Batter Up! Bottom of the 5th-the Nats
The Year We Went Nuts for the Nats
It’s time to talk about what happened when the Washington Nationals came to town. There had been so many false hopes about teams coming to D.C. over the years, most of us felt like this was going to be just another near miss. The Baltimore Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, was doing everything in his considerable power to block baseball from bringing a team back to DC. His efforts ultimately backfired on him, because I know plenty of fans who would have continued attending games in Baltimore, even after the Nationals came to DC, if he hadn’t been such a jerk about it. Baltimore had been, after all, the only place in the region they could watch a major league game for the previous 33 years, since the second iteration of the Washington Senators left DC for Texas in 1971. Many fans had grown to be followers of the Orioles as a result. However, many of those same fans refused to go to any games in Baltimore to spite their selfish owner, after all the stunts he pulled trying to block DC from getting a team of its own.
Late in 2004, it was announced that the Montreal Expos were, indeed, going to be moved to Washington, DC, for the 2005 season. There was such joy in Mudville! This area had so many fans who’d grown up with the Senators, either the original version, who left town for Minnesota in 1961, and/or the second version who eventually left and became the Texas Rangers, in 1971. There were many times in the intervening years where it looked like a team might relocate to DC. Baseball expanded several times over that period, and each time, fans got their hopes up for an expansion team. It never happened. In 1975, the San Diego Padres were being bought by a group that planned to move them to DC. It was so close to happening, baseball cards came out that year that showed the San Diego Padres playing in Washington that coming year. In the 11th hour, another owner bought them and vowed to keep them in San Diego. Just another let-down for the DC baseball faithful. So the Expos coming to town, and becoming the Nationals, was a real big deal.
I immediately put my name in for season tickets, and joined the Washington Nationals fan club. The fan club sponsored a bus trip to Philadelphia for the Nationals’ first ever major league ball game, against the Phillies up there. Yes, I was on one of those buses (there were at least four buses filled with fans for that trip.) That was such a memorable journey. It’s hard to describe what it felt like, being on that bus with so many fans who had grown up with the Senators, then went 33 years without a team of their own. These were grown men and women who were my age (50 at the time) or older, who had been transformed back to being the kids they were when last they had a hometown team. It felt very historic to me.
One of those guys, Hugh, was in the seat behind mine, with his lovely wife, Lisette. This guy had followed those original Senators in the 50’s, and then the expansion version in the 60’s, and was clearly a true blue fan. We bonded on that bus ride and ballgame, and became good friends. The next week, on the day the Nationals arrived back in DC after their season opening road trip, the fan club informed us of a special Welcome to DC brunch being held for the team in town, and we went there to welcome the team to its new home. That’s when I saw Hugh in action, schmoozing the players and the manager, Frank Robinson. He reminded me of myself when I was a kid, when I would do the same with the Pittsburgh Pirates whenever I got the opportunity. It was like this gift fell from the heavens into his baseball-loving lap, and he got the chance to continue his childhood where it left off, when that last Senators team pulled up stakes and abandoned Hugh and all their other fans. He was going to make the most of this opportunity — and boy, did he ever!
Hugh and Lisette had seats several rows behind the Nationals’ dugout, which, unusually, was on the third base side at RFK Stadium, where they played those first four seasons. My seats were over on the first base side where, whenever my friend Billy could make it, I would sit with him. They were accessible seats, as Billy got around in a wheel chair. He was a friend of mine from way-back, another kid who’d grown up with the original Senators, and had also followed the expansion version of the Senators. His dad had been a reporter for a DC newspaper, and gotten him in to meet all the players.
Billy couldn’t make it to all the games I went to — I’d often head over to the ballpark straight from work, as I worked in town. When I was there on my own, I’d always walk over to say hi to my friends, and more often than not, they’d insist I sit with them. There was almost always an empty seat right by theirs, and the usher figured if I was a friend of Hugh’s, I was alright. For many years, even after the team moved into its beautiful new ballpark, Nationals Park, the ushers in that section would always find me a seat to sit in behind the Nats’ dugout. They took care of me, like I was a VIP or something. In the new ballpark, the home team’s dugout was on the first base side, like it is in most ballparks.
