The Washington Nationals made new fans during their 2012 campaign and taught followers new and old the heartbreak that comes with making the postseason and falling short.
Just before the World Series ended last year, I found my life in a state of upheaval. I faced an unexpected move away from Chicago, the city I had come to call home. I said farewell to the White Sox at one of their last home games, watching with bittersweet resignation their 82nd loss of the season while keeping in mind the 83rd loss of which they were unaware, me. A few days later, I packed my studio apartment into a U-Haul, arranged my most valued possessions like Tetris pieces in the back of my MINI Cooper, and left town for what I thought was the last time, bound for Washington, DC.
I didn’t want to move, and I packed enough bad attitudes to carry me through the winter -- I became the A.J. Pierzynski of the East Coast. I made only half-hearted attempts to socialize. My first try was a forced appearance at a Halloween party: I dressed as myself. Surrounded by costumes, I stood in a corner alone, drinking bourbon from a flask while eavesdropping on zombie-Jesus and a slutty ladybug, both of whom worked for a conservative think-tank. Nothing ruins a buzz faster than a scantily-clad insect laying plans to reduce the deficit, and I recoiled, shrinking into myself.
I spent my days as a government contractor and my nights searching for fulfillment at the Verizon Center watching the Washington Capitals. The relatively subdued DC hockey culture was a stark contrast to that of the raucous United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks, but with cheap tickets and a flask of Kahlua to mix with hot chocolate, I made it work. By Thanksgiving, I knew the entire roster by number (which is an important element for hockey watching), that you shouldn’t ever order bourbon at RFD, and that Chinatown Express is the best for uncrowded pregame meals of homemade pork dumplings and green tea.
But still, it wasn’t baseball.
I’ve never endured the hot-stove months with quite as much longing as I did last year. It wasn’t just about missing the game; I’d grown tired of shopping for books and drinking espresso at Kramerbooks and my weekly Skee-ball league and needed a replacement. Each extracurricular activity I attempted was a reminder that DC just wasn’t home. The bars showed CSPAN instead of the MLB Network, and newly-introduced acquaintances always led with, "What do you do?" rather than, "Who won the 1996 AL MVP?" Unlike the first question, I always knew the answer: Juan Gonzalez. It sounds melodramatic, but the return of baseball symbolized normality to a homesick girl forced to live in Arlington and longing for something familiar.* But then, baseball has always been the prescription for most of my ailments.
*Clarendon, to be exact…by the Cheesecake Factory that I tried to avoid when showing out-of-town visitors my neighborhood. It’s a bit of a culture shock, living near the Lululemon, for someone who had vowed they’d never live in the more gentrified parts of any city.
I had been to Nationals Park a handful of times prior to relocating to DC. I even went to a game after the job interview that prompted the move and saw Stephen Strasburg’s return. The two events together made me feel that perhaps Armageddon was real, a feeling which was only exacerbated by the hurricane and earthquake that same week. I have frequented many parks (I’m 19 for 30 of the current stadiums), but prior to the move I was never able to give a clear assessment of Nationals Park when asked for my opinion. I knew to parrot the most common critiques: "Why didn’t they build the stadium so that the Capitol was in the skyline instead of staring at this giant parking structure?" "There aren’t any bars over here!" and, "What the hell are these nets they put up during batting practice?" but to me it’s greatest quality seemed to be that it didn’t have any great qualities. I settled for telling those who asked that it was the Matchbox 20 of ballparks -- inoffensive, bland, and you’d occasionally find yourself enjoying it if you weren’t paying close attention.
My first game as a DMV resident was an exhibition against the Red Sox. I took a very clinical approach; I was there just for the baseball, not the other niceties of a modern stadium. I kept score, which prompted an unwelcome test of baseball knowledge from the man next to me, who apparently considered himself quite erudite company. I managed to answer every question of his Red Sox pop-quiz correctly, earning his permission to sit next to him. I ate exactly one Curly W pretzel, drank two beers, and departed happy just to have baseball back. I promised myself I wouldn’t fall in love with another baseball team …Which has always been a problem of mine.
The traditional approach to baseball is to love one team from cradle to grave, so my polygamist approach to baseball fandom has often been heavily criticized. Before Washington, I lived in 17 different places, and wherever I am the local baseball tends to rub off on me. I can find a redeeming quality or two about nearly every team, so while I’ve placed a couple of teams on a pedestal, never to be dethroned, it’s routine for me to be a team collector (except for the Cubs; somehow I never felt a need to connect with them). I never meant to hoard baseball teams, but it’s easy to get caught up in the experience, not in a bandwagon way, but in a "I must consume as much baseball as my wallet and schedule allow" way. I took preventative measures to distance myself from the team: There would be no Bobbleheads or Build-a-Bears. I did not want to become a Nationals fan. The Nationals started to matter early this season, though it took most of the District awhile to catch up. Sports are quieter than politics, and in the first half baseball was muted by the team’s history of losing, hockey, cherry blossoms, cupcakes, traffic, or whatever it is that DMV folks get worked up over. But those in the know were experiencing incredible baseball all season.
