“Are fans of the opposing team still getting assaulted and brain damaged in always-classy Chavez Ravine? If not I will wear my ‘giant bald eagle perched on top of the capital with fireworks going off in the background’ Nats shirt.”
That was an excerpt from an email I sent on 4/22/12. The Nationals were 12 and 4. They were playing in San Diego the next day.
My grandparents had bought me that bald eagle shirt, pictured above, for Christmas of 2005. I don’t think they thought it was a joke.
The game I attended at Dodger Stadium took place on Saturday, 4/28. It was the first game Bryce Harper played in the majors, and Stephen Strasburg was pitching. I was enthusiastic, but still learning who these players were. Strasburg and Harper both doubled an inning apart from each other. A guy wearing a Miami Heat jersey in our section got loudly booed and had food thrown at him on his way to the snack stand. Keep in mind the Miami Heat were not even in town. I opted not to call any extra attention to the bald eagle shirt.
The game ended on a walk off dong by Matt Kemp that provoked one of the greatest crowd reactions I’ve ever witnessed in person. Kemp came out of the dugout to give a live interview over the PA as the sold-out, fired-up April crowd chanted “MVP! MVP!”. All I could think about was how utterly insane it must have been 24 years ago to have seen the Kirk Gibson game there in person.
Two days before the Dodgers game, I’d gone to the see the Nats play the Padres and bought the best seats for a baseball game I’ve ever had in my life. Two days after the Dodgers game, a friend who was in town wanted to go see the Padres play the Brewers, and Ryan Braun hit three home runs and bounced a triple off the wall in the ninth.
It was going to be a hell of a season.
* * *
I can probably pinpoint the last day I’d really followed baseball: August 26, 2005. Washington Post columnist Mike Wise penned a column titled “A Baseball Mirage.” “The stumbling Nationals were a great summer romance but it is time to recognize that the magic is gone,” he wrote. The Nats, who had defied the odds and led the NL East for a substantial portion of their first season as a team, had finally hit a wall. They surrendered the division lead to the hated Mets, never to regain it.
Optimistically, at the beginning of the season I had bet my friend Wynn one hundred dollars that the Nats would have a better record than the Mets. I’d like to tell you that when the Nats started hot, I calmly sat back and allowed the spirit of sportsmanship to prevail.
Sadly, this was not true. I was a dick. I talked a ton of trash and wished the Mets players ill. Combing through email records, it appears that one night I called Wynn at five in the morning his time to tell him that I was glad Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez’s run at a perfect game had been broken up after seven innings because I didn’t want the Mets fans to have that joyous once in a lifetime experience. Wynn had been at the game. It’s probably an understatement that he would have enjoyed himself, and maybe not an exaggeration to say that there’s a chance he may have never surfaced again after that wild of a celebration. It didn’t matter to me: DC had finally a team and that team had a rival.
Unfortunately, in 2005 beating the Mets was not to be. “Congrats on seizing the lead,” I wrote to Wynn after reading Mike Wise. “It’s devastating.”
* * *
The Nats lost the game we attended in San Diego. They got swept by the Dodgers and lost their first game after that series to Arizona. Clearly I had cursed them. We may as well call off the season, trade Harper to the Yankees and put Strasburg under the knife again.
I had a lot to learn about baseball.
* * *
I started following baseball in 1988, the year that the Orioles infamously began the season a record worst 0 and 21. The next year, my dad and grandfather pulled me out of school to go to the O’s opening day. I remember two things about this game: Steve Finley had to leave the game after crashing into the fence Bump Bailey style and a woman gave the entire bleachers the finger when she was ejected and we chanted “na na na na, hey hey hey goodbye.” Not just content to watch the big leaguers, I played Little League as well. My first season I played catcher for the Single-A Braves, and we won the championship by a score of 29-2. But since you could only play two Little League games a week, I spent exponentially more time playing baseball with a tennis ball in our front yard.
The Orioles were an obsession, but it was more in a “pretend to be their players out in the yard and collect their cards and Starting Lineup figures” sort of way. In a pre-internet time, and without paying extra for Home Team Sports, there was only so far an eight year old could really take an obsession. Of course, I dressed as The Bird and a Cal Ripken baseball card for consecutive Halloweens. And I made my dad tape the final radio broadcast that John Miller and Joe Angel did each year onto six back-to-back cassette tape sides so that I could listen to it when I fell asleep every night during the fall. So maybe forget what I said about there being only so far an eight year old could take an obsession.
