“That’s why you go to games!”, I excitedly shouted to anyone within earshot as I strutted out of Nationals Park after a thrilling mid May, walk off victory this past Tuesday.
I’ve traveled home from Nationals Park 59 times in my life, but this last visit was different. In fact lots about Tuesday night felt different from the typical venture to Half Street.
The New York Yankees were in town.
The Bronx Bombers don’t visit DC very often (June of 2012 was the last time, when FSB contributor Mark Harter and myself left a nearly 5 hour, 14 inning game looking like Red Lobster and fighting off black outs from heat stroke) but when the Yankees show up in any city, it’s an event.
It was evident from my walk over to the Bethesda Metro to my final few stops on my return trip home that this wasn’t a standard issue Tuesday night game in May.
And so, as I waited for my Red Line train in Chinatown on my way back home after a Ryan Zimmerman walk off home run, things were very different than on any other ride back from the Navy Yard.
The main reason? Four Nationals fans on the Metro platform, bombed on stadium beers and absolutely wreaking of weed, confidently and professionally heckling a large, defenseless group of Yankees fans.
But before this gem of a moment could happen, there was a game to be played.
I carefully read the officers badge as I exited the sweaty, salty and stank Green Line train at Navy Yard and ascending from the underground. I was still trying to get the feeling back in my right arm after I had contorted it in a way I didn’t think was possible so that I could hold onto the pole inside the train amongst a sea of commuters and baseball fans, rather than use inertia and human bodies to stay on my feet.
I did a double take as I saw another and another. Homeland Security officers were all over the Metro station and outside of it as well. What, is a matchup of a team from DC and a team from New York in our nations capital with 40,000 in attendance some sort of a security risk?
I breezed past the beefed up security detail and right into my next first time sighting at Nationals Park. “Luuuuuuke” I quietly bellowed under my breathe as I walked by Luke Russert, clad in a red t-shirt and Nats hat. A fixture now at Nationals games behind the visitors dugout, the next rising star in TV political coverage smiled and nodded as he headed towards the centerfield gate.
In hindsight, that’s where I should have been heading too, but a few beers in The Bullpen with my sidekick for the evening, Matt “Mr. Ohio” Wills, seemed like a fine idea since we still had 45 minutes until first pitch.
That is until we made our way to the aforementioned centerfield gate and found lines that were 50 people deep. There were no garden gnomes being given away or bobbleheads of racing presidents, just lots and lots of pinstripes. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of curly W’s in the house, but the ability Yankee fans have to take over an opponents stadium would please even the most ornery and demanding Civil War General. They were coming in from all angles.
A quick detour to the usually quiet left field gate didn’t become much of a short cut, as we encountered another swarm of fans. Finally, after a bit of a wait and a TSA style trip through the MLB mandated metal detectors (it’ll take me a long time to get used to this) we were finally inside.
Our journey to section 222 led us past the scoreboard bar, where we fought the crowds for a couple of refreshments and a piece of real estate to watch the bottom of the 1st. At this point, we weren’t making it to our seats in time for Bryce Harper’s first at bat, pitstop or no pitstop, so the executive decision was made to watch it on a TV behind the bar.
The crack of the bat just barely happened before the slightly delayed MASN feed, as the crowd popped and the horn sounded. Another home run for the hottest player in baseball. Better to have watched on a TV screen inside the stadium than to have not watched at all.
Finally, at our section, we made the climb until there was no more climbing to be done. Section 222, row X, seats 2 and 3, the very last row on the first base side of the stadium. With the sun on our faces, the Anacostia River to our backs and a section full of all the scalpers from outside of the stadium (definitely recognized a couple of them at least), it was time for baseball.
A fantastic back and forth game broke out, with an early 2-0 Nats lead predictably squandered by Gio Gonzalez. Are there any sabremetricians out there that back Gio has a quality starting pitcher? I swear this guy pads all his stats in low stress games against sub par teams.
A Mark Teixeria no doubter into the left field seats pushed the Yankee lead to 6-2. The full throated New York contingent (my guess would be about 40-45% of the crowd) broke into chants and general revelry.
As Mr. Ohio and I chatted up our very nice Yankee fan neighbor (who I discovered hailed from my neck of the woods and went to a rival high school, although 20 years before I was born), I was becoming content with a pleasant, albeit disappointing night at the park where I would at least pick up a few cool stories from my new Tidewater friend. The ex Navy officer had boatloads of stories about his playing days as well as Hall of Famers he’d watched live. I was inclined to believe most of his tales, but I’m going to need some more verification about the time Ted Williams fought the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and then made it back to Fenway the next day for a doubleheader against the Indians.
Then the tide turned. A string of hits knocked Yankee starter Nathan Eovaldi out of the game in the 5th inning, as the Nats rallied to make it 6-5. The furious rally led to a pitching change, and also led to me making a quick sprint to the commode as Bryce Harper stood in the on deck circle.
