Monday, October 03, 2005

Baseball Returns to Our Nation's Capitol by Nancy Golden

Even though I’ve lived in DC for eight years now, I’ve never stopped considering myself a New Yorker. I grew up on Long Island, where my older siblings raised me to be a Yankees fan, a moniker that I have worn on my sleeve wherever I’ve moved. But when I woke up on April 14th of this year, the day of the Washington Nationals Home Opener, something changed. Giddy with excitement and anxious to get through the day (and this from a person who generally equates waking up for work with waking up out of a coma), I knew right then that a small part of me had finally become a Washingtonian.

I think I lasted until nearly 4:00 at work that day, though my spotty long-term memory may be rewriting history in my favor. The platform of the Metro that I usually took home this afternoon seemed more crowded than usual, and when the doors slid open on the inbound train to DC I got my first taste of a sub-culture that had literally been born that day. What was normally a sparsely populated train of weary commuters returning home from their Northern Virginia jobs today was a buzzing sea of red hats and shirts that were all having the same conversation. I felt like I was riding the D train to Yankee Stadium during the postseason, and aside from those first few days of the NHL playoffs when we pretend that the Capitols might actually advance to Round 2, I had not experienced anything like it before in DC. It occurred to me how awful it would have felt at that moment had I simply been taking the train home instead of making my way to RFK Stadium.

For the past month, the Nationals home opener had been the hottest ticket in town. Seats had been held back when the rest of the individual games went on sale in hopes of retaining some bait to lure in additional season ticket purchases. By the time they were finally available to the general public, the supply had been depleted not only by season ticket holders, but lottery winners, promotional giveaways, Congresswomen’s husband’s drinking pals, and the usual crowd of the entitled that haunt the city. In fact, only single tickets were left for us mere baseball fans.

And yet I was never quite alone that night. In a packed Metro train, I managed to carve out a bit of space next to Stan, an older gentleman who claimed to be playing hooky from his post at the National Zoo. Stan held season tickets for the Washington Senators and had attended their last game in DC before that incarnation of the franchise moved to Texas in 1971. Tonight he would catch the very next home game, a moment for which he had waited 34 years. During our conversation, I never mentioned to Stan that I had waited merely a year and a half, basically the time since leaving my Camden Yards-friendly job in Maryland for one in Arlington, Virginia that separated me from weeknight Orioles games by an extra city’s worth of traffic. I didn’t feel as if my joy that the next homestand had finally arrived was any less than Stan’s at that point. We were both going to a baseball game. Tonight. In DC.

Amid the carnival atmosphere outside the stadium I met my friend Mike, whose 9-year old son Dana was playing in the makeshift amusement park of inflatable slides and slow-pitch target practice. Forced to pay Ebay prices for tickets, Mike, a native of the area could only bring one of his children to the game. Though I likened this to a Sophie’s Choice, Mike explained that 4-year old Alex might be too young to appreciate the event anyway. Knowing Mike was a big baseball fan, I asked Dana if his dad had taken him to a lot of Orioles games.


Had he been to any baseball games?


This is your first baseball game???
Dana was getting in from Day 1. He would be the first of his generation to be raised a Nationals fan.

After passing through the metal detector (a precaution for the President that would be dropped after tonight’s game), I watched the opening ceremonies from my infield upper reserve seat behind home plate. Brand new season ticket holders (aren’t they all?) Ken and Rick, who sat to my left, revealed to me how pleased they were with their seat selections, and we all agreed that RFK cleaned up surprisingly well for an infrequently used soccer venue. The packed house of diehard locals exploded as the festivities began and I—a transplant New Yorker steadfast Yankees fan—I could feel myself morphing into one of them with every cheer.

