the time they made the World Series. But now, as he paces the clubhouse and mingles with front-office members in his new role as an adviser, he does so as a World Series champion. Few players spend their entire careers with one team. Even fewer are raised in an organization with no past to lean on and help build the history that future generations will rely on.

“To bring a lot of these guys back who have accomplished a lot in this game, played for a long time, this is what organizations hope they can do,” Zimmerman said. “You hope you’re successful and you have good teams and you can do this type of stuff — celebrate and create history, want people to stay and play here, be a part of this organization. This has been the first time we’ve been able to do this.”

Five years ago Saturday, the Nationals were still in the season-starting slump that famously left them 19-31. And of everyone in their clubhouse, no one’s fortunes changed more because of the months that followed than Dave Martinez’s. On Saturday, Martinez recalled moments early in that season in which players would come to his office, telling him they hoped he wouldn’t be fired. A few months later, he was a World Series champion. How did that title change his life?

“Well,” he chuckled, “I’m still here.”

“The reason we do what we do is for that moment,” he added. “… It’s been an incredible adventure in this game, and I’m looking forward to what’s to come next.”

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