Is it time for Philadelphia fans to start hating the Washington Nationals?

Fans stand, cheer and generally enjoy a victory over the Nationals last season. An, no, this game was not played at Citizens Bank Park. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Fans stand, cheer and generally enjoy a victory over the Nationals last season. An, no, this game was not played at Citizens Bank Park. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: May 21, 2012

The Phillies fan in a Roy Halladay jersey turns his back to rightfield, where former Phillie Jayson Werth plays for the Washington Nationals. The fan resembles those you might see walking around Citizens Bank Park or Northern Liberties or Xfinity Live! on a game night, the type who became emblematic of Phillies euphoria amid the team’s late-aught success, before the winning begat sky-high expectations — and equally high levels of anxiety about being in last place after the first six weeks of this season. He’s a 20-something male, full of passion and vigor and Miller Lite. He holds a half-empty cup of draft beer in his right hand and starts a “Let’s Go Phillies!” chant. His enthusiasm is immune to dissenters; the cheer is met with both applause and boos. Both seem to invigorate him.

The fan is doing this in Section 140 of Nationals Park — recently renamed Natitude Park by the Nationals’ marketing gurus— and he seems to be trying to make a statement. The louder the Phillies fans cheer, the more demonstrative he becomes. He wants both Philadelphia and Washington supporters alike to know that he is here, and he is not going away. Like many Philadelphia fans in the ballpark this weekend, he yearns to retain — after years of Phillies fans infiltrating Washington D.C. — the unofficial nickname of Nationals Park: Citizens Bank Park South.

Standing in the concourse just behind the section is Natt Cooper. He goes by “Coop.” Coop, 50, owns homes in Willow Grove and Washington. He only attends Phillies-Nationals games. Coop loves what he is witnessing. He cheers the audacity of the Phillies fan in an opposing team’s ballpark, pumps his fist after big plays and slaps hands with random Philadelphians who walk past him. Coop has seen Nationals fans throw popcorn at the Phillies fans, but he has not seen anything that would resemble even a quiet day in the 700 level of Veterans Stadium. “It’s like they’re watching a golf tournament,” Coop says.

The suggestion is that even when the Nationals fans have more to cheer about than Phillies fans, their cheering does not match what happens in Philadelphia. On the first night of a three-game series earlier this month, Coop downplays the notion that there is a rivalry between the clubs. He wears a 2008 Phillies World Series cap. “When you get one of these, there’ll be one,” he says, pointing to his cap, “But they’re starting to get more respect, and that’s how you get a rival. There has to be a reason.”

For the past five seasons, the Phillies dominated the National League East. The Nationals, on the other hand, have been a perennial punching bag, never finishing above .500. They reside in a big market with a wealthy owner and had accumulated high draft picks, but the product on the field seldom appeared competitive. As a result, fans have been slow to embrace the team. And just as Mets fans once filled the stadiums in Philadelphia when the Phillies were a lackluster franchise, Phillies fans often overtook Nationals Park.

This year, the balance has started to shift. The Nationals are like the kid who was always picked on in high school, then returned from summer break just as big and strong as everybody else. The team features two of the best young players in the game — pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper — plus All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Gio Gonzalez along with former Phillies stalwarts Jayson Werth and Brad Lidge. In many ways, the roster resembles the one used by the Phillies to emerge from mediocrity to relevance a decade ago. “I can only hope there are similarities,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo says. “I think we all kind of have the same philosophy. We’re all baseball guys, and we’re trying to build an organization the right way. They’ve proven that they’ve done it the right way, and we’re trying to prove we can do it also.”

The Nationals’ coronation was set to happen the first weekend in May, when the Phillies were due in Washington. New chief operating officer Andy Feffer started a campaign to “Take Back the Park.” In other words, to keep Philadelphia fans away. At one point, tickets were only available buyers with a credit card tied to an address in Washington, D.C., Maryland or Virginia. The campaign was not particularly effective as a deterrent for the hoards of Phillies fans who ordinarily make the trek down I-95. If anything, it was motivation for Phillies fans who wanted to show that they cannot be kept away. WIP talk-radio personality Angelo Cataldi organized a trip. So did the popular Philadelphia sports blog “Crossing Broad.” If you were to introduce yourself to someone clad in Phillies gear at Nationals Park that weekend, it was a decent bet that he was part of a group organized to maintain CBP South. It was about a 60-40 split between Nationals and Phillies fans (although different fans had different opinions on how the support broke down). Regardless, there were enough Phillies fans that their influence was visible.

Yet the campaign and the corresponding attention seemed to galvanize Nationals supporters. The Nationals’ slogan this year is “Natitude,” and they renamed the ballpark this weekend “Natitude Park,” with signs everywhere from the entrance to the centerfield video board. A Philly cheesesteak in the ballpark was renamed “Natitude Steak Sandwich.” This is part of the attitude the club hopes to project as enthusiasm and buzz about the franchise spreads along the Beltway. “Half a buzz,” says Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, who is something of a baseball authority in Washington. “What you see is that the team has to do something significant in the eyes of the fan base. They have to either make the playoffs, they have to get to the championship series, and the big crowds do not come out that year. They come out the following year.”

