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Oct
14

It Has Been Seven Years, But Payback Is Now Finally Complete

It has taken 7 years. But finally, the monster is dead.

The monster I speak of was that horrible night in October of 2012. The Nats were in the deciding game of a series against the St. Louis Cardinals. They had a 6-0 lead. Everyone was feeling pretty good.

Then we all watched in horror at one of the most soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, black hole of depression things to ever happen. It was so bad, many of us still refer to that contest as “the game that can never be mentioned.”

But tonight, those same two teams met in a playoff game at Nats Park for the first time since that black Friday in 2012. Just like seven years ago, the Nationals took a 6-0 lead.

But this time, the ghosts of the past were exorcised. The lead didn’t crumble. Instead of blowing the lead, the Nats actually grew the lead into an 8-1 win to give the Nats a 3-0 lead in the series and place them one game from playing in its first World Series.

The biggest difference? Pitching. In 2012 Gio Gonzales made it through 5 innings, had a big lead, then faltered. By the time he left it was 6-3. After Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett, Edwin Jackson and Tyler Clippard were done, it was 6-5. The Nats would score a run in the bottom of the eighth, then Drew Storen would have his day of infamy, turning a 7-5 lead into a 9-7 loss.

This year, the Nats didn't even need to rely on the bullpen because of Stephen Strasburg. If you missed the 97 times WTBS pointed it out, yes, he was shutdown in 2012 and didn’t pitch in the series. But man, did he pitch tonight…so well that by the time he left after 7 innings, he turned over such a big lead that the Nats didn’t even have to use their best relievers. With a big lead, Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey went in relaxed, threw like they had nothing to lose, and retired the side in the 8th and 9th without giving up a single run.

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Mar
09

The Trip Turned Out To Be A Baseball Version Of "A Christmas Carol"

I just finished a week in West Palm Beach, FL watching spring training. Great weather, good baseball, wonderful people, and as close to having days where you don’t have a care in the world as you will probably ever experience.

But if you look closer, you may see more. Like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” I think I also got to see my past, present and future.

The under-rated aspect of spring training is the people. All are bonded by one common interest – baseball – and one of the greatest aspects of following sports are great stories and great memories. Sit next to someone in spring training and ask a question about baseball, and in a matter of minutes you’re like family. You have shared experiences through the sport, in both good times and heartbreak.

There are exceptions – I’m looking at you Boston Red Sox fans – but by and large, the rest of us fans who haven’t enjoyed something like 137 titles in three sports over the last 15 years don’t speak with a spirit of superiority. This leads to some great conversations.

The spirit of baseball past started for us from the very first game. My oldest and best friend Doug and I drove to Jupiter to see the Nats play the Marlins. I learned if you want to have great seats, go to a game involving your favorite team and the Marlins. They don’t show up for regular season games, so they show up even less for spring training games. Buy the cheapest ticket to get in, and then you can have your pick of any seat in the stadium.

We sat under the covered area that was even with third base. A few innings into the game, a young man named Codey took a seat right behind us. He was a student at Ball State and he was a sportswriter, writing for the student newspaper. A group of students from Ball State had headed down to spring training for the experience of it, and he was looking for story angles.

As I also worked my way through my final two years at Virginia Tech as a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper called the Blacksburg Sun, I couldn’t help but think “this kid is me 40-plus years ago.” As a result, the first thing we did was feed him. They had come down to Florida from Indiana with as many crammed into a car as possible, sleeping four to a cheap hotel room, and I was pretty sure the simple pleasure of a $6 hot dog was not in his budget. I know 1977 Dave would have appreciated it.

We spoke of baseball in the 60s and 70s, as Doug and I talked of following Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and many more that were probably ancient history to him. We talked about Bryce Harper going to the Phillies. I talked with him about sportswriting as a career, gave him all the advice I could without sounding like his Dad (my own father’s advice had been to give up sportswriting, come home, drive a truck and make more money), and because he’s a Ball State alum, even talked about David Letterman.

