Washington and New York, the cities that the rest of the nation hates because of their power and money, are separated by barely 200 miles. However, they are about as different as can be when it comes to baseball success.
That dichotomy is the focus of the most famous play ever written about baseball, “Damn Yankees,” in which frustrated Washington fan Joe Hardy sells his soul to the devil so that his beloved Senators can finally beat out the team from New York and win the pennant.
New York has won a staggering 40 pennants and 27 World Series and that’s not even counting the Giants, who called Manhattan home until 1958, or the Mets.
Washington has won just three pennants and a lone World Series during its baseball history, which sadly was minus a team from 1972-2004.
The Yankees last finished under .500 in 1992, the last season of the George H.W. Bush Administration. They made the playoffs in 16 of the past 17 seasons (missing out only in 2008 when they won 89 games), capturing seven American League flags and five World Series.
The Nats have yet to finish better than .500 since arriving in Washington in 2005 from Montreal, where, as the Expos, they made the playoffs just once in 35 seasons and last topped 89 victories in 1993. Typically, the franchise’s best season came in 1994 when the Expos were leading the National League East with a 74-40 record when a strike cancelled the postseason.
Any baseball fan can name a plethora of Yankees stars: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, Jackson, Mattingly … but few outside of Washington can name any hero other than Walter Johnson — whose last season was 85 years ago — who called the nation’s capital home for very long.
But as the Nats and the Yanks prepare for a three-game series starting tonight in Washington, they’re evenly matched despite the yawning chasm in their payrolls. New York’s is a major-league high $198 million. Washington’s ranks 20th at more than $81 million.
However, at 38-23, the Nats are way out in front in the NL East – and just a half game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for baseball’s best record — while the Yanks, at 37-25, are atop the AL East. There are still about 100 games to play, but we might just be seeing a World Series preview this weekend although Nats ace Stephen Strasburg won’t be pitching since he raised his record to 8-1 and extended his team’s winning streak to six straight by beating Toronto on Wednesday.
Oddly, Washington is 4-2 against New York, winning two of three at RFK Stadium in 2006 and at Yankee Stadium in 2009. Chien-Ming Wang, now the Nats’ No. 5 starter, lost a game for the Yankees in each of those series.
Of course, despite their ongoing success, the Yankees aren’t the true Bronx Bombers of old. Mariano Rivera, the best reliever ever, is out for the year at 42 and might never play again. Longtime catcher Jorge Posada retired during the offseason. That leaves shortstop Derek Jeter, a sure Hall of Famer at 38, and left hander Andy Pettite, who was coaxed out of retirement at 40, as the last links to the latest dynasty that won three straight World Series from 1998-2000.
First baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, outfielders Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner and pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes are the only Yankees who have won a World Series ring with New York.
Surprisingly, only A-Rod, Teixeira, Sabathia and Swisher aren’t homegrown products among those nine veteran Yankees. Include more recent additions Curtis Granderson and Rafael Soriano and New York only has twice as many pricey free agents as Washington’s contingent of currently injured right fielder Jayson Werth, first baseman Adam LaRoche and No. 4 starter Edwin Jackson.
However, 57 years since the debut of “Damn Yankees,” the Nats remain the underdog with heart while the big boys from the Bronx are still just that. So anyone who’ll be rooting for New York to beat Washington this weekend is either a Big Apple native or has lost his or her soul just like Joe Hardy.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin