When the Nationals hit a homerun, fireworks are shot into the air. It’s a smattering—not a Fourth of July-like bonanza—but it’s something. Something that doesn’t happen often for this relatively young and rather inconsistent baseball team.
I’m at a rooftop party Friday night when one such smattering explodes in the distance. “Another home run,” I say. “How many games back are the Nationals?”
Everyone stares at their feet. In DC, bluffing your way to the answer isn’t wise. There’s usually some more knowledgeable person ready and very willing to call your bluff. Someone saves the party vibe by turning the conversation back to topics this crowd can discuss, like the recession. The “stay-cations” they’re taking this year.
This lack of interest isn’t limited to thirty-somethings drinking on rooftops. People turn down free tickets to Nats games. Radio announcers dole out more than the usual number of digs at the team’s expense. Even Obama, supporter of local restaurants, schools and vegetable gardens, declined to throw the first pitch at the home opener, a presidential tradition. But, the next night, I head to the ballpark where the Nationals are playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game series. People have been talking up the Nationals’ winning streak and the possibility of this being a turning point for the team. I don’t want to miss out.
Within five minutes at the Nationals Park, I know I’m not.
The party where people talked about health care and staycations? It held more buzz than the game. The fans, if I can call them that, are talking to each other and drinking beer. They’re about as chill as if they were in a dive bar on a Sunday night. The crack of the bat and the sportscaster announcing yet another home run for the Nationals could be the background music coming from an outdated jukebox for all this crowd seems to care. This is it? Then I quickly count three things that set the D.C. baseball experience apart from drinking at your local dive bar:
1. The stadium’s got clean seats and good lighting.
2. If you flush a stadium toilet, you’ll know you’re not polluting the Anacostia River, thanks to the environmentally-friendly systems the developer installed.
3. The game producers capturing you on the Kiss Cam won’t tag you on Facebook the next day.
The Kiss Cam is what convinces me to stay.
This roving camera perks up the crowd like nothing else in the game experience seems to. It zooms in on teenagers who may or may not have been ready to kiss. They can’t even look each other in the eye. Then it’s on to the couple, easily in their sixties, They roll their eyes as if someone’s asking them to take out the trash, shrug and pucker up. The crowd cheers each time. Yes, the crack of a baseball against a bat is heard every few minutes. Yes, men are running the bases. But no one’s watching. The players could be running laps around the bases. Backwards. Naked. If they’re not on the Kiss Cam, this crowd’s not watching.
“Are crowds usually this mellow at games?” I ask the couple to my left.
“You kidding?” The guy shakes his head as if I’m crazy. “Try a Yankees game. When they’re winning, the crowd SCREAMS.”
“The Nationals are winning,” I say.
“But they’re not going anywhere.” He turns back to the screen on which the Kiss Cam’s targets are flashed, building height. His girlfriend is screaming, hoping for the Kiss Cam crew to film them.
The screen flashes dark as the Kiss Cam is turned off. A close-up of the pitcher, winding up to a curve ball, fills the screen. The people who’ve brought me start comparing iPhone applications. By the bottom of the third inning, a group behind us has left for a party. Others seem on the verge of napping.
It’s not that people in the District don’t love baseball. Most people have a favorite team. You also couldn’t say District residents don’t feel any allegiance to their hometown, or district without the rights of a town or state in our case. Our license plates bear the District’s call to arms: “Taxation Without Representation.” But we don’t know this team all that well yet.
The Washington crowd has a hipster president for a neighbor and more television and film crews than we know what to do with some days. We want to believe we’re riding high like we were during the final year of the presidential election. We don’t want to believe the recession is pulling us down like it is the rest of the country and we definitely aren’t ready to embrace this relatively new team that can’t quite live up to the stadium and city around it. Maybe, when Obama is ready to throw the opening pitch, we’ll be ready too.
In the fourth inning, the crowd wakes up again for the Presidents Race. The four former presidents found on Mount Rushmore—Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington, in case you’ve forgotten—race during every game. Their giant foam caricature heads bobble as they run down center field and toward the Nationals’ dugout. Kids cheer and people around me put down their iPhones. Everyone wants to see how Teddy Roosevelt will blow the race this time.
Roosevelt never wins. He trips, loses speed waving to fans, and stops to send Twitter updates. Yes, he’s completed the Marine Corps Marathon. True, fans have set up a “Let Teddy Win” website. But the system’s rigged against his winning. No one around me speculates much on whether this is a metaphor for anything else. They just cheer, drink and laugh when, like always, he loses.
Two more innings into the Diamondbacks/Nationals game and the crowd’s broken up into its various conversations, naps and text message exchanges. Even my friend’s grown tired of demonstrating her iPhone’s flame application. Then the cheerleaders bring out the bazookas and T-shirts.
I don’t need another T-shirt ever, but when those rolled-up missiles begin soaring into the stands, I want one. Maybe because it will sport some emblem of my local team and, yes, I have begun calling it “my” team after two beers, a Presidents Race and a glimpse of the Capitol. But, just importantly, everyone around me is reaching up to catch the T-shirt that has reached the top of its arc, crested and is now falling toward us. We Washingtonians are competitive people. A few shout as it approaches. I think I hear my voice somewhere in the excited, collective sound.
The shirt hurtles ever faster. The man to my left puts down his beer, releases his date’s hand and reaches for it. I now decide it must be mine.
I will fight him for it if I must. If I win it, I will make a point of being the most loyal Nationals fan this bottom-of-the-league team’s ever had. He angles his arms five degrees further north, I counter his move with one of my own. We are looking up into the dark sky at the PNC Bank-sponsored shirt coming our way.
At the last moment, I wonder if PNC isn’t one of the banks taking more TARP money than they should. I wonder if that money should go to homeowner bailouts instead of T-shirts. I blink because the air is dusty with summertime grit that will sit on top of DC until September at the earliest. But I keep my hands up. Then I realize the T-shirt has vanished.
My friend with the iPhone flame application begins screaming my name. Her boyfriend claps his hands and laughs. I turn and see them pointing at the T-shirt, wedged between my leg and the armrest. While I was ready to fight my neighboring game-goer for a shirt I didn’t even really need, the T-shirt literally fell, almost, into my lap.
It’s an XL and can be worn over ten layers of clothing. “PNC Bank” is written in larger font than “Nats Town.” But, as the ninth inning winds down and we stand to go, I hold it firmly in both hands lest I forget it.
Leaving the stadium, we pass boys carrying miniature bobblehead presidents. They haven’t yet cleared elementary school and may care less about the Nationals’ shaky start and inconsistent record than the adults who’ve brought them. They guard the bobblehead presidents as closely as I guard my Nats Town T-shirt.
One day, maybe these kids will bring their kids and cheer for a winning team every second of the game, Kiss Cam on or not. Maybe, one day, Teddy will win the Presidents Race. And, maybe, before either of those events take place and only if we’re very lucky, President Obama will appear, throw the opening pitch and get in on the ground floor of the capital’s baseball dreams.