After a few innings, he left to pursue other conversations. Two sportswriting baseball fans of different generations, passing in the bright Florida sun.

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1
Aug
18

They May Drive Me Crazy, But It Wouldn't Be The Same Without Them

Yeah, I get it. The Washington Nationals are one frustrating team to watch.

But this morning, I was reminded of a different perspective of why most of us are sports fans in the first place.

We’re dealing with the passage of time in the circle of life in our house these days, as in the last 9 months, we’ve lost my wife’s mother and both of our dogs. They all lived full lives, but no one outruns Father Time.

With my wife’s mother, we’re in the phase of disposing of the house and all her possessions. It’s an emotional task, as it seems just about every other thing you come across sparks a warm memory. My wife just bought back another load of treasures this past week from the other side of the state, and this morning showed me a ragged, worn out Washington Nationals teddy bear I had given to her mother years ago.

She explained how in her final years she became quite a Nationals fan. She lived alone, so in the spring and summer, she looked forward to watching the Nats and she always watched it clutching that teddy bear. Given how the team has played at times the last few years, I’m surprised the head of the bear hadn’t been torn off. But it was in relatively good shape, although you can clearly see it’s been held by someone frequently.

The Nationals, to her, were company. When you reach your advanced years like she did, you face both the blessing and curse of old age. Living as she did until she was almost 90 afforded her a lot of great memories, but she also outlived her husband and most of her friends. Her children were grown and moved away. My wife called just about every night and we visited when we could, but there’s no question her final years were at times lonely ones.

So she looked forward to seeing the Nats. She knew all the players by name, and she looked forward to hearing the voices of Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo. She knew little about baseball and certainly didn’t care about the finer points of broadcasting. But they all were familiar, like friends or family, and she looked forward to seeing and hearing from them through the magic of television each night. All while clutching that Washington Nationals teddy bear.

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1
Mar
01

Recalling Harper's Signature Moments Was Tougher Than I Thought

It’s been about 24 hours since the Bryce Harper trade to the Phillies was announced, and I still can’t get my head around one aspect of his career here in Washington.

Understand that I loved watching him grow up with the Nationals, and I will really miss him no longer being with the organization. But when you start applying the “great” tag to any athlete, you usually can think quickly of a signature play or two that reminds you of that greatness.

You can certainly do it with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Think of John Riggins and the Redskins, and it’s going to be 70 Chip in the Super Bowl. Michael Jordan and the Bulls? It’s him, tongue handing out, doing some incredibly acrobatic shot driving to the basket.

But with Bryce, when I scan my brain for such moments, I struggle. Lest you want to argue he’s not that great yet, don’t bother. By virtue of the contract alone, that says the league judges him at such stratospheric highs. It will pay $330 million over a time period that starts today and ends when a kid who is in third grade will finish their senior year of college. Wasn’t that many years ago franchises themselves weren’t worth that much.

So in trying to remember such signs of greatness, my mind first went toward walkoff home runs. Bryce certainly hit some mammoth shots during his time here in the most powerful city in the world, but when I think of great walkoffs for the Nationals, he’s not even in the top 3 of my personal memory bank.

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Feb
27

The Little Kid With An AARP Card Is Finally Going To Spring Training

I don’t know about you, but just about my entire life, I’ve seen all the sayings and memes about living each day to the fullest. Carpe Diem, etc.

But the truth is, if you’re a person who saves, who always feels the brunt of responsibility, who plans out for every “what-if” there is, you push out things you’ve always wanted to do and will one day be old. These habits become very hard to break. And many of the things you say you’ll one day do, they never end up being experienced.

Such is the case for myself and my old friend Doug. We’ve known each other since college, as he was the first guy I met at the dorm (Pritchard Hall) at Virginia Tech when I was moving in. We’ve stayed lifelong friends and have had a thousand conversations about “one day” when we’d go see this, or go do that.