But things happen. Strikes happen. Peter Angelos happens. Jeffrey Maier happens. I was scheduled to attend Cal Ripken’s last game ever, but it got delayed when 9/11 happened. (I have one friend from high school who remains loyal to the O’s and would probably argue with you that the Jeffrey Maier game was the worse event.) Going to Cal’s seventh to last game ever was nice, but not really the same. I stopped following the game with the obsessive fervor of an eight year old.
But here’s the thing: this is a very reasonable thing to do. It makes perfect sense not to follow a baseball team obsessively. This is because it is insane to follow a baseball team obsessively. There are three hour games every day. They are in the middle of dinners, work and weddings. And people know when you’re keeping one ear on the radio or checking your phone under the table. You don’t think they can tell, but they always can.
I was always of the opinion that the NFL had it right. With 16 games, all of them matter. You can follow a team with four hours a week, usually conveniently occurring on a weekend. With a 162 games in a baseball season, no one game is important. After all, no matter what happens, you’ve got another game in 20 hours. How dramatic can a game be when it’s only .062% of the total season?
Like I said, I had a lot to learn about baseball.
* * *
Baseball just seemed to be in the air this spring. For whatever reason, by the first month of the season I’d read Ball Four, Moneyball and Calico Joe. On April 20th, I recorded and uploaded a video of me interrupting James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams speech. The next day, Tim Kurkijan wrote a story for ESPN with the now comically understated headline “Nationals have a quality pitching staff.” I posted the article on Facebook with the semi-joking caption “Looking at flights back to DC in October….” The next day I started planning the trip to Chavez Ravine.
By May I was reading blogs, following beat writers on Twitter and using the MLB.TV app to sneak in an at bat in the john at work. I was following a baseball team obsessively and it made perfect sense to be doing so.
Here’s what I learned about baseball: catchers drop the third strike a lot. Cortisone shots can work miracles. Great pitching can carry slumping bats. Hot streaks are very real, and so are slumps; you just have to hope your lineup balances itself out. Stealing home isn’t just something Jackie Robinson did. It’s impossible to overstate the value of a good hitting or good fielding catcher. You can abuse the disabled list to stash a player that isn’t performing well. Just because someone leads the league in strikeouts does not mean they should be sent to AAA Syracuse. This looks like a double switch situation. A season can rest entirely on whether someone tore their labrum or just needs a day or two off to rest. It’s possible to lose a game when you’re up 9 to 1. Some days your ace just doesn’t have his stuff; it doesn’t mean he’s the next Rick Ankiel. A game can be incredibly dramatic when it’s only .062% of the total season.
* * *
Working at a job that requires a certain degree of immersement in internet-y, geeky pop culture, I’m well aware of a divide that is perceived to exist between the geek world and sports world. I’ll often see people that I respect, (in addition to many other people), post or tweet things to the effect of “From the looks of my feed, something must be happening in Sports!” or “Is there a sports game going on? Glad I wasn’t paying attention!” in an effort to distance themselves from something they know lots of other people are enjoying.
Stemming from what I imagine is ill will over some sort of perceived “jocks vs nerds” type of rivalry, the widespread dismissal of sports as something beneath them is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever observed. I’m guessing that the small percentage of sports fans, (from Philly, mostly) who start drunken fights and intentionally throw up on young girls give the normal fans a bad name. This is understandable. For all you sports haters out there, try to imagine these idiots as the Furries of the sports world. Perhaps this will put into perspective the unnatural extreme to which they take their fandom.
The way I look at it is you have two forms of entertainment: pre-recorded stuff like Star Trek or The Avengers and sports. Both forms of entertainment have plot lines, rivalries, history, betrayals and triumphs. Both involve famous multimillionaire stars and less famous, less rich supporting players. Both movie stars or pro athletes have very little in common with the people who obsess about them, dress in their costumes, attend their live events and write lengthy blog posts about them.
But the difference is, when you go to the Avengers, you’re pretty sure you know what you’re getting. Hell, a team of hundreds worked on it for years to deliver a precise, corporate-approved vision to you. There can’t be any doubt in your mind that you’re getting a first, second and third act, where evil is punished and good is rewarded, and nobody that important dies and if they do, maybe they’ll come back anyways and you don’t ever see The Hulk’s wiener. Thank you, come again for the sequel in two years, now you better go get in line right now if you want to make it into our Comic-Con panel.
