Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Power of Baseball

It took 34 years for ‘America’s Pastime’ to come back to Washington DC, amid much doubt and scepticism. "DC isn’t a baseball town" they said. "Can it support the team?" "Will there be fans who can support the team?" What they forgot was that DC had a perfectly fine stadium that seats 46,000 people and change, and that people were so angry that their team was leaving 34 years ago that they stormed the field before the last out of the game, forcing their once beloved ballclub to forfeit instead of take the win they had earned.

The Washington Senators left in 1960 to become the Minnesota Twins. An new team of expansion Senators left after a mere decade in 1971, to become the Texas Rangers. Since 1971, Washington and its suburbs have been confined to Minor Leagues or the not-so-nearby Baltimore Orioles. The O’s kept them appeased for a time, but Baltimore is not easy to get to if you live in Northern Virginia or Southern Maryland, and public transportation to the stadium is virtually non-existent.

The Montréal Expos joined the Majors in 1969 amid massive social change in the region. They had decades of poor records, and decades of greatness. For some time, fan attendance capped at 10,000 (a big jump from the 7,000 average they held). In 2004, Major League Baseball announced that the Expos were moving to Washington with a 29-1 approval vote. The sole nay vote was cast by none other than O’s owner Peter Angelos. On October 2nd 2004, Brad Wilkerson scored the last Expos Home Run. The next day, Jamey Carroll put the very last Expos scoring run under his belt.

Then they traded a few, packed everything up, and came to Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a cozy park with moveable stands designed for baseball, football, or soccer, and the current home of the beloved soccer team DC United. This move marked the first team relocation in MLB since 1972, when the new Texas Rangers found their new home.

In one season at RFK, the new Washington Nationals experienced a sold-out victorious home opener, and learned that the fans know how to make the whole stadium shake. They enjoyed a 10 game winning streak, first place in the National League East, and continued to put a solid product on the mound at RFK. The All-Star break started this fine team’s slump to finish the season with a solid .500 record.

But did that stop the crowds? The Nat’s pull their fans from DC, Virginia, and Maryland. An easy, if crowded, ride on the Metro or a short drive from the Capital Beltway drew more than 2.7 million fans to RFK over the course of the season. Fans continued to fill the stadium, cheer their players, and make the moveable bleachers of RFK rock and resound through the concrete walls. The team has requested that the new stadium in the works be designed to shake, even though they’re usually made specifically not to!

For the Love of the Game

This is all that baseball did for Washington, but what did baseball do for me? For starters, I never knew that my mother was a fan. Only this year, she told me stories of how she and a friend would go to Senator’s games with a neighbor, she followed the game on her scorecard, and like so many others, was sorely disappointed when the Senators were swept off to Texas. The Nats came here, and we were going to ball games again. We had the O’s farm team, the Bowie Baysox, a short drive away, but we ached for Major Leagues. If you had asked me, I would have said I was an O's fan, but I went to a game about once every 3 years. I went for the atmosphere more than the game. We joined the Nats craze, we all have merchandise to fill a closet. In one season, I learned something about my mother that I never knew. I also learned terms I had never heard or never understood before. Now, I know what it means to hit for the cycle, I understand the intricacies of a baulk and a pass ball, and I know the importance of the batting average and ERA.

In addition, I know the players on my team, by first name. Nick is my reigning favorite, I saw him make a spectacular catch during the home opener which prompted me to take notice. Jamey can run the bases like his feet are on fire. Brad can hit the ball out of the park when he wants to. Gary is super at setup. And the Chad the Chief can save them all, but he tends to work better with the pressure of a few men on base.

36,000 fans showed their support on October 2nd 2005, cheering to a depressing 9-3 loss, putting the Nats at their 81-81 record for the season. We didn’t lose it, when the game was over, we roared under sapphire skies like we had just broken records. We had, after all. I saw the first last game in Nats history. Fan attendance staggered the team, 2.7 million is a lot compared to what they drew in Montréal.

I saw five Nationals’ home games this season, and only the last one was a loss. I’ll be back next season, with my official hat, t-shirt, teddy bear, and flag. 4-1 looks like a pretty good record to me.

And while they spent a good deal of their last game thanking the fans, I don't think they realized what their presence did for the people of this city and its suburbs. Thank you, Nats, for what you've done for us.