I was fortunate enough to be part of that. I’d take the train and fill in the rosters in my scorebook if I was lucky enough to get a seat, then ride the escalator up to the barely gentrified Navy Yard. Security would search my bag, I’d grab a free program, hustle to my seat while trying to avoid eye-contact with the Presidents as they walked around the concourse (I’m not a mascot fan), and settle in for hours of clarity. I saw so much that I will never forget: A half-empty stadium witnessing an extra-innings victory over the Cincinnati Reds. The excitement of being part of history, watching Bryce Harper’s home debut just a few rows from the field in seats I snagged for $14. Missing the last train to Virginia to stay and watch the Nationals beat the Mets and waiting 45 minutes for a cab, because no matter how difficult transportation logistics become, you absolutely never leave a game early.
I think about baseball epiphanies sometimes, and I had mine on an afternoon lathered in sunscreen, eating Ben’s Chili Bowl, as I was breaking down Harper’s hitting mechanics with my seatmate. I was no longer going to Nationals games because I was a displaced baseball refugee; I was going because I liked it there. I could have driven to Baltimore or even Philadelphia or New York for games, but I wanted to be at Nationals Park, which I no longer considered the Matchbox 20 of ballparks -- it wasn’t quite the Beatles, but more like Marvin Gaye -- timeless, yet underappreciated. I wanted to watch the Presidents Race *, see Harper hustle, watch Jackson’s slider, mock Tyler Clippard**, and experience the National League, even though I’m an ardent supporter of the designated hitter. As an outsider, the loaner park became an acceptable substitute for the one I’d called home for many seasons before.
*Please do not get me started on Teddy winning, because that’s another 1500 words about history, tradition, entitlement, and disappointment.
**I’ve nominated him as the "Baseball Player who looks most like a Baseball Blogger" if there’s such an award.
I didn’t make it back to Nationals Park after the All-Star Break. In fact, I haven’t been to DC since July, when I finally got the break I’d been looking for and returned to Chicago. Free after my eight-month sentence, I went back to the Midwest and the team that mattered most to me. Yet, I found that while I didn’t miss living in Washington, I did miss the Nationals; I even went to Milwaukee twice to see them. Even from a distance I could see DC embracing the team and falling in love with baseball, the unveiling to the uninitiated, which is something special for anyone who already has that relationship with the game to see.
Sure, you sometimes made headlines for strange reasons. The rest of the nation found some of you a bit nutty when you turned into Stephen Strasburg’s helicopter parents, but it’s within your right to feel protective of your roster. You got defensive when people called you out for poor attendance, but as the season progressed and the stands started filling up, that argument became invalid. You made national news for turning your beloved loser Teddy into a corporate sell-out winner, which infuriated me…but no matter how bush-league the promotion, people were talking. Since my departure, old co-workers frequently text me photos of the baseball cover stories of the WaPo Express and email me Nats stories from around the Internet, including ones from this site. A dear friend called to ask procedures for purchasing playoff tickets, uncharted territory for natives, and even my own sister, a District resident with a limited interest in baseball, told me her sofa was open for surfing should the Nationals make the World Series.
And then it ended. It was abrupt and brutal; a reminder that baseball is a cruel game that often defies odds. Just moments earlier, 48,000 were on their feet in the southeast quadrant of the nation’s capital in celebration. The sea of red, the rally towels, the moments where victory seemed imminent until the final pitch did them in. No lead is ever safe, as the dejected filing out of the gates towards the Green Line realized last Friday, and from my sofa in Chicago, far from postseason baseball, the small corners of my heart and brain that I’ve allotted to deep caring for and irrational thought about baseball felt miserable that this magical season had to end.
A World Series victory means everything to a fan base, but now the Nationals have what is perhaps the next best thing, a tantalizing near-miss. They are in good company among those elusive teams that got close only to fall just short. I’ve often asked friends, "Is it better to make the playoffs and lose than to never make the playoffs at all?" and they’ve always picked the former. Learning to cope with a postseason loss is probably the greatest baseball rite of passage, one that most fans will inevitably go through more than once. It’s painful when it happens, but it makes the eventual reward, when and if it happens, that much sweeter.