Friday, April 15, 2005

A Momentary Diversion

Game 9 - Red Sox/Home Game 1 - Nationals

Red Sox 8, Yankees 5
Record: 4-5

Washington Baseball Fans 1, Peter Angelos 0

As Whit noted below, I attended the Washington Nationals' franchise home opener with 45,000 of the giddiest sports fans in history last night. After coming home to see SportsCenter, I'm inclined to believe that the best thing about the evening was the fact that I got to miss the latest teacup-contained tempest in the increasingly farcical Sox/Yanks rivalry. And after listening to ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike bludgeon the dead equine this morning, I'm even more convinced that I'm glad I missed the live broadcast.

Just a moment more on the Sox before dealing with the hometown Nats. Chris Berman got it right last night (don't act so surprised - even Mario Mendoza was successful 20% of the time) when he noted that the Sox and Yankees can now exhale deeply and get on with their seasons. The Sox needed to win last night, and they did - in an apparently gutty manner. I'd not be terribly shocked to see them gack one tonight against the Devil Rays, simply because they're emotionally drained.

As for my experience last night, it was one of the great thrills of my spectating life. Not because the game was particularly great - though it was entertaining, nor because I'm a big Nationals fan. No, it was unique because the crowd wore its emotion openly and honestly - real, heartfelt, joyous emotion. The 4 seats in front of me were filled by middle-aged gentlemen - maybe 52-55 - one of whom wore a tattered satin Senators jacket. They giggled and yelled and carried on like - well, like the 19 year-olds they were when they last saw professional baseball in that stadium. Their joy at having a team to call their own once again overcame the learned moderation and fear of embarrassment that we all carry. Powerful stuff, this baseball, and a fundamental rebuke to those in Baltimore that decried D.C. as a non-baseball town.

Among the many highlights, some of which I'll surely forget:

  • As the strains of the 'Field of Dreams' soundtrack issued from the (very loud and very tinny) stadium speakers, 8 former Senators walked from the dugout to assume the positions they manned 4 decades prior. From Frank Howard to Roy Sievers to Dick Bosman and the others, as they strode to scenes of their former glory, their once-youthful gaits replaced by age-worn and purposeful strides, the dust started kicking up inside the seating bowl. Then the new Nats bounded from the dugout, sprinting along the same paths just carefully carved by their predecessors. 8 hugs ensued as the old Senators passed the torch to the new generation, and if 45,000 people could smile a single smile, it happened at that moment. One of the classiest and most pitch-perfect displays of sentiment I've witnessed.
  • President Bush strode from the dugout purposefully, walked directly to the pitcher's mound, toed the rubber, took a real windup, and fired a seed the full 60'6" (from his right hand, natch). Though I don't often (ever?) see eye-to-eye with the Commander-in-Chief, there's something reassuring about the fact that our President probably has the best throwing arm of any world leader. I bet Tony Blair throws like a girl. And I'm not sure, but I think that Hillary Clinton actually is a girl.
  • The RFK fans had the old stadium rocking once again. And if you've never been to RFK, I'm not using that as a metaphor. The seats at RFK literally bounce up and down when the crowd gets animated. I'd experienced the phenomenon several times at Redskins games, but I'd completely forgotten about it. When Vinny Castilla's 4th inning triple plated the game's first 2 runs, the lower bowl was kicking and bucking like Whitney's stomach after 2 Giovanelli's cheesesteak and egg sandwiches. Tom Boswell reported in this morning's Washington Post that Nationals' President Tony Taveras - who'd never experienced the RFK Sway - said, "Holy Shit!" when it first happened. Cool moment.
  • The crowd was completely into the game, and highly knowledgeable - despite the Baltimore Blowhard's contrary opinion. (Sidenote: I saw literally dozens of TV cameras while waiting outside the stadium to meet my colleagues. I was hoping to be asked for a comment, because I'd prepared a cutting monologue on Peter Angelos, which was certain to be my springboard to an analyst position on Baseball Tonight. Alas - not to be. Tim Kurkjian already fills the role of elfin baseball junkie, anyway.) For example, there was very little alarmist din on routine flyballs (something that bothers the ever-lovin' shit out of me about Camden Yards). When Vinny Castilla was thwarted in his attempt to complete a cycle (he'd already doubled, tripled, and homered) by an errant Lance Cormier fastball, the crowd knew it, and made sure that Cormier knew it, too.
  • When Chad Cordero induced Tony Clark to fly softly to center (again, natch) to end the game, the crowd reacted as if the Nats had won the World Series. I may have been in louder sports arenas, but not many. It was among the happiest roars I've heard.

And that's what I'll take away from the first home game in Nationals' franchise history - the unmitigated sense of glee from the fandom. Sure, it wasn't perfect - there were long lines to get in due to Secret Service inspections, the scoreboard didn't always work very well, the concessions stands ran out of stuff - but the fans, the baseball fans of Washington D.C., ignored all of the glitches and poured their emotion out to each other and to this band of young men in whom they've now invested their hopes. I was thrilled for the players, who must think they've died and gone to heaven after their erstwhile peripatetic existence. And I was thrilled for the 4 guys in front of me, who shouldn't have had to wait 34 years to have that kind of fun. And a little part of me laughed and laughed at the mental image of a miserly, dessicated old gasbag 40 miles up the road, for whom this day must not have been much fun.

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