Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Distraction: Go Nats!!!

I opposed the Washington Nationals coming here. I'm not a huge baseball fan, and generally roll my eyes when people can name the roasters of the entire American League but can't name their Senators or Representative in Congress. It’s a huge imposition of new taxes and a drain on government resources in a city that already over taxes everyone while its schools and hospitals crumble. Building a new stadium would have a Godzilla like effect on working class communities. Etc., ad nauseam.

Yet I went to the game Monday night. This has been my third game since they came here. We lost in a nail biter, but it was an awesome experience. It was similarly awe-inspiring the last two times I went. And I want to go again. Soon.

So its time for me to admit the awful truth. When I loudly opposed the Nationals coming here, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. My wrongness is made all the more wrong by the fact that I still agree with the logic of my opposition. But my reasoning is so outweighed by the reality of the situation that it has been crushed into a fine powder.

To understand my wrongness, you first have to understand the experience of going to a game…

On the walk from the Metro to the stadium, you experience something you have never seen before at a sporting event, reverse-scalpers. They’re not cops – they’re people looking for extra tickets, some politely, some loudly, “Extra tickets, anyone got extra tickets, I need extra tickets here!” If you’re not familiar with sporting events in this country, normally the exact opposite is true. You can’t get from the Metro Center exit to the MCI center entrance without being harangued by at least six scalpers trying to push lousy tickets on unsuspecting strangers.

Upon getting into the stadium, you’re immediately stuck by the smell of hotdogs, nacho cheese, cotton candy, peanuts, and beer. In any other setting, this would make you convulse. But here, it smells like the town is throwing a very big, well organized barbeque.

You walk through the tunnel and are somewhat dumbstruck as it opens up into a half globe packed with fans. Later in the evening the Jumbo-tron lets you know that over 30,000 fans are in attendance. 30,000 doesn’t seem like a very big number at first. But it boggles your mind that 30,000 people would come out Monday night on a sweltering Washington evening under a leaden sky. And the stadium is a good hour in traffic from most suburbs, to boot.

And yet despite the high demand attached to them, the tickets were still cheap. $15 for lower deck, right field seats where you have a great view of home plate and can hector the pitchers warming up in the visiting team’s bullpen. Despite the crowd, there are still enough open seats in the upper decks that you feel you could come back any time you want to see another game.

After thinking about it, this makes the reverse-scalpers outside the ballpark even more amazing. It wasn’t clear if they were looking to buy tickets from people (possibly they didn’t want to sit in the nose-bleed seats), or simply hoping to get in for free. They could have bought tickets for the cost of going to the movies, but didn’t, or couldn’t. But what was clear is that they wanted to get in so badly that they were willing to beg from strangers. Wow.

So you sit in your chair and call for a beer man, and fork over the six bucks for some cold swill. Somehow, sitting at the game makes the Bud Lite taste good (which, by itself, is a miracle surpassing the whole water to wine thing). You complain about the price, but then you think to yourself, hmmmmmm, six bucks, that’s pretty much the same price I pay for a beer at the Hawk and Dove if its not happy hour. In fact, I seem to remember paying a lot more for some German thing I didn’t even like at the Brickskeller last week. You know, I think I’ll get another beer after this one, and one for my buddy, of course. And some chicken fingers with fries, or maybe an Italian sausage. And they end up being quite tasty, too. At least living in one of the world’s most expensive cities gives you some perspective.

The crowd itself is a marvel to behold. Chanting, clapping, energetic - but oddly polite and subdued between plays. Some frat boys make an attempt to start “the wave,” which makes its best effort half-way round the stadium and then dies out to laughter. Fans of a dozen different teams (many with hats and other paraphernalia) from all over the country share a good time together, rooting for their adopted home team. Wherever you sit, you get to know the people around you - I sat in front of a truck driver and his kids, next to a lawyer who worked as a lobbyist, and behind a retiree with his son from out of town. I know this because we all chatted with each other during the game, traded jokes, yelled heads up when a foul ball came our way, and was generally treated like a neighbor by perfect strangers.

As a New Yorker, I can tell you that if you displayed this level of comity at Yankee Stadium, you would get sneered at, beaten up, robbed, murdered, and then robbed again for your internal organs. My favorite NY baseball story: At a Yankee/Mets inter-league game, they had “free miniature bat” day. These are essentially police batons that look like small baseball bats. After the game, a fight broke out between fans, where everyone used the bats as weapons. Many injuries ensued. Asked for comment on the situation, then Mayor Rudi Giuliani said, “I don’t see what the issue is. If both sides had bats, it was a fair fight.” I love NY for that reason. But DC is different, and in its way, better then that.

Dozens of kids throng to the rails between innings, hoping to get a practice ball from the outfielders or a ball-boy. They terrorize their parents for ice cream, and rightly so. While generally clueless about what’s going on in the game, you could see the family bonds being formed as dads extol the minutia of the rules to their kids. The trick driver makes a valiant attempt to explain pinch hitters to his three year old son. “They want to make sure that everyone on the team gets a chance to hit.” Bravo.

And then there is the team, our Washington Nationals. This team is a team, not a superstar with a supporting cast. Off hand I can’t remember the name of any of the players. And I don’t have to. No one has to except the announcer. Its fun to watch them play just because they’re players who work together as a team. The hits, though numerous, are not out of the ballpark. But that’s the point - they don’t have to be. There’s no one in the lineup unwilling to make a sacrifice bunt to move a teammate to second – no hubris, no flash, just excellent game mechanics. And because you don’t expect Babe Ruth to step up to the plate and knock one out of the park, you're not ignoring the plate when he's not up to bat, or disappointed by a line drive single. In fact, you’re cheering at a single, thrilled by a double, and jumping up and down and screaming at the top of your lungs when there’s a triple. When the rare home run does occur, it feels like you’re living history, recording the event in your mind so that you can tell (and retell) your friends about it the next day.

But even if you completely ignored my fanboy plaudits, it turns out that I was wrong about much of the logistical stuff as well. The popularity of the team means that it’s making money, and will probably continue to do so. I have no idea why they need to build a new stadium (which will in fact cost at least $440 million in tax dollars), as RFK stadium seems to be doing a fine job. Who cares if they have to paint over the lines from the DC United soccer game the night before? I don’t. But at least the new stadium will be built at the Navy Yard, an economically blighted warehouse district, with few homeowners as casualties. I lived nearby for two years in one of the apartment complexes in SW, and let me tell you, there’s nothing worth saving there. Maybe it can revitalize the neighborhood like the MCI Center did for Chinatown.

DC doesn’t have any Senators, and Eleanor Holmes Norton doesn’t get a vote in Congress, so I guess it doesn’t matter if Washingtonians can’t remember her name, even if for the rest of time they’ll remember manager Frank Robinson.

I read a lot of news and topical books, often every day. I talk to policy makers and drink with the staffers that run (or pretend to run) the most powerful government in history. What I hear and see is almost always bad new – poverty, war, disease, corruption, death. We strive mightily against them - but the day to day grind of it all is a difficult mill to be turning on. So when you find something wondrous, something invigorating about a city, especially in a place you thought you’d see more waste and stupidity, well then its worth pointing out. It’s worth cheering. And like that rare home run, it feels like you’re living history.

Go Nats!!!


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