We’re in our 60s now. We still talk about “one day” and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago we talked about how the list of things on our bucket list is still pretty lengthy, while our volume of “one days” is growing ever smaller.

We broke through it three years ago when he flat out shamed me into going with him and another classmate to South Bend, Indiana to see Virginia Tech play Notre Dame in football for the first time. We had said since our time as college students that if the Hokies ever played Notre Dame, we would go. When the game was announced 40 years after we promised we’d do it, he was on the phone to remind me.

Honestly, I hated the idea. I hate to fly, things were busy here at home, and the weather was supposed to be sub-zero.

We went. The weather was worse than we ever imagined, but we were there. Three years later, it is still a memory I cherish, and it ended up being something I wouldn’t have done if Doug hadn’t forced me.

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1
Sep
30

In Your Heart, You Know What's Going To Happen Next With Harper

There are dozens of sporting events I could watch this fine Sunday afternoon, but instead of watching pro football, NASCAR or hockey, I’m watching a baseball game that doesn’t really matter to anyone in the D.C. area.

You know why.

Bryce Harper will be putting on a Washington National jersey potentially for the last time. He’s a free agent after the season, and nobody knows where he’s going to end up.

But in your heart, you really do know.

Harper has always been on loan to the Nationals until he got to the point of being a free agent. From that evening in Los Angeles in 2012 when he was called up due to a rash of injuries for the Nationals, until the day the team was eliminated from the 2018 race, we knew.

He’s not staying.

You can give me all the reasons he should stay. You can give me all the reason he could stay. But Washington – despite what he says – is not his home. Las Vegas is his home. He grew up a Yankees fan, and you can’t tell the heart what it should or shouldn’t want. His wife went to college in the Midwest.

None of those points of interest involve the Nation’s Capital.

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1
Mar
28

Doesn't Seem Like 13 Years Ago, Brad Wilkerson Was At Bat

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.

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Apr
04

Yes Tim, I Know They Play 162, But Still....

I’ve slept on it, but this morning I have the same feeling.

Last night’s Nationals game kind of annoyed me.

It’s not that they lost to the Braves – the team was going to eventually lose some time – but it was the cavalier way they sort of gave it away. There were moves that could have been made that might have turned what ended up being a lost cause into something salvageable. But new manager Dave Martinez just sort of went with the flow. Which is the part that annoys me.

You can’t really blame starting pitcher A.J. Cole. He is what he is – a serviceable, at best average pitcher who at times can give you a couple of really good innings. But the Nationals keep believing if they keep sending him out as a starter, maybe one more chance is going to make a difference. As the noted philosopher Harry Callahan once stated, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

His manager needs to know those limitations too. When someone told Oilers Coach Bum Phillips that his prized running back Earl Campbell couldn’t even finish running a mile, Phillips replied “when it’s first and a mile, I won’t give it to him.” Last night it was first and a mile, and Martinez still kept giving Cole the ball.

It’s only one game, and I have a dear friend named Tim who for 40 years has reminded me “they play 162” whenever I complain about a baseball team. He also says that when you say “good morning” or “you want a hot dog?” but you get the idea. Each game is just a small part of an entire season.

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4
Mar
31

The Window Is Open, So Let's Enjoy It While We Can

Yesterday after the Nationals’ Opening Day win, I went to Twitter to read everyone’s takes on the game, and saw one from a friend named Jen. She’s a huge Nats fans and has raised her kids to know a slider from a curve since they were old enough to walk. Her kids were celebrating the Opening Day win, and as we all did when we were little, they were projecting the future based on this one game. In their minds, the Nats looked so good, they were going to go 162-0.

Being the realist (my daughter would say “killjoy”) I am, I pointed out that the first year they will ever be able to remember things as they grow older will be around 2012. Starting with that year, winning in general and winning on Opening Day became the norm for the Nats. Only once during the span of then to now has the team lost a game to start the season (those pesky Mets won 3-1 in 2015) and the days of 100-loss seasons were long gone. Every year since, the Nats were supposed to win the division, and many years they did.