Boswell continues to point out that this Nationals team is good. And it’ll only get better. For the past five years, the Nationals had little to market to their customers. They sold a plan more than a team. Fans could come to see the Presidentmascots race down the first-base line; there was little other reason to go to the games. But not now.

What the three-game series revealed more than anything—more than which shade of red is in the stands, more than style of curl in the Ps or Ws—is the narrowing gap between the clubs on the field. When the Nationals visit Philadelphia this week, the ballpark will be filled with Phillies fans. But the natural order of things—or what should be the natural order as far as Philadelphians are concerned—has been upset. The team at the top of the standings and the team in last place arereversed. The scariest part to Phillies fans is this might not be a fluke. All of which means that Philadelphians, who normally reserve their bile for the Giants, Cowboys, Celtics, Penguins and Mets, may have another target.

It’s 11:53 on a Friday night and the game ended more than an hour ago. The Nationals beat the Phillies in extra innings, and young fans of both teams have stayed in the party area beyond the outfield gates to enjoy a warm May night in Washington. Many of those fans are filing through the gates of the Navy Yard Metro station, a stop on Washington’s subway system. They’re hot, sweaty, impatient and intoxicated, a recipe for a powder keg.

Some fans start the wave as they wait in the city’s bowels. When the train doors open, Nationals and Phillies fans need to share a constrained space. That’s where the fun begins. Hectoring turns to arguing.

“Did you win?” a female Nationals fan screams toward overzealous Phillies fans.

“How many playoff games did you win?” a female Phillies fan in a Hunter Pence T-shirt responds.

“What the [expletive] are you doing here?” the Washington fan says.

Another Nationals fan chimes in with, “We’re going to take back the train!”

“Go back to Philly!” another says.

“Scoreboard!” another says.

A fistfight is about the break out between the female fans. Friends restrain them. When the Nationals fan gets off at Judiciary Square, the Phillies fans on board cheer. They had little reason to cheer earlier, so they’re getting it out now.

“You won one [expletive] game, [expletive]! Keep walking!” the Phillies fan screams. “Best train ever!” she says to no one in particular. Then she adds, “If we were in Philly in Nationals gear, it’d be a different story.”

This is a small sample of a train that holds dozens of people after a game that drew 34,377 fans.But it reveals that this series is beginning to escalate into an emotional rivalry. Phillies fans have reserved their distaste for the Mets. And Philadelphians in the crowd say what goes on in Nationals Park is nothing like an Eagles-Giants game. Yet this is early in the evolutionary stages. The 20-somethings in Philadelphia never needed to care about the Nationals. By the time they have kids, though, Strasburg might have four Cy Youngs, Harper might win an MVP and—horror of horrors—Werth might have another ring.

Despite the Nationals’ marketing efforts, the players and manager Davey Johnson do not seem to care about “Natitude.” In fact, Johnson struggles to pronounce “Natitude.” He needed to say it in a promotional campaign to vote for the All-Star Game, and went through four or five takes before scrapping the plan. “We got a damn good team here, vote for the Nats,” he said instead. Before the first game of the Phillies series, Johnson asked that a Natitude sign behind home plate be taken down because of how it affected the pitchers’ vision. “Marketing is marketing,” Johnson says. “What’s going to sell tickets is if we win ballgames. That’s how we’re going to take the stadium back.”

In the first two games of the series, the Nationals did. They beat the Phillies both games, with Strasburg and Gonzalez both excelling against the Phillies’ struggling lineup that lacks Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Werth even hit a home run during the second game, drawing boos from Phillies fans stationed in rightfield wanting to heckle their former All-Star.

The rivalry revealed itself in Game 3. In the first inning, Cole Hamels plunked Harper in the back. Harper, who is all of 19, later stole home—the first stolen base of his major league career. Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann seemed to retaliate when he hit Hamels three innings later, and scores appeared to be settled in the Phillies’ eventual win.

But then, after the game, Hamels did something considered noble in most venues but punishable in Major League Baseball. He told the truth. He admitted that he intentionally hit Harper. “I’m just trying to continue the old baseball. I think some people kind of get away from it,” Hamels told reporters after the game. “Sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.” Hamels was suspended 5 days and fined for his remarks. And Rizzo, sounding furious, called for Hamels’ suspension. “I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball,” Rizzo told the Washington Post. “Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough. He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”

Neither Phillies manager Charlie Manuel nor general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. responded directly to Rizzo’s remarks. In fact, Manuel said he wished Hamels would not have been so honest and Amaro was disappointed in Hamels’ remarks.

