At home in the District, finally
Most of my man-on-the-street interviews this week have started the same way:
"What's your name and where are you from?"
That second question has proven difficult for Nationals fans.
"Do you mean, like, now? I live in Arlington / Foggy Bottom / Chevy Chase. But originally I'm from Boston / California / Hong Kong."
Our nation's capital is, as they say, the city where nobody's from. All transplants and just-passing-throughs. For a while, the Nats were like that too.
They came from Montreal, a cult classic of a team retroactively embraced by every hipster with a 59/50, leaving behind Youppi and Stade Olympique, young Randy Johnson and old Dennis Martinez, the fleur-de-lis and one postseason appearance in 36 seasons.
They moved into RFK as a curiosity led by the likes of Livan Hernandez and Jose Guillen, and defibrillated D.C. baseball back to the same state the Senators left it in 34 years earlier: First in war, first in peace, last place in the NL East. Well, not exactly -- Teddy Ballgame and the Sens actually finished fifth of six AL East clubs before splitting for Arlington in '71.
After the name and hometown formalities, my second question is usually along the lines of: "So, how long have you been a Nationals fan?" By the middle innings of Game 3, I was asking only in hopes of finding someone, anyone, with a different answer.
"Oh, I've been a fan since they got here / since 2005 / since the very beginning."
And maybe they have been, in the way that everyone is a baseball fan and identifying with the hometown team is the path of least resistance. Washington ranked eighth of 16 NL teams in attendance in '05, 11th in '06 and either 13th or 14th in each of the following five seasons. This year, they ranked 10th -- a step toward contention, respectability and relevance for a team and a fanbase that have gradually, glacially even, built toward those things for the better part of a decade.
Nationals Park was a step in that direction. Mike Rizzo was a step. Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Jayson Werth were each steps. Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa are like the children of all those D.C. transplants -- the District will always be their original hometown, even if their parents were never truly of this place. Few of the hats on the concourse are sweat-stained and most of the jerseys are No. 34, but almost nobody is dressed like they came straight from addressing a Congressional subcommittee.
Late in Game 4, I took the elevator from the press box down to the club level. I can't see the field from my seat among the journos, and the ninth seemed like an inning worth seeing.
Wandering past make-your-own nachos and yet another Flippin' Pizza, I found a view of the game next to a family in Section 124. The mom was maybe 50, wearing mom jeans and a free giveaway Nats jersey. The daughter, about 25, stood next to her in a plain blue shirt and flip-flops. Neither could stand still -- bouncing from foot to foot, clapping out of rhythm with the P.A., covering their eyes before every pitch. When Ian Desmond made his lunging, over-the-shoulder catch to end the top of the ninth, the daughter grabbed her mom and yelled "Great f------ play" over and over. I got the sense that she usually doesn't talk like that in front of her parents. Maybe it was the two empty beer cans in front of her. Maybe it was all those hokey "Natitude" ads personified.
When Werth sent Lance Lynn's fastball deep into the chilly night 15 minutes later, it was like throwing a match onto the perfectly glistening surface of a gasoline spill. The mom jumped, landed and jumped again. For about 20 seconds, she looked like Werth himself trampolining onto home plate. Her husband, wearing a black fleece and a hat from a golf course, had previously stood motionless a few feet away, moving his gaze from the field only to glance skyward every few pitches. Now he exhaled, released nine innings of tension from his shoulders and allowed a dopey smile to cross his face. The daughter let loose a string of expletives that will probably be remembered by all parties but never spoken of again.
I left my hotel a few hours ago and walked to the Dupont Circle Metro station, ready for another Red Line-to-Green Line journey to the ballpark. The turnstile told me I had insufficient funds on my fare card, so I fumbled with a credit card at the ticket machine and then pondered an interview question of a different sort: "Please select amount."
If Adam Wainwright plays stopper tonight, I'll only need two rides, there and back, for about four bucks. If the Nationals magic continues, I'll make at least two more round trips to Navy Yards. If Ross Detwiler keeps gutting out six scoreless and Werth keeps launching missiles toward M Street, I might still be riding the Metro come Halloween.
I entered $8. Call it a hunch -- that I'll be back, Sunday or next season or in 2014. That the mom, dad and daughter will be wearing red, white and blue next time. That the Nationals, no matter what happens in Game 5, aren't just passing through.