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Sunday, June 24, 2012
On becoming a Nationals fan
"You'll be working right next door, you know you should think about becoming a Nationals fan. They could use you."
"Thanks, but I've always been an Orioles fan. I've got a team."
That was a conversation I had with my former boss at my going away party from the maritime museum where I worked. He was a DC lawyer who had been waiting for a team and then going to games since the former Montreal Expos came to Washington. I didn't see the appeal for me. I've always been a Baltimore guy, never a DC fan.
As has been documented here, I've built memories with my father going to Memorial Stadium. I can still name just about every Oriole that played in Baltimore from 1977 to 1997, and I studied up on the O's teams of the 1960s and early 1970s. Having said that, I've still been to more games at Memorial Stadium than I have at Camden Yards, which opened when I was 20. The O's left a sour taste in my mouth when they drove then manager Davey Johnson out of town. And Baltimore had re-emerged for me as a football city, with the Ravens as the team I followed most.
And then three baseball seasons ago, I started working in Washington, D.C. My work commute has me drive right in front of the Washington Nationals stadium every day. Our offices are right next door. One day a few seasons ago, a group of us took the afternoon off and went to a daytime Nationals game. And then another. And then another. I told myself it made sense to have a National League team to pull for, since they weren't in opposition to the Orioles. It's important for my own pride and honor to point out that the Nationals, at that time, were in worse shape than the O's. Mine was not the case of ditching a bad team for a good one.
My wife and I (mortal football enemies) went to a game together with friends. I started pointing out Nats players like Ryan Zimmerman and filling in some back stories. We got to where we would put the Nats on in the evenings in the summer. And I found what had been my childhood love of baseball, long dormant, waking up with a fervor. The Nats weren't winning right away, but they were exciting. I loved watching pitchers bat and the strategy that comes with when to pinch-hit.
I am a believer that with a sport like baseball, going to games gets you excited in a way that watching on TV cannot. There is something to being at a baseball game, sitting at Nationals Stadium that transported me back to Memorial Stadium. But the Nats were a team I found, or maybe that found me. A direction I was going. My father introduced me to baseball and to the Orioles. I inherited his love of the game. My father is also an accountant. Sometimes you have to go down the path, in life and in sports, that is right for you.
At the same time, two friends I have in DC, both raised Yankees fans, were going through something similar on their own. They both found, they had a hard time watching Yankees games, they would rather watch the Nats. One of them gave it some thought and put it this way:
"As Mike will attest, both of us will always have a warm place in our hearts for the hometown teams we were raised on, the O's & Yanks. This past weekend, I was sitting in Fells' Point, Baltimore wearing my Nats shirt in a sea of black & orange, trying to figure out exactly why I can't bring myself to watch a Yankees game in its entirety and I came up with this explanation: For many of us who had dads (or uncles in my case) who brought us to our 1st baseball game, the bond we formed w/our 1st team was something in the way of indoctrination. We looked up to our dads & wanted to be like them so rooting for a different team was practically unthinkable. As adults in a new city, loving the Nationals is no indoctrination - it is OUR CHOICE. There's something special about choosing to be swept up in civic pride on your own w/out anyone else's influence. The Yankees will always evoke fond memories & be in my heart forever but the Washington Nationals will always be MY TEAM."
I think that gets to it pretty directly. We recently took my dad to Nationals Stadium, for a Nats vs. O's game. I felt proud to show him the stadium and team I go to see, in the same way he must have felt proud to see me get swept up in the Orioles some 35 years ago.
But that's also where something remarkable to me comes in. Our daughters, ages ten and seven, each went to their first baseball games this year. I wasn't sure what to expect. Each of our girls can name every player on the Nationals roster. Our seven-year-old routinely asks about Chad Tracy or Roger Bernadina--the Goon Squad who come in off the bench--or if Sean Burnett, a relief pitcher, is going to pitch tonight. I never saw it coming. They both love Bryce Harper and Stephen Stasburg, yes, but the part of the game and player they get most excited about is when (now) closer Tyler Clippard comes into the game. I can get them to come in from outside by telling them Clippard is pitching. Our 10-year-old told me this week, "Some people think that baseball is boring to watch, but that's because they don't watch the Nationals."
I didn't see that coming. Their Natitude is off the charts. As we were driving to Florida to visit my wife's family a couple weeks ago, it was late and the Nats were playing the Red Sox. My wife was commentating the game from live updates on my phone, the girls cheering when the Nats scored.
Yesterday, Robin, Ava and I went with my father to Camden Yards to see the Nats play the O's. We had seen round one of the Battle of the Beltway series in Washington. There was a great turnout of O's fans in orange to go with the Nationals' sea of red. It was a great friendly rivalry, based on geography, in inter-league play. In Baltimore, it was similar. Full stadiums. Fans cheering for both teams. "Let's go Nats!" and "Let's go O's!" cheers trying to drown each other out.
I would not have imagined thinking of Camden Yards as an away game. The Orioles were the team that taught me about baseball, that taught me about being a fan. The Nationals are the team that found me when baseball wasn't a household word in our house, that picked us up and has swept up our family. Baseball is a sport for both the heart and the head. For us, the Nationals have both.