That first season, 2005, was really something special, though. The team was not expected to be very good, since they hadn’t had a bona fide owner for several years by then. Major League Baseball had taken over ownership of the club in 2002, when they were planning to phase them out of baseball altogether. It was only after the players’ union put the kibosh on those plans that they started looking for a city to relocate them to.
In the following years, most of the better players had been traded or sold off, or let go to free agency, so by the time they made the move to DC, they were a collection of baseball’s misfits and cast-offs. But the fans in DC, led by my friend Hugh, embraced them anyway, and did everything they could to make them feel welcome.
The Nationals started out, predictably, playing mediocre baseball, hovering several games below .500 into May. Then a funny thing happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, the team got hot. Their manager, Frank Robinson, seemed to be pushing all the right buttons, and the players were playing their hearts out for their new home town fans. At the beginning of this streak, I was sitting over with Hugh and Lisette, right before the national anthem got sung. Hugh always brought several bags of peanuts to the game with him. One of the Nationals’ players, Carlos Baerga, in the dugout in front of us, tried getting a bag of peanuts from a peanut vendor — he was hungry. The vendor just said, “No money, no peanuts.” Hugh, not one to miss a beat, called out, “Hey, Carlos — you want some nuts?” Carlos nodded his head, and Hugh sent a bag skyward, heading right to the Nats’ dugout, and Carlos snatched those peanuts out of the air, smiled at Hugh, then disappeared into the dugout.
As the game got going, the Nats were looking pitiful as usual, falling behind by about 4 runs or so, when suddenly, they made a big comeback in the late innings, and brought an unlikely victory home (or a “Curly W”, as we came to know Nationals wins). That was when it all began to happen. The next game, Hugh was there with his peanuts, Carlos popped his head up out of the dugout, looked around, and Hugh yelled, “Hey, Carlos” and chucked those peanuts in the air, Carlos grabbed them, and the Nats’ won their second in a row. This went on for 10 games. It became a thing. They won 10 straight games, moved into first place, and stayed in first for the next two months. We were all sure that it had something to do with those peanuts! Being superstitious, both Carlos and us, we always made sure we did that same routine. Hey, it was working! They were winning! It was truly nuts!!!
After their 10th straight win, all at RFK, the team was heading on the road for an extended road trip. Hugh brought in a shopping bag filled with bags of peanuts for the road, and gave them to Carlos after the game. They had a successful road trip, so we kept it going. One game that summer, I went over, like I usually did, before the game to say hi to Hugh. He had not missed a home game yet — until that night. I didn’t see him anywhere. I panicked — what would happen if the peanut exchange didn’t take place? What to do? I called Hugh up — he was home sick. I quickly moved into action — I purchased a bag of peanuts from the vendor, and when John Patterson, a starting pitcher who had relived Carlos Baerga of his peanut receiving duties, popped up from the dugout and started looking around for Hugh, I yelled out “Hey, John!” and sent that bag of peanuts flying. He hadn’t heard me at first, and I was afraid they were going to hit him in the head, and maybe send him to the disabled list. “Oh, no!” But at the last second, his baseball instincts kicked in, he saw those airborne peanuts, and made the reception, nodding and smiling at me as he ducked back into the dugout. They won that night, and I knew, in my heart of baseball hearts, that I’d had a hand in that Curly W. I had kept the peanut thing going. I was proud.
That summer, ESPN magazine did a spread on the fans of teams in the National League East Division. When they interviewed some of the players about their new fans, they asked, “So, are there any kindly old grandmothers who bake you guys cookies, or anything like that?’ Carlos Baerga piped in, “No, but there’s this nice old Jewish fella who gives us peanuts every night!” That sent the reporters into the stands to interview Hugh. They took pictures — I was there. My right arm, the same one that helped to save that game with a good peanut bag throw, made it into ESPN magazine, as I was sitting right beside Hugh when they took his picture. My arm had its moment of fame!
I can see that the story of the Nationals is going to take a few more innings to cover, but we’ll call that a wrap for the bottom of the 5th. See you all next inning!