Thursday, October 18, 2012

Our 2012 Nats

The time has come. We’ve had five full days to recover.

When I was fifteen I was trapped in a driver’s ed class with my best friend during the one-game playoff between the Mariners and the Angels for the AL West pennant. We were in love with the Mariners. That was their year—their one historic season about which anyone in the northwest who’s been a baseball fan for the past seventeen years will get a faraway look in their eyes and love to talk about. Those were the days of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. Of Joey Cora and Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson. Even a spit-faced Alex Rodriguez fresh out of high school.
As we sat listening to the teacher drone on about the circle of safety, my friend’s sister kept coming to the classroom door, updating us with the score and the inning, using her fingers. As we got in the car to go home, we turned the game up all the way and heard the last outs after it had broken wide open in extra innings. The Mariners won and were going on to play in the ALDS! For the first time in their nineteen-year franchise history they were going to the playoffs. They had come back from being out of first place by something like thirteen games at the beginning of September, to winning their division.

With their backs against the wall in the division series, they won in the elimination game against the Yankees in dramatic fashion that—I’m just going to come out and say it—still makes my eyes get misty when I watch the reruns. One of Edgar’s signature doubles into the left field corner scored Ken Griffey Jr and the crowd in the Kingdome when nuts.
Why do I tear up when I see the footage? Because it’s baseball and there’s no clock. Because nothing is over. Ever. Until that final out. Because seeing grown men pile on top of each and bounce-hug after tension is broken and victory is gained is dramatic. (I concede that it is also a little weird.)

But I also cry because I remember what it was like to listen to every game that summer on my dad’s old garage radio turned way up high while playing catch with my brothers in the yard. To get to go to that one Mariner’s game on a Seattle road trip. Because I remember huddling over the old built-in radio in the upstairs of our church, listening to Edgar’s double and jumping off the walls. I remember hugging my best friend as we cried in her room when the Mariners were eliminated by the Indians in the championship series. Posters of the players stoically watched over us from her walls.
That ’95 baseball team gave us memories. The next year the team also won the division, and shared more memories with us, but nothing was as dramatic as that season.

And I say the same to the 2012 Nationals. They’re the team that I watched all season. I’ve never watched so much baseball. If we were home at night, the Nats were on.  If we left to take the boys to the park or for a walk, we turned the game back on as soon as we got back. If we were in the car, we turned on the radio. And they were so fun to watch this year. The boys loved watching them and know all their names and positions. Watching them clinch the division felt almost like I clinched something myself. Kind of wanted to spray champagne all over our living room.
That first playoff game was intense. They looked extremely nervous but were able to pull off the win with a pinch hit. The next two games left me wanting to strangle most of the players. And then game four. I went to the library to tutor a student after watching the first four or five innings. I could have canceled the session of course, but chose not to. I thought it would be a good distraction. It had been so painful to watch the Nats the previous two games. I had felt like I was physically hurting as I watched them play what felt like the worst baseball they’d played all season. Four different friends were texting me updates and sentiments during the game as I tutored so I knew the situation going into the bottom of the ninth— a tie game with brilliant pitching. I knew who was leading off the bottom of the ninth, just as I closed out my hour of tutoring.

I left the library and was run-walking home with my computer bag swinging awkwardly and on my neck. No doubt drivers passing me were amused by my unnatural gait. Maybe I could get home in time to see the ninth inning and/or extra innings. My dad called before I got home. “Did you see that?!” he asked. Of course it was the one thing I didn’t see all season long. Jayson Werth with the walk-off, game four homerun. I ran home, so excited that they had won, but also that their win meant that Brian and I would be able to go to the game! I had bought game five tickets for Brian’s birthday before they even clinched the division. I struggled over which game to buy tickets to and finally decided that game five would be the most dramatic one to go to, should it come to that.  I was right in a really wrong way.
We took the metro in with thousands of other people, in a sea of red, nervously excited fans. I knew the game would be special and loud from the first strike Gio threw. The crowd erupted like it was the last out of a one-run ballgame. The bottom of the first was unbelievable as Werth lead off with a double, followed immediately by Harper’s triple, followed by Zimmerman’s homerun. You would have thought they won the World Series, the place was so loud. Their bats had finally woken up! A lot of the fans stood for most of the ballgame. The Cardinals chipped away at the 6-0 lead and Nats pitchers scattered some walks that came around to score. And yet, Washington fans were ready in the top of the ninth. We could taste it, and I know the players could too. Who else but Clippard and then Storen? We were all confident that this one was in the books. The Nats were advancing to the ALCS and we were there to watch it!

