WASHINGTON — Bottom of the eighth, two men on, tied 1-1 against the Miami Marlins on July 4.
Juan Soto wasn’t supposed to play that day — he’d been out with tightness in his left calf — but after rookie shortstop Luis Garcia’s game-tying RBI single followed by another single from catcher Keibert Ruiz, the Washington Nationals could not sacrifice this momentum.
“Esa Muchacha,” Soto’s walk-up song blared throughout the stadium, and, after a second of confusion, Nationals fans rejoiced as they realized who was about to pinch hit.
The crowd erupted, with fans dancing to the popular Latin song. It’s quite possibly the loudest Nationals Park has been during a season in which they are 34-66, the worst in baseball.
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Soto, who walked, Garcia, and Ruiz represent Washington’s future. All three promising players under the age of 25 were tasked with leading the franchise back to where it was in 2019 when the Nationals won the World Series. And Soto was primed to lead the way.
So, naturally, hearing potential trade talks around Soto, the two-time All-Star and 2020 NL batting champion, has not been well received after reports surfaced in mid-July that he turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer. The 23-year-old is under team control through 2024. The Lerner family, which has owned the team since 2006, is also looking to sell the franchise.
“My initial reaction was, ‘how did Soto turn down $440 million dollars?” fan Kevin Wood told USA TODAY Sports via text message. “After a couple of hours of it being released, it came out that the offer was heavily backloaded, which I see why Soto declined it.”
Wood, 22, has been a fan of the team since he was 8 years old. He currently operates the Twitter account “OnePursuitTakes” — with more than 6,000 followers — covering Nationals news and highlights as well as their minor league affiliates.
Wood, like other fans, put the fault on the Nationals’ owners, the Lerner family, for the failed contract talks with Soto, who won the Home Run Derby at this year’s All-Star Game.
“The Lerners have always been pitching first … they finally gave homegrown talent money, and of course, it was a pitcher (Stephen Strasburg, with a seven-year, $245 million deal in 2019). I just feel like they don’t think position players are as valuable as pitching.”
“The fans are always the ones who lose out in these deals.” said longtime Nationals fan Jerry Fotheringill. “The owners, the players, and their agents, they don’t really care that much about the fans. It’s always the money, and that’s (how) this will be determined too.”
Fotheringill, 80, and his wife, Beth, 72, live in Washington and have been fans of the team since their return to D.C. in 2005, but Jerry’s relationship with Washington baseball goes back decades.
“I was here when the Senators left. … I remember when they played at RFK Stadium,” Fotheringill said. “They weren’t very good. And the Nationals weren’t very good their first year. But it didn’t really matter at that point it was just fun seeing the games and getting to know the players.”
Many fans shared the same sentiment. It was nice to have baseball in D.C. and a team to call your own.
Yet 17 years and one World Series championship later, it feels like they’re right back where they started.
But other fans have come to terms with the situation.
“I’m actually more pragmatic about it,” Shawn Stover, 53, told USA TODAY Sports.
“Knowing his agent is Scott Boras … this is a historic contract, $440 million over 15 years, and he turned it down. I think we have to get a value for him now if we can.”
Stover has been a fan of the team since it moved to Washington and has been a season ticket holder for four years. He now lives in North Carolina but still supports the team.
Soto’s potential departure puts fans in a familiar situation. The entire 2018 season was overshadowed by Bryce Harper’s expiring contract. The focus of that season was whether he’d be traded or extended. The Lerner family opted for neither and let the MVP outfielder walk in the offseason, and he signed with divisional-rival Philadelphia Phillies.
Following the 2019 World Series, third baseman Anthony Rendon and pitcher Stephen Strasburg were free agents. The Nationals re-signed Strasburg and Rendon signed with the Los Angeles Angels. And in an effort to start the rebuilding process in 2021, the Nationals traded pitcher Max Scherzer, who was in the last year of his contract, and shortstop Trea Turner, who is under team control through this season, to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Like many fans, Stover is frustrated with the Nationals’ inability to retain talent, but doesn’t necessarily put the blame on the team.
“The fans are supportive and loyal and they’ve shown a potential to win if the pieces are in place,” Stover said. “So I wonder what it is about this environment that makes these superstars leave, and there seems to be a common denominator between all of them — who I think is bad for baseball — Scott Boras.”
Other fans seem to put direct blame on the Lerner family, with some even saying their frugal approach to contract negotiations causing distrust.
“To be honest, I think the Lerners ruined the trust of the fanbase when Harper left.” Wood said. “And now the news about Soto comes out, and it feels like we’re going through it again.”
“For me, it was the (Trea) Turner deal,” said Fotheringill. “I saw what they were doing. They were becoming an older team … but with Turner, I’m sorry they did that … I’ve lost faith in the ownership because it seems to me they’re clearing house to clear their bottom line.”
“They don’t care anymore! Do they care?” said his wife, Beth, in the background.
Regardless of the final outcome of Soto’s future in D.C., the damage seems to have already been done — at least among some fans. With stars gone — or about to depart — and talks of the Nationals potentially being sold, it could be a whole new future for D.C. baseball.