Wind: 0 m/h
April 4, 2005. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia. 3:07 PM. A sunny day, 59 degrees, brisk wind.
And so it began.
I will admit I am not the baseball purist some of my other friends are. They will watch baseball if it’s between two teams on the other side of the country that they have no interest in, just because it’s baseball. I am, however, a shameless homer; I grew up in Norfolk, and no matter where I lived afterward, I pulled for any team that had WASHINGTON across its jersey, as the games of DC were the ones we got in Tidewater.
My closet over the years became overflowing with jerseys for the Redskins, Wizards and Caps. Baseball was a tough one; I tried to like the Orioles, and when I moved up here in 2000, made a point of going to Camden yards several times a year. It was a nice experience, Boog’s barbecue was tasty, but it wasn’t our team. It was someone else’s.
Then after decades of Major League Baseball using Washington as leverage for every other team in the universe to get a new stadium deal, the Expos moved here and we had a team. That first game, I took a vacation day to watch it at home on television, because if you’ve waited that long to have a team to call your own, you’re NOT going to miss the first one.
And so at 3:07 PM when the Phillies Jon Lieber threw the first pitch to Brad Wilkerson (and Wilkerson would get the team’s first hit on the game’s fifth pitch), my addiction to the Washington Nationals began. Over the last 13 years – thanks to modern technology that allows you to watch something on television anywhere – I doubt I’ve missed more than a handful of games no matter how terrible they were. That first season will always be among the most memorable of all of them because that team truly overachieved.
Watching a lineup of Wilkerson, Cristian Guzman, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson, Vinny Castilla, Termel Sledge and Brian Schneider, I thought I was in a scene from the movie “Major League” wondering “who are these guys?” Livan Hernandez was the starting pitcher, and he did not seem to be a youngster even back then. My expectations were low, but in the second, Johnson and Castilla would get back-to-back hits putting runners on the corners. Sledge hit into a double play, but Johnson scored the first Washington Nationals run ever and my team was actually leading 1-0.
It went downhill from there. The Phillies scored 7 runs in the next 4 innings and won 8-4. Sledge would hit a home run to right, and I tried to immediately commit to memory the info that would certainly be trivia fodder for decades: Wilkerson got the first hit, Johnson scored the first run, Sledge hit the first homer. And despite the loss, I was happy; I got to see a baseball team with Washington across their chests, they didn’t embarrass themselves, and while I expected them to lose 100 games, it was fun.
They bounced back to win the next two and won the series. Under Frank Robinson, they moved into a tie for first 9 days later with a 5-4 record, and stayed there for a couple of weeks. On June 5, they beat the Marlins 6-3 to move back into first at 31-26, On July 3, they beat the Cubs in 12 innings to win their sixth straight and go 19 games over .500 at 50-31. They would stay in first until a walkoff loss to the Braves on July 26. They stumbled the rest of the way, finishing the season with 3 straight losses to the Phillies, as they ended up 81-81. But it was an amazing ride.
No one expected them not to have a losing record, and those would come in the ensuing years, as they would lose 91, 89, 102, 103, 93, and 81 games before having a winning record in 2012. That too was a magical year when the team finally made the playoffs, got to a game 4 that was decided by a miraculous walkoff homer by Jayson Werth, and then they played a series-deciding game 5. This game is also known as “the game we shall never speak of” and I’ll leave it at that.
Everything obviously changed after 2012, as we will be entering the 7th straight season Nats fans have the expectation of “World Series or bust”, and like another Washington team that plays on ice and does wonderful things in the regular season, it’s been all bust. This year even has the backdrop of losing franchise player Bryce Harper and the architect of the winning seasons, general manager Mike Rizzo.
I will watch every game. I will even be expecting a World Series or bust type season like everybody else. It will be fun.
It might even be as enjoyable as that season in back in 2005...