The irony is that Hamels’ move displayed the type of attitude that Rizzo would applaud if Hamels were one of his players. One reason the Nationals gave Werth a 7-year, $126million contract was that he would bring to Washington a certain attitude—a toughness that has long been present in the Phillies’ clubhouse. “Rizzo really envied the Phillies old-school, tough attitude. That’s who Rizzo is, and that’s who he wants the Nationals to be,” Boswell says. “The people who run the team, Rizzo and Johnson, and the players themselves, are an old-school, East Coast, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York hard-nosed team that happens to be playing in Washington.” The Nationals are the type of team that Philadelphia fans would love, says Boswell — if they didn’t play in Washington.

When Werth walked into the clubhouse one day during the series, reliever Sean Burnett nodded at the way Werth carried himself. Werth brings an accountability and toughness to a clubhouse that had been devoid of both since the team moved from Montreal to Washington. “I think his biggest thing was coming over and being in the same division as the Phillies. You want to kind of rub it in a little bit and take it over, take the division over,” Burnett says. “You know it’s not going to happen overnight.”

But it’s beginning to happen. Even though Werth suffered an injury that will likely sideline him for 12 weeks, Strasburg is reportedly ly on a pitch limit that could shelve him late in the season, and Harper is not legally allowed to buy a beer, the Nationals have enough talent to contend with Philadelphia and the rest of the division.

Ryan Zimmerman, who is the longest-tenured National and has seen his share of lopsided series, says the division still goes through the Phillies. As it should be. Before the Phillies won the NL East in 2007, Jimmy Rollins and Utley needed to beat the Mets. Before the Mets won the division, they needed to beat the Braves. There is a hierarchy built upon success, and no marketing campaign or big signing bonus will change that.

During spring training, Werth pointed out that Mets fans used to fill Citizens Bank Park. That changed once the Phillies started to win. Zimmerman knows that winning will be the only way to keep the Phillies fans from coming to the ballpark. “You win the World Series and you’re good every year, you have a lot of fans. Imagine that?” Zimmerman said. “We want to have fans like that, we should win and go to the playoffs. When you do that, the fans are where you go.”

It’s the ninth inning ofGame 2 and Phillies fans still fill Section 141. This is one section over from where Coop watched the 20-something in the Halladay jersey command attention the night before. There’s little to cheer about—the Phillies are losing —but that hasn’t stopped Philadelphia fans. Werth is back in rightfield, and they don’t like Werth very much. The Phillies fans believe he took the money and ran. They chant “Werthless!” even as he engages with the Nationals fans in the outfield. A Phillies fan points out that Werth took his practice throws closer to the fence after his home run, as if his homer finally gave him the guts to approach his former supporters. While Phillies fans mock, a Nationals fan jingles his keys, pointing out that the game is almost over, and that it’s time for Phillies fans to leave—with a bad taste. With Philadelphians seemingly looking for any cause to cheer, they unleash a “Let’s Go Flyers!” chant. Fans in the section talk about 4-for-4, meaning they support all Philadelphia teams. Those teams are engrained in the Philadelphia culture in a way that the Nationals are not in Washington, so when those fans head south, there’s a feeling of superiority. In fact, Washington might be the nation’s capital, might be first in war and first in peace, but those from the Philadelphia area don’t think the city knows how to support a team. “It’s all a bunch of Nationals wannabes, Capitals wannabes. That’s all it is, man,” says Jeremy Ernst, 26, who grew up in Lancaster and now lives in Fairmount. Ernst came to support the Phillies and spend time with his brother, who lives in the Washington area. He’s attended Phillies games in Washington for about four years, so he thinks he’s in a position to speak with authority. “Philadelphia fans grew up in Philadelphia,” Ernst says. “[Washington] fans are transplants.” The implication is that even if the team is not better, the fans are better. Standings are cyclical, passion is not.

This is especially relevant given how Philadelphia views itself, especially compared with New York and Washington. If the former is all about by money and the latter is all about power, Philadelphia is neither. It’s identity is revealed, if not defined, as much through its passion for its sports teams as any other outlet. Passion that is either mocked or nonexistent elsewhere is worn as a badge in Philadelphia.

Brian Cognato, 25, is a Phillies fan from East Norriton who now lives in Washington. He actually likes it now that the Nationals are relevant. And Cognato is thankful that Washington tried to take back the park, because it showed just what passions exist in the respective franchises. “Take back the park implies that we had already taken the park,” Cognato says on Friday night. “It acknowledges the park is already ours.” Cognato looked around and is disappointed in the Nationals fans, because they still allowed Philadelphians to drink their beer and eat their food and cheer for Hunter Pence. “I want to get hated on,” Cognato says. “I want them to come at me, so I can come back at them. Nobody’s doing that. Nobody’s coming at me.” But Cognato stops and thinks for a moment. The season is still early, but the records are an objective measure of how the season could progress. He’s spent a few years coming to Nationals Park and knows it won’t be like what it once was. The Nationals are getting better, and baseball is noticing.

When the competition renews in Philadelphia this week—with Harper and Hamels, but without Werth and Utley—the Phillies fans don’t need to worry about taking back the park. They never lost it. But they do need to worry about taking back the division.


Contact Zach Berman at zacharyberman@gmail.com or follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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