WASHINGTON — When your team has one of the worst records in baseball, and attendance is down, and people are complaining that the hot dogs are half-cooked, it can seem as if the spirit of the old Senators is alive and thriving at RFK Stadium.
The Washington Nationals are a bad baseball team, perhaps not historically awful, but close enough.
True believers will always find cause to hope, and management says it has a plan to create a future contender. But people want something to root for now.
Enter Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States: explorer, soldier, a man whose ambition and confidence shouted success.
T.R. has been reincarnated at RFK as a jolly, woolly, plump fellow who is eager to please, 10 feet tall and thoroughly, unbelievably, impossibly incapable of winning.
During the fourth inning of each home game, Teddy and three other presidents — Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington — race from the right-field corner down the first-base line to a winner’s tape stretched out near home plate.
Since the races began in the middle of last summer, the Author of the Declaration of Independence has won 19 races, the Great Emancipator, 17; the Father of Our Country, nine. Teddy has won squat.
But the scorecard lies, because Teddy, despite his frustrating record, is the star of nearly every race. Teddy is King Charlie Brown in a city packed to the rafters with little Charlie Browns. Teddy gets off to astonishing starts — then stops to dance to the irresistible tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,’’ or loses interest and leaves the race to chat with fans, make nice to the ball girl or chase the Easter Bunny.
On Opening Day, it looked like the fix was in: Teddy soared past the competition, entering the ballpark on a zip line, flying down from the right-field roof toward first base. Alas, Teddy flopped over on landing and was disqualified.
While Washington wins, Teddy gets lost in the stands or stops to throw Cracker Jack at the fans. When Lincoln takes the prize, Teddy comes up lame with gastric distress or runs in the wrong direction. Jefferson once claimed victory in a race in which G.W. head-butted Teddy out of the running.
In a town where losers never quite disappear, there is surely a lush K Street office awaiting T.R. should he choose. But like Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton and so many others before him, Teddy never drops his facade of bully cheer.
I spoke to him in his dank, windowless office in the bowels of the stadium before a recent game. The other presidents were resting, their heads propped against a bare concrete wall. Teddy was bouncing around the room, pumped for the race. His brown suit worn and stained from week upon week of fruitless effort, the giant president responded to my questions about his losing streak with enthusiastic thumbs up, air punches of determination and an occasional boisterous high-five.
As long as I asked about his love for the fans and his intention to win, Teddy was optimistic and sunny, fingering his watch fob, his eyes shining through gold-rimmed specs. But as I honed in on his dismal record, T.R. turned sour. Could he use some coaching? Teddy looked aghast. Had he considered seeking advice from the current president? Appalled, T.R. kicked over a chair and walked out.
Nats public relations executives and I cajoled him to return. He allowed how Jefferson is his favorite president to hang out with after hours, and he took pride in being the fans’ favorite. But when I asked whether he had thought at all about looking for another line of work -- after all, former presidents are huge on the lecture circuit -- Teddy stomped off once again, knocking over a chair for good measure.
Well, you know reporters: Always piling on. So, yes, I did ask Teddy if he had considered anger management counseling. When last seen, he was storming out of the room, leaving a tangle of overturned chairs in his wake.
Someday, Teddy’s going to win a race, and then, unfairly, we will love him just a bit less. For now, he’s our lovable loser, a pet of sorts, and the one guarantee we have that someone will have a record worse than our Nats.