But sometimes in baseball, when the stakes are high and a team is down to their last out they turn into the Cardinals and claw their way back. Twice, the count was one strike away from a Nats’ win but by the time they walked off the field that half inning, the Nats were suddenly down by two and the crowd was out of the game. When they got those runs in the ninth I slumped in my seat. I couldn’t even stand up. I’ll come out and say it—I cried. It was shocking. The Nats were so stunned by what had happened in the top of the inning that the batters got out right away and we watched listlessly as the Cardinals stormed the field, doubtlessly sending their fans into elated hysterics at home.
On the way home we regretted the decision to ride the metro in. The crowd was a quiet, stunned one, with the occasional angry fan talking loudly about the changing strike zone and coaching decisions and Washington area sports. We talked to a Cardinal’s fan who was trying to remain unnoticed. Some drunk people got on who had clearly been out watching the game at a bar. They were swearing, and mocking the Cardinals and for some reason the Braves. I’m sure the connection made sense to them. We got home around 2am and quickly lamented with my brother who had stayed with the boys, before falling into bed. The season had ended with a swift kick to the stomach.

But here’s the thing, about the 2012 Nationals: They’ve given us so much to remember. Just like Mariner’s fans in 1995, we have the memories. I know that it’s probably no solace to the players or the front office at this point, but being a fan on a year like this year while living in or around the city is a fun, energetic way to live. Everywhere you go people are talking about the Nats. You can have a conversation to a complete stranger about the umpire’s questionable call last night or the gold glove play by Roger Bernadina in the 9th inning to win the game. Anyone will be happy to talk about young superstars Harper or Strasburg this year. Stores and museums do things like put up red lights to show their Natitude, which seems to have actually become a thing here this year. Local news channels include Teddy winning the Presidents’ Race at Nats Park in their breaking news segments. The city has a taste of playoff baseball—a taste of what it’s like to have a winning ballclub in town—and we want more.
The team did better than most people expected this year, and they took us all along for a dramatic ride. I hope that no one player blames himself for the loss on Friday. It’s not one person’s fault. I’m having a hard time watching baseball this past week and I have to look away when TBS plays Cardinal’s highlights but I’ll get past it, as will all fans eventually. And as I mentioned here, now when the boys run around being Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, it doesn’t bother me because those last two games they came out and played better baseball—baseball more like the type of baseball they’d played all year. I’m not mad at them anymore.

I know that the Nationals will come out strong in the spring with their older, more experienced team, hungry to get that one loss off their minds. I wouldn’t mind going to their first game against the Cardinals and sitting close enough to see the fire in their eyes.
So, as cheesy and yearbook-y as it sounds, thanks for the memories, 2012 Nationals. I’ll always remember where I was for the big moments this season.  I’m sure most fans will. We look forward to watching you in 2013.

P.S. This does not mean I’m cheering for the Cardinals to win a single game for the rest of forever.   
The boys got to sit in the Nats' dugout during a park tour in April.

Clark showed of his southpaw power in the bullpen.

Last Friday-- I was proud/devastated to be there!

No one sitting
Before the game the boys and I bought baseball food for their
baseball evening with Uncle A: Cracker Jacks, peanuts,
hot dogs, pretzels, and gatorade.


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