Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Nats Fan's Notes: Double Header

To devote yourself to a losing team is a strange act of faith. Growing up near Philadelphia I rooted for the Phillies, of course, but by the time I’d come to baseball consciousness they were in the playoffs every year, so why not root for them? But as a DC-area carpetbagger, there’s no real reason I should be rooting for the Nationals, who are even newer to the city than I am, and generally terrible.

My wife and I, however, by sheer force of will, have decided to become Nats fans. Our first trip to Nats Park this year was for a double header against the Milwaukee Brewers. We stopped in at the vast Nats Store at the entrance and spent $250 on jerseys (Werth for me, Zimmerman for her) and caps. Nats Park is the kind of stadium that offends both old-school baseball purists and people who’ve never set foot in a ballpark of any kind. It’s basically a noisy, garish shrine to hyper-capitalism. Video displays and animated advertisements cover every possible surface. Souvenir booths, outposts of local fast food joints and bars selling overpriced alcohol lurk around every corner. And yet, with its perfect sightlines and ample food and beer options, I consider it a vast improvement over Veterans Stadium the concrete tub where I used to watch the Phillies all those years ago.

I’ll admit to a bit of trepidation about sitting down to a Nats double header. By the time we settled into our seats with our beers and Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smokes it was the bottom of the first and the Nats were already trailing Milwaukee by a run. The kindly old lady beside us, diligently keeping score, noted that our starting line up only had two guys hitting over .200, and one of them was the pitcher.

The old guy sitting behind us seemed to have come to the game with the sole purpose of yelling abuse at every single player on the field. This, I suppose, is one way to cope with rooting for a losing team. Ours is to provide encouragement, the way you would to a child who’s trying his or her best. This is the kind of attitude you have to take with someone like our leftfielder Michael Morse, who will someday get the hang of this whole baseball thing. A week earlier I had watched him on TV get hit on the knee with one pitch, and foul another off the knob of his bat. I kept waiting for him to figure out what that stick in his hands was for.

In the game we attended he met expectations his first time up by helplessly watching pitches whiz by for a called strike out and heading back to the dugout moving his arm as if reminding himself how to swing. Morse is a big, strong guy, but so bad is his luck that when he finally did get hold of a pitch in the second game he hit it so hard off the left field fence that he was thrown out at second trying for a double.

The Nats did win game one, in surprisingly powerful fashion. By the start of game two most of the fans had cleared out, and the stands took on a much more casual atmosphere. People moved around to better seats. Even Clint, the square-jawed young “entertainer” who hosts various activities on the video screens during games an shoots tee shirts out of a cannon, took time to sit near us and chat with an old couple who were apparently regulars he’d gotten to know. The cheering became desultory. A woman sitting near us didn’t even bother to clap. When the Nats did something positive, she just reached into her purse on the seat beside her, fished out a little cowbell, and rang it a couple of times.

In the second game of a double header, all strategy is laid bare. Milwaukee’s tactic of putting on a different, extreme shift for every single batter (no doubt dictated by some sabermetric-type statistical science) began to unravel as more than one Nats lefthander dropped base hits exactly in the gap between the five guys loitering in the right side of the field. From my vantage point on the first base side I could see the huge space the Brewers were leaving down the left field line against lefties, and finally, deep in game two our Danny Espinosa lined an opposite field triple into it with the bases loaded. Two games, two wins.

But here’s what’s most odd to me: I did get a strange feeling of pride putting on my Jayson Werth jersey and red Nats cap. I am normally not one for uniforms. There’s something scary about a crowd all wearing the same thing. And I know I’m being exploited by simply buying this merchandise. But there is a pleasure to being involved with a baseball team in some way. It’s the reason you can spend eight hours at park and kind of wish all the times you went it was a double header. Intellectually, I should probably hate sports for all the good reasons people have for hating them. But on the other hand all the people I know who hate sports are hopeless bores who abhor pleasure generally, so why should I listen to them?

Anyway, go Nats!

No comments: