This article originally appeared on Fangraph’s The Hardball Times, where GATG founder Gabrielle Starr is a contributor.
When did the word “bandwagon” become a bad thing? Its origins in the 19th century, the combining of the words “band” and “wagon,” were innocent enough: a wagon used for carrying a band in a parade, circus, or procession. But its meaning has morphed into supporting a cause or activity that is currently or already popular, and on sports social media in particular, being called a “bandwagoner” is equivalent to being a fake fan. It means you’re probably watching a team or rooting for a player only because they’re good now — as opposed to the pure intentions implied by following one team and one team only through thick and thin. As if it isn’t human nature — and animal nature, for that matter — to be easily distracted by shiny new things.
But watching the Nationals play in the NLCS and World Series for the first time in their franchise’s short history in the nation’s capital (they’d never won a postseason series until this year), I keep coming back to wondering why it’s so bad to be a bandwagon fan. When I tweeted that I was about to “bandwagon so hard” for the Nats, a fair amount of people replied only to cry “fake Sox fan!”
What’s wrong with rooting for a team once your own is eliminated from contention? Fans of the other 29 major league teams have all bandwagoned together against the Yankees for decades. What’s wrong with enjoying some great baseball, and picking a temporary side? It doesn’t mean you love your own team any less. It just means you love the game of baseball, too.
Think about it: when you bandwagon, you get to enjoy baseball without the stress of being really, truly, deeply invested in the outcome. It’s like if being friends with benefits actually worked, and nobody fell in love and got their heart broken. The team gets extra support at the most stressful time of the year, and we get to enjoy great baseball relatively stress-free.
I’ve found being a bandwagon Nationals fan this month to be really refreshing. When I lived in Los Angeles, I’d go to Dodgers games all the time to just see some good baseball. I’ve spent my entire life living and dying by the Red Sox, to the point where it’s often so stressful that I forget that baseball is supposed to be enjoyable. But it’s fun to get out of my own head and root for a team that I’ve never really had a chance to appreciate. It’s a reminder to set foot outside your proverbial house and open your eyes up to a much bigger world. As Jimmy Fallon says in Fever Pitch, “I like being part of something that’s bigger than me!”
It’s so hard even to gain entrance to the postseason, let alone reach the World Series. As a Red Sox writer and fan, I’m taking it as an opportunity to focus on the Nats, a team I otherwise would have virtually no reason to care about. After all, they’re not in the same league, let alone division, as my favorite team. They play each other at most, a few times a year, and the chances of them being the two teams that face each other in the Fall Classic are infinitesimal. So it’s been pretty great, diving into Ryan “Mr. National” Zimmerman’s career, watching recently 21-year-old Juan Soto make history, and remembering that Kurt Suzuki still plays baseball. The Nats’ starting rotation is some of the best pitching this sport has to offer, and the pitchers’ duels have been truly spectacular old-fashioned, not-juiced-balls baseball. In a word, their brand of baseball is just good.
But it’s more than just a nice palate cleanser from a disappointing Red Sox season. The Nationals are underdogs in a way that’s virtually nonexistent after nearly 150 years of major league baseball. Their division series victory was their first postseason series win ever. They swept their way through the NLCS, and have now won the first two games of their first-ever World Series. The last time a Washington baseball team won a World Series game was in 1933, and they’re now the Minnesota Twins.
I remember being oddly sad when the Red Sox reversed the curse in 2004. I was a weird little girl that way. But the narrative of that curse, the legend behind it had been building up for 86 years, and there was a weirdly romantic, tragic aspect to the underdog story of decades of Sox teams almost reaching the pinnacle of baseball glory and never quite getting there. And then, they finally got there. And in a weird way, I miss the underdog-ness, the lack of expectation coupled with an inexplicable ability to keep hoping in the face of constant failure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the last 15 years. I wouldn’t change a thing, except maybe go back and not hire Bobby Valentine and keep Jon Lester. But moments happen, and then they’ve happened. And one day soon, all the franchises will have won everything, and these moments won’t be new anymore. We learn history in school growing up, but when you stop for a minute and think about it, life is witnessing history being made and being a part of it. And then, suddenly, it’s history. That blows your mind a little, doesn’t it?
When this Nationals franchise was born, I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah. I even went to a Nationals game in 2006 on my seventh grade trip to D.C., and their ballpark was so empty that our entire grade of 60 annoying preteens and unlucky chaperones were able to move down to some of the best seats in the ballpark. These Nationals are so new that they don’t have generations of fans the way most franchises do, certainly not the Red Sox, who won the first-ever World Series in 1903. So most of the people who’ve been following the Nationals for their entire existence in Washington — like those of us who’ve been enjoying them during this one October — chose to become fans. That doesn’t make their fandom any less real; it’s just a different way of coming to love a team. And if baseball is to continue to grow, to reach new audiences and new generations, we could do with a few more people enjoying teams while they’re great. You don’t just have to watch history unfold. You can choose to be part of it. You can choose to love it.
Rooting for the Nats to win the 2019 World Series, then, isn’t cheating on your real team of guys who are probably out golfing right now. It’s just bandwagoning. Harmless fun and great baseball: Everybody wins, except, hopefully, the Astros.
So yes, I’m a bandwagon Nationals fan. If you love the game of baseball (and don’t love the Astros), you should be, too.
The Washington Nationals won their first-ever World Series last night. They did so by winning all four games on the road. It is DC’s first World Series win since the Senators’ championship in 1924. Congratulations to the Nationals on an incredible achievement!