Whereas sports are the exact opposite. Within any given game lurks the possibility for greatness. Storylines that you couldn’t have predicted write themselves. Plays that you’d write off in a movie as too absurd to ever happen actually happen. Bros ask clown questions. Shutdown dates loom. Grand slams against the Mets warrant double fist pump curtain calls to a roaring packed house. Bernadina runs into a wall to make a game-saving catch Bump Bali—er, I mean, Steve Finley style. Sometimes Bryce Harper steals goddamn home.
In 2005 a team hits a wall. In 2012 a team just keeps winning.
You don’t know when these moments are going to happen. But when they do, they’re the type of thing people will still be talking about years later. And no, it’s not just bros who are pounding beers at a tailgate and looking for a nerd to wedgie who are doing the talking.
* * *
Five years and one week to the date after I conceded defeat to Wynn, on September 4th, 2010, my grandfather gave a speech at our wedding rehearsal dinner. Lauren and I had asked him to do a reading during the ceremony, but he wanted to say something aside from what we had asked him to read.
Grandpa got up and began to talk about the Single-A Braves. He talked about me playing catcher, and my best man Danny playing second base. He talked about Orioles opening day in 1989. He talked about baseball.
“We could always talk baseball,” he said near the end. It touched me that this was what he’d chosen to speak about. Sometimes you never realize how important something may be to someone else. I may not have followed a team obsessively any more, (because, as I previously noted, this is an insane thing to do), but I always knew enough about what was going on in the league to carry on a conversation with Grandpa and make a case for an uninformed opinion. I called him five months later at halftime of the Packers Super Bowl XLV victory, and he called me the next fall during a UVA football game (that I admittedly was not aware was going on. Even I have my fandom limits.)
Eighty-five years old when he spoke at our wedding, Grandpa had grown up a fan of the Packers and Cubs. By the time I was in the picture, he’d moved to DC and adopted the Redskins and in 2005 was quick to embrace the Nationals. Grandpa was also a fan of the colleges his family members went to: Syracuse, Wake Forest, GMU and Virginia, not to mention the high school and college basketball teams his grandkids actually played on.
At work, I’ll sometimes use my grandfather as a comedic device, contrasting how I spent my day as a thirty one year old comedy writer to the impressive things he accomplished in his life. “That’s great how you liberated Dachau and all Grandpa, but check this out: today I wrote the line ‘Nick Nolte’s Fappin’ Dumpster!’” It’s an exaggeration of course, but one grounded somewhat in reality: sixty years is a large gap to bridge for any two people. Pretty much every experience of a grandkid’s life is going to be completely different from what the grandparent experienced in theirs. When you find something that has only superficially changed over those sixty years, something with oh, say a record book, longstanding rivalries and ivy covered walls, it can be a pretty valuable thing.
Almost exactly a year after I called Grandpa to wish the Packers luck in the second half of Super Bowl XLV, his health quickly took a negative turn. The Friday before Super Bowl XLVI I found myself buying a ticket home four hours before it was scheduled to depart. It was a red eye. From what my dad said, I shouldn’t count on him still being alive when I landed.
Dad picked me up and we went straight to the hospital. My mom had spent the night in his room. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, I’d never visited someone who was gravely ill before. I walked in the door and was stunned to see my grandfather in such a weak state. Breathing tube, hospital bed, IVs. I walked over and took his hand. His eyes opened up and I said hi. He looked at me for a while before he spoke.
“How’s my second baseman?” he eventually asked.
Yep. That one got to me.
We spent the next few hours at his side talking, feeding him ice chips. My parents occasionally exchanged these glances with each other that indicated how amazing a recovery this current state was from where he’d been just a few hours ago. He wasn’t entirely with it, and couldn’t talk much without having to rest. But when he could manage, we talked about the next day’s Super Bowl. We talked about Syracuse’s chances in the March tournament. We talked sports.
Here was my grandfather, lying on what literally hours before had been his deathbed, and we were talking about sports. Sports! An activity, a concept so easily dismissed by so many people was bridging a six-decade gap, making an impossibly difficult moment slightly more bearable. By the time we left that afternoon, he had improved even more. He’d eventually move to a rehab center and would eventually move home and be back on the golf course in a few months. I won six hundred dollars the next day on one of those “Super Bowl Square” pools. Gambling: another added bonus you don’t get with the Avengers.
