Saturday, August 4, 2012

Game 1: Natitude

Note: Our goal is to post after every game. The posts will vary in character. Sometimes, they will be short updates or quick thoughts on the game. Other times, they will be anecdotes about the culture, stories from the road, or thoughts on the stadium experience. We will rotate writers throughout the trip, although most posts will reflect the group's collective ideas and reflections. We will end each of these posts with our post-game form. To kick things off, I wrote about my appreciation for the integration of baseball history into the fan's experience at Nationals Park.

Marlins 5, Nationals 2

There is one jersey number retired at the Washington Nationals Ballpark. A lone "42" is plastered on the wall in left-center field, in honor of Jackie Robinson, a lifetime Dodger. Aside from Jackie, whose number is retired for all Major League teams, there are no franchise heroes. The Nationals culture is seemingly void of history. The team moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005, and had little to no team character to bring with it from Montreal. The team did not generate any excitement until the arrival of its two young phenoms, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Fathers do not have Nationals memories to pass on to their sons, sportswriters do not have old Nationals stories to add depth to their writing, and the community identity was shaped without the Nationals in the picture. The park is new, and the team is new. This is a serious disadvantage.

In baseball, the history of a franchise matters more than in any other sport. Baseball is a historical, timeless game, in which legendary players and legendary moments never leave us.

This factor of the baseball experience is especially noticeable at the ballpark. I am a Red Sox fan, and when I am at Fenway, I look to right field and think of Ted Williams' legendary red-seat home run, look at the foul pole above the Green Monster and imagine Carlton Fisk's World Series walk-off, and look at second base to see Dave Roberts sliding under the tag of Derek Jeter. Inside a ballpark, you feel as if you would be unsurprised to see all of that franchise's great players come walking out of the wall and onto the field, like a scene from Field of Dreams. History feels always present.

Today, as I watched the Nationals fall 5-2 to the Miami Marlins, I was most impressed with the cultivation of a historical baseball atmosphere at Nationals Park. It seems that somebody within the Nationals organization understood this deep truth about baseball, that watching baseball with a historical reference adds so much to the experience. Yet, instead of conceding the impossibility of generating the baseball feeling with a history-less team, the Nationals decided to simply be more innovative. As you walk through the gates in center field at Nationals Park, you are greeted with three statues of historical baseball greats: Josh Gibson, Frank Howard, and Walter Johnson. While none of these players played for the Nationals, they all played baseball in Washington: Gibson for the Negro League's Homestead Grays (who played in D.C. for portions of the 1940-1942 seasons), Howard and Johnson for the Washington Senators. As you continue walking toward the stands, you notice a giant sign listing all of the members of the Washington, D.C. Sports Hall of Fame over left field. In the stadium, there are names of Old Senators players on the ring below the upper deck.

These tributes serve as a reminder that while this fan base might be lacking in identity, they are a part of a baseball tradition in their city, from which there are legends to be found and stories to be told. The Nationals have broadened their base of history, to city-wide rather than franchise-wide, and by doing so, they have fostered that timeless feeling. Because of their efforts, you can watch a game at Nationals Park, and imagine the city coming out to watch baseball games a century earlier. You can come out for a Stephen Strasburg game, watch the best young arm of the last decade, and think of Walter Johnson, the second-winningest pitcher in baseball history, pitching in front of the same city in the early 1900s. The Nationals, by integrating a historical identity, have accomplished quite an impressive feat, putting their fans in closer touch with the legends of their city, and thus, with the full meaningfulness of the baseball experience.

Games watched: 1
Games to go: 29
Thuuz Score: 42
Stadium: Really impressive: clean, built nicely into the city, great center-field gate, and good views.
Fan Atmosphere: It is clear these fans love this team, especially Bryce Harper. How much they love baseball itself was still unclear; many left in the seventh inning, in a 3-run game on a Friday night.
Food and Drink: Decent food (one concession offers food from the other team's city, so for the Marlins, there were Cuban Hot Dogs), bad selection of beer.
Best Beer: Budweiser (owned by Belgian/Brazilian conglomerate InBev) was about as exotic as we could find, but at least it is THE beer for baseball (sorry, Miller and Coors)
The Walk-up Song that Got Away: There's nothing Damon and I wanted more than to have pinch-hitter Chad Tracy's country jam on repeat for the eight hours we spend driving through the Nebraska cornfields, alas...
"The Dude" Award for feature that really tied the place together: The lights the hang across the main entrance in center field. Visible from vantages point all around the ballpark, the lights served to greatly enhance a sense of animation and vivacity both within the stadium and projected outward onto the neighborhood.
Tim Kurkjian Award for Thing We've Never Seen Before*: The Nationals fans cheered on a long single hit to right field by the Marlins, because it meant they got to see Harper throw hard back in to second base.
Quote of the Day: "There are no instant replays in life, so you better enjoy yourself" -Beer Vendor
Miscellaneous: The scoreboard was too busy and complicated. Simple is better.
Total Miles Traveled: 364
Miles to Next Game: 136 (Diamondbacks @ Phillies, August 4, 7:05 pm)

*Buster Olney told us this June that his ESPN colleague Tim Kurkjian claims you can see something you have never seen before at every baseball game you see. We are attempting to find those unique little gems to share here.

Special thanks to Craig's friend, Alan, who joined us at the game. He made the MLB stadium tour one summer in the 1970s, and gave us some much appreciated advice and encouragement.

Click "Read more" for pictures from the day

The view from our seats

"Clancy" the wise beer vendor

One of the statues referenced above

1 comment:

  1. No commentary on the President's race? Teddy is nearing his 500th loss. This is an institution in Washington! Hail to the Redskins!