Friday, June 01, 2007

Major League(ish) baseball: DC's Still Got it by Dr. Nancy Golden

Wow, do the Nationals suck this year or what? Don’t get me wrong, I say this with love. Unexpected love. It’s been a couple of years since baseball returned to DC and I thought it was time to check back in and let you know how it’s going.

Year 1 was euphoric. Not only did we have baseball—which would have been enough in itself—but we were actually contenders for half the season. Year 2 was, well, dismal and hopeless, but we got the pleasure of a front-row view (because seats were always available—my favorites were the please-just-show-up $3 ticket nights) to Alfonso Soriano’s 40/40 season. (You know, once he decided for sure that he was going to play left field for us.) Plus, we got to fall for Ryan Zimmerman, a guy who we figured would actually still be here the next year. And Year 3, a week in and the Nationals with a bleak 2-8 record, actually feels exciting again. No, really.

I almost started the season—a beautiful 80 degree sunny afternoon—sitting at my desk working, until my co-worker Dan showed up at my door holding two free tickets that had appeared on his desk that morning. Three hours later we were headed downtown on a packed train, the multitude dressed in their red Nationals gear, with the occasional person like myself playing hooky and still in work clothes. Thank god for the positive influences in life. Arriving at RFK Stadium, times had changed since The Big Opening Day of two years ago, when baseball had first returned to DC. The afternoon wasn’t quite a sellout and President Bush did us all a favor and just stayed home, but the patriotic mega flag was even more mega, and this time there were enough hot dogs to last past the third inning. Our ace was no longer franchise-favorite Livan Hernandez, who we said goodbye to in exchange for prospects, but John Patterson, who earned the title simply by being the only starter on the staff who faced more major league than minor league hitters last year. Seriously, one certified starter—were they for real? Yes, and therein lies the fun.

The fun this year is not for what certainly won’t be, but for what could be. Someday. We mourned when Frank Robinson was not invited back, but then we dried our eyes and a strange thing happened. The Nationals signed Manny Acta, a career manager not yet 40 years old, who had been honing his skills in the minor leagues and on a couple of major league benches. And you know what? It just fit. The Nats ownership had made it clear early in the winter that come Opening Day, we’d be getting acquainted with most of our players for the first time, just as they’d be getting acquainted with the majors. Our old-timers at the plate would consist of catcher Brian Schneider, outfielder Ryan Church, and 22-year old Rookie of the Year runner-up Zimmerman. And as for starting pitchers, spring training would basically amount to an open casting call. Would it be right to subject Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson to this? Debatable. But Manny Acta? Wouldn’t he just savor every victory, even if they only came on alternate Tuesdays? Sure thing. We loved Frank, but we love Manny in a whole new way. He’s one of the guys, our guys. And we can’t help but to pull for them. Us sentimental-types within our office fantasy league even made sure we picked a representative National or two in the draft just so we could root harder. (Much to the glee of our west coast contingent, who apparently all made sure they picked up a representative steroid-user in the draft. Oh, sorry, no trash-talking in the article.)

Three days into the season, the Nationals got their first win, on a come-from-behind thee-run rally in the ninth. Prior to that, the Nats had been outscored by the Marlins 24 to 9 in the series and their starting pitchers were averaging just 3 to 5 innings per game. So when Dmitri “Big D” Young’s walk-off single dropped just fair, the Nats’ dugout emptied like it was Game 7 of the World Series All-Star Tournament of Champions. Manny Acta sprayed Dom Perignon in the clubhouse to celebrate his first major league “W” and the next day in the office we talked about the game not for any great plays or performances, but for the win itself: “Hey, did you hear? The Nationals won last night!” Over a week would pass before we next enjoyed that pleasure, following a two-hit shutout of the Braves in Atlanta. That victory would mark another important milestone for the 2007 Nats—it would be the first time they had held a lead in the middle of a game all season, which was 10 games old by now. This not being lost on the players, they reportedly kept returning to their same positions in the dugout every play after going 1-0 on the Braves, so as to not jinx the rally. The sports writers quickly picked up on the fact that the 2-8 Nats were at this point head and shoulders above either the 1962 Mets or the 2003 Tigers, who both started their fateful seasons at 1-9. And one broadcaster nearly referred to the team’s one win as a “streak.” In contrast to the unforgiving Bronx fans that I moonlight with, who at this point would have followed the Yankee players home and thrown batteries at them there because it’s illegal to bring them to the field, here in DC we really just want to run up to our Nationals and give them a big hug in celebration of their second win, and possibly bake them cookies. (Or whatever the male-equivalent is of that level of affection—eye contact, a thin hint of a smile, and a nod?) Somehow with that second win, we feel like our guys are in contention now. Not to make the playoffs, of course, but maybe to just not be the worst team in history. Our magic number is now 41—the number of games we need to win to avoid surpassing the ’62 Mets in single-season losses, and we count down on an active tally board. (Although some people choose to count up the number of losses. So negative.)

And then there’s that nagging hope of what could be. Will the Nats’ continuing auditions turn up a sleeper who emerges a hero out of the gaping hole that was the starting rotation? Will the season bring another Soriano to draw us to games when wins and losses have ceased to inspire baked goods? Will Dmitri Young be humbled by his so-called “season of redemption” and lead outings for inner city children on his days off? And will Teddy Roosevelt ever win that damn Nationals Presidents Race? (Yes, I agree that rappelling off the upper deck on Opening Day was, like, totally cheating, but if the Nats were 0 for 77, I would condone similar acts of desperation.) I hope there’s a yes or two in there. With no expectations, all you can be is positive. And if nothing else, when your team is this bad, it really hones your trash-talking skills. Speaking of which, did I mention that the Nats have not had a single game snowed out yet this year? In your face, Cleveland!

Dr. Nancy Golden is a wildlife biologist and lives in Washington DC. She likes rainy days, long walks on the beach, and can be reached at Mailbox 2764.

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