The pomp and pageantry, which so easily could have been overdone, was just right. On loan from the Kennedy Center, Renee Fleming sang the National Anthem as the obligatory patriotic mega-flag was unfurled in the outfield and the flyover tribute was quick and tasteful. Even President Bush kept his fanfare to a simple wave and trot as he threw out his first pitch, and I, riding the wave of good cheer, relegated my disgust for the war-mongering asshole to a charitable silent protest. And then the game began with what was by far the classiest moment of the evening. One by one, members of the Washington Senators were introduced and took their old positions on the diamond. When the full team was fielded and it was time for play to begin, the Nationals starters trotted out to their positions and shook the hand of the man he was to replace. Each Senator then took off his glove and presented it to his counterpart, as if finally, after three decades on call, he would no longer need it. I wondered how those transplanted Expos felt at that moment, without the luxury of my eight years to warm up to the city. It couldn’t possibly have meant us much to them as it did to the fans, and yet watching the Senators leave the field one final time to the roar of the crowd, it had to have instilled some sense of responsibility.

The Nats went on to the beat the Diamondbacks 5-3 that night behind the first of many solid outings from the moody-but-worth-it Livan Hernandez, and a 3-hit, 4-RBI night from Vinny Castilla. And we got our first peek at some of RFK’s peculiarities, like the way the entire third base field level section bounces when enough people jump up and down, or how somebody someday must have thought it was a good idea to paint the 400-level seats mauve. Other quirks would wait for future games to show themselves, like the way the deep outfield turned out to be not quite as deep as it was labeled, or that odd eagle-like mascot that looks like it’s suffering from bloating and edema. (I know, I know, Screech was designed to appeal to kids, not anal wildlife biologists.)

And we’ve had plenty of opportunity to experience them all. From blind dates that I might not otherwise have agreed to, to premier seats with out of town visitors (including Zisk editor Steve Reynolds, down for the very first series against the Mets), to last minute excursions after a taxing day at work, baseball in DC has become the norm. The average game draws over 30,000 people, compared to those 16 or 17 fans that used to show up in Montreal. And when John Patterson claims to be pitching better due to DC’s amazing fan support, I choose to believe him, even if he is clearly just sucking up. Men, women, and kids sport Nationals caps everywhere you turn, and newspapers run stories on whether your choice of a red “W” cap or blue “DC” cap is some kind of a political statement. (I say let’s reclaim the “W.” And the color red while we’re at it.) And like New York, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and yes, even the evil Boston, we talk baseball again. We weather the highs and lows together every morning at work, and suffer the occasional indignities, like when Joe, the resident Braves fan, brought his tiny little broom to my office after Washington was swept by Atlanta. Mike’s sons even request play-by-play at night now in lieu of bedtime stories. And I’m finally accepting that despite being spoiled by the Nats unexpected success in the first half, being “only” in Wildcard contention (reminder to self—these were the Expos) is pretty damn sweet.

Some of my New York friends have branded me a traitor for this show of enthusiasm for my new hometown team, even though the Yankees don’t play the Nationals this year, and I argue that I can safely root for both clubs. Though many just ask where my loyalties would lie if forced to make a choice, as if there’s even a question. Let me go on the record to say that in the unlikely event that the Nats meet the Yanks in a World Series, I, like most transplants and transients in this city, will revert back to my roots. But in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the new experience of rooting for a bunch of guys—ballplayers—a team—who are not defined by their salaries, steroid use, haircuts, or egomaniacal owner (the Nats don’t even have an owner), but by last night’s play at second or the ability to make a key 2-out hit in the 8th. I often think back a few years to a screening I attended of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in which filmmaker Aviva Kempner stood before the audience and appealed to us and to the league to bring baseball back to DC. We don’t need baseball in DC, I thought on the first of many occasions, we have the Orioles. I know now that I was wrong. We do need baseball. I’ve changed. I believe.

Dr. Nancy Golden has been a Yankees fan all her life, yet she and Zisk co-editor Steve Reynolds still remain friends. (She has a doctorate, so we can call her ‘Doc.’)

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