Part of me thought “these kids are really lucky” because they’ve known nothing but winners, seen no-hitters, and have only faced disappointment when the team went to the playoffs. The other more cynical side thought “they have no idea that sometime in the future, being a fan is probably going to be tough.”

That’s because in my 50-plus years of following sports, I’ve found your favorite teams have more years when they disappoint versus winning it all. All seasons have happy endings, but they are not necessarily your happy ending, as someone has to win and someone has to lose. Odds are, if you talk to most fans outside of New England these days, it’s their team that seems to have to lose.

It’s as if some higher authority doles out the winning so that everyone has a window of happiness. I grew up in Norfolk, where in the days before cable television (and cell phones, computers, the internet, etc.) the area received the games of either Baltimore or Washington. My Dad liked the Baltimore teams, so as nature designed in the not so complicated father-son dynamic, I rebelled and pulled for Washington. It wasn’t a wise choice, as the Colts and the Orioles seemed to win all the time, while the Redskins, Senators and Bullets got me comfortable at a young age with pulling for a team that would underperform.

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1
Apr
05

Eating Some Of These Sandwiches WILL Make You A Po' Boy

While waiting for the Nationals’ home opener to start, I found myself browsing through Twitter, reading of everyone’s experiences in the cold downtown near the Navy Yard. Over about a 10-minute timespan, the pics you see at the top were posted, and you couldn’t help but notice the contrast.

On the left are pics posted by The Washington Post’s Scott Allen, whose assignment today was to go around and sample all the new foods, with no worry of their cost. Today, it was good to be Scott Allen. But Scott, while giving his reviews of the culinary offerings, also posted signs that showed the prices. Scott posted another pic of his meal of a Nashville hot chicken sandwich and some mac and cheese, and while I’m sure it was wonderful, it looked no different than what I could get at Chick-Fil-A.

According to my math, Scott paid $22 for those two items. Usually when I spend that much for an entrée’ at lunch, they bring a steak knife and serve it with dishes like potatoes lyonnaise. Dire Straights must have been thinking about this meal when they sang, "Money for nothing and the (Nashville Hot) Chicken ain't free"...or something like that.

While these pics were coming over Twitter, the pic at right from Augusta National was posted. There is no more exclusive ticket on the planet than going to see The Masters. They could literally charge whatever they wanted and people would pay it. But they don’t. The make a fair profit and leave it at that. Just like when you would go anywhere in the South, a sandwich is 3 bucks. A drink is 2 bucks, etc., etc.

I get the whole paying more for convenience factor at sporting events. But there should be a limit of just how much of a premium you charge before it’s crossing the line. A soft drink should be $2. A hot dog should be $4. Charge all you want for the gourmet, free-range, organic, gently massaged chicken used in a specialty sandwich, but be realistic with the concession stand staples that are part of the ball park experience.

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1
Apr
05

If Nats Aren't Careful, Spanky May Not Be In Our Gang For Long

I can’t help but watch Adam Eaton the first seven games this season and think “if the Nationals aren’t careful, we’re not going to have Spanky in our gang much longer.”

Eaton has started the season like a house on fire, and I get it. He wants to play every game, every inning, take every chance and do all the things he didn’t get to do last season. After major knee surgery, he had to sit and watch last year, and this year he’s going to make up for lost time.

But somebody has to stop him.

If you’ve ever had the type of knee surgery Eaton has had (I have), you work hard in rehab, you lift weights, you walk, you run and you get to the point where you can play sports. Your knee is structurally fine. But only a year later, it still hurts. You still occasionally limp. Midway through the second year, it finally feels normal, but for now,  you learn to deal with it, all the while telling everybody your knee couldn’t be better.

You can see this in Eaton. He’s getting big hits and running the bases, but late in games he’s favoring his good knee. He’s trying not to think about it, but I don’t see how you can avoid it. And this is where your manager needs to save you.

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