Bouncing through the concourses of Nats Park, fist pumping total strangers, full of TV beer and hotdogs, with a wad of sunflower seeds in my cheek, all while a prohibitive World Series favorite rallies in front of you versus the US Steel of baseball teams? Hell yeah, THAT is why you go to games.
I made my way back to section 222 and as I approached the usher, there was only one other person entering the section.
For the uninitiated, that’s Terrance. Well the guy on the left that is. That handsome fella on the right is yours truly.
Terrance is the de facto hype man for Nationals Park. He’s part of the “Nat Pack”, a group of young and jolly purveyors of cheer, #Nattitude and if you’re lucky, t-shirts.
However Terrance took a chance, blazed his own path and became something larger than an in game entertainer cooked up in the marketing department. Terrance left the herd, and began sprinting around the stadium like a mad man. One minute, he’s running up and down the walkway and leading chants near the rail of the corner outfield 100 level seats, the next minute he’s up in section 419, imploring the fans to get on their feet for a big at bat. He works alone, figuring out where he’s most needed and delivering immediate help. Terrance is like the Nationals Park version of Batman.
Since I’ve been going to games in 2009, Terrance has been a fixture. Those were the bad old days back then, when Terrance was getting from point A to point B by cutting through entire sections of empty seats. Today, he has to wait around like the rest of us at the entrance of a section while the current at bat concludes. Full ball parks are fun. Winning is fun. Seeing Terrance get a packed upper deck roaring across the entire stadium is really fun. To quote FSB regular Andrew, “I love me some Terrance.”
My run in with Terrance was all the Nationals needed (that and hitting), as Wilson Ramos crushed a 3-0 pitch deep into the left field stands, over the Yankee bullpen, knotting the game at 6 runs apiece.
After that, we got a bit of young and old. In the bottom of the 7th, Wilmer Difo would get his first Major League at bat after having been called up that morning. Difo would smack a line drive to center field for a single and a souvenir he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
Difo would be stranded, and the game entered the 9th still tied at 6-6. This allowed for the Yankees to pinch hit 39 year old Alex Rodriguez. ARod is magnet for boos, and this evening was no different. Having just passed Willie Mays on the home run leader board a few weeks before, ARod had seen a resurgence into the public eye. Nationals closer Drew Storen had other ideas, and struck out Rodriguez looking as the big crowd in Southeast DC went nuts.
Extra innings led to even more theatrics, the 10th career walk off home run for Virginia Beach native Ryan Zimmerman. Yankee closer Andrew Miller hadn’t given up a run all season, but Zimm got ahead in the count and got good contact on a 3-1 pitch that looked destined to slice foul down the right field line.
Zimmerman put enough of a charge into the ball to keep it just fair, as it ricocheted off the right field foul pole and sent Nats fans home happy. With the new Max Scherzer inspired celebration for dramatic wins, DC’s nickname of Chocolate City is apropos. Good thing Hershey’s sent in reinforcements last week.
As Zimmerman’s post game interview was played on the giant scoreboard, he had his Hershey’s moment after a delirious and satisfying victory. Easily the best I’ve seen live. And yet, lots of Nats fans just kind of…left. Some had already left, facing the scorn of Michael Kay and the YES Network crew. Weeknights and extra innings aren’t a good combo for the vast majority of Nats fans who use Metro to get to and from the game, and there are some that will bolt the moment a game is unresolved after 9 innings.
But for the good majority that stayed and witnessed the dramatic end to an absolutely fantastic baseball game, what gives with the tepid response and quiet exit?
There were tons of Yankee fans in the house, but enough to have that quiet of a departure from a walk off win over one of the most hated teams in sports? I wanted to see more jubilation and celebration and less power walking to the Navy Yard Metro.
Nats fans are very sharp and very loyal; I just wish there was little more rowdiness in their DNA.
Which brings me back to the four stewed and herbally refreshed young Nats fans from the top of this post. Encountered by a group of drunk Yankees fans inside the Metro that started, of all things, a “DER-EK JE-TER” chant, my new favorite Nats fans dissected the pinstripe clad Peroni guzzlers with precision heckling. No profanity, no threats of aggression. Just a fire in the belly, a wealth of knowledge about baseball and the chutzpah to trash talk back when faced with carpet baggers from another town trying to flex their muscles in our freaking city.
It may seem trivial to care so much about the cross section of Nats fans at a typical game, but for every awesome fan in the 300 level (I dig the N-A-T-S chant after every run scored) that keeps score and keeps to themselves, I truly feel there needs to be an outspoken yet respectful fan who can take a lesson from Terrance and show some damn enthusiasm during the game. Visiting fans shouldn’t feel threatened, but they should feel like they are not in their home ballpark.
Oh and one other thing.
Stop. The. Wave.