* * *
On June 5th the Nats beat the Mets 7-6 in twelve innings. Michael Morse had made his 2012 debut two games earlier. I’d spent the season anticipating the return of the player who led the Nats in home runs last season and was amazed how much bigger he was in the batter’s box than the other players. He looked like Super Macho Man in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out standing in against Little Mac. That night, Morse scored the tying run before Bryce Harper knocked in the walkoff. It was incredible. Caught up in the moment, and hoping to rub it in to any Mets fans that might see it, I posted “Big win for the Nats tonight” on Facebook. It got a few comments, so I figured when the Nats won again the next night, I might as well reprise it.
I’ve posted it 64 times since then, usually within seconds of a final pitch. I hope to post it eleven more times over the course of the playoffs. I get the feeling it kind of pissed some people off. Even my aunt hid me from her feed.
But every time the Nats won and I posted on Facebook, my parents chimed in. Friends commented. People posted videos and made bad puns. Danny’s “Tejada they come, Tejada they fall” after a critical Ruben Tejada error cost the Mets a game on July 23rd is the stuff of legends. It got to the point where I wondered if my parents were both sitting at separate computers or phones, refreshing over and over in order to be the first to comment when I posted “Big win for the Nats tonight.”
Was this an idiotic thing to do? Yes. Was it obsessive and unhealthy to devote this much attention to three hours of baseball every day for close to six months? Of course. Will I be able to ever watch a team with this much attention again? I’m not sure…
You see, everything about this year seems to have played out as special as possible. The debut of the most hyped rookie in recent memory, whose first game I got to attend. The return and eventual shutdown of Stephen Strasburg which turned the team into a national story. Fighting through injuries at just about every possible position in order to maintain a division lead and the best record in baseball. Players living up to the hype. The oft-delayed Dierks Bentley concert. The wily manager who never seemed phased and whose presence occasionally warranted comparisons to another team I know all too well: the ‘86 Mets. Following a baseball team obsessively is insane. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it again under different circumstances. How could it be any better than this?
It was frustrating being 3000 miles away from every home game, hearing about family and friends attending them. They got to witness brawls and president races and and Gatorade dumps in person. Even when I watched the games on MLB.TV’s inexplicably 30-second delayed feed, they were intense enough as to warrant occasional pacing. Derek hasn’t texted. Does that mean they don’t get a run here? Maybe he’s just waiting. But he wasn’t waiting earlier…. I could only imagine how exciting it would be to be there in person. It would be as electric as being part of that Dodger Stadium crowd, with the added bonus of not fearing for your life in the parking lot afterwards.
But the intensity of the games is only part of the story. Rooting for the home team by definition requires that you have a home. A place that embraces and reflects the team that plays its games there. DC hasn’t technically been “home” for nine years now, but it seems like it’s possible to have two homes: where you live and where you’re from. And this Nats season served to reinforce that to an incredible degree. It was something I shared with the people back home: friends, parents, my brother and sister, aunts, uncles cousins and my grandfather. Even if it was through something as stupid as trading creatively obscene text messages or a “Big win” update, people were undeniably brought together by an incredibly special season. I’m not sure people who dismiss “SPORTS!” so easily are thinking about things like that.
* * *
I talked to my grandfather again on September 24th. The Nats were in the middle of a 12-2 day game victory over the Brewers. He was back in the hospital after suffering a broken arm and a case of pneumonia. My mom said he was doing well and would be discharged soon, and handed him the phone. It was a tough phone call. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. He sounded tired. I told him I hoped he was feeling better and that he would get out of there soon and that we’d hopefully have a World Series to celebrate in a few weeks.
When I was saying bye to my mom, my grandfather told her to point out to me that Kurt Suzuki was up. She said he was saying that he was his favorite Nat. I found this surprising. Acquired after the trade deadline, Suzuki has played less than forty games for us this year. But Grandpa had more to say. “He says he likes Flores too,” relayed my mom. “But his favorite will always be Pudge.”
Those guys are all catchers, I thought. Just like me.
Update: Grandpa passed away on Monday, October 29th, the day after the 2012 season ended.