Thursday, May 12, 2005

Random thoughts while cradling an old AL ball...

Gene Budig?!

Well, it's another dreaded off day, and what better time than to reflect on "What the Nationals mean to me." I know, that sounds like a stupid middle school essay, but this is my blog, so deal with it.

I don't know who (other than a half-dozen or so fellow bloggers who are just as nuts as I am) actually reads any of my little corner of the internet. Frankly, I don't care. It could 6 readers or 6 million readers; it doesn't make a difference, I still would write this thing. I'm doing this for me. Hopefully a few people get some enjoyment out of reading it.

It brings some small pleasure to life to be able to follow a baseball team passionately and then chronicle my take on events. A little background in my personal baseball history should help explain this.

I was born in Kansas in the early 1980's. My parents, my brother and I moved to Michigan in 1984, right in the midst of the Kansas City-Detroit ALCS. I was barely three years old, but the matchup between our old home and our new home kept my parents attention. This was key, I feel, because I'm not sure I would have got into baseball if my parents hated it. It's just the way things tend to work when you're a little impressionable toddler.

Go Tigers!
Well, Detroit won the 1984 World Series, and I think that probably made my parents at least casual Tiger fans.

Somewhere in the late 80's, about 1986 I believe, my father and my uncle took my brother and I to our first major league game in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium while we were visiting family in the area. I do remember the game, it was against the Mets, but I have very little memory of any details.

But my first significant baseball memory came September 1, 1987 at Tiger Stadium. My dad, my friend and his dad, along with some other friends of the adults, all went to Tiger Stadium to see the Tigers play the Indians. We sat in the upper deck behind home plate - in the orange seats pictured here.

The Corner

Anyone who has been to Tiger Stadium knows the upper deck hangs over the playing field. When the upper levels were added in renovation, they couldn't build backward onto the street, so they pushed the upper decks closer to the field. This made the upper deck behind home plate the best place in all of baseball to catch foul balls. Probably four or five an inning shot back up in that direction.

Well, partway through the game, an usher standing near me caught one and turned around and handed it to me. I was kinda confused, being 6 years old and all. I wanted to throw it on the field, but my dad was like "No! No! You get to keep it!"

That had to be the coolest news of my young life, and I was smitten with the Tigers. Being six years old with a short attention span, I didn't follow the day to day fortunes of the Tigers. Too bad, 1987 was one of the last successful seasons they've ever had, even to this day.

But I fell in love with Ernie Harwell, the honey-voiced radio play-by-play man of the Tigers. Many a night while falling asleep, I'd have the radio tuned to WJR 760 AM, as Ernie let me know how the beloved Tigers were doing. I remember laying awake one night in 1989 (I believe) as Tigers pitcher Jeff Robinson battled with a no-hitter against the Orioles. In the eighth-inning, Mike Deveraux and Brady Anderson went yard, wrecking the no-no as I burst into tears.


When Ernie was "fired" after the 1991 season, I burst into tears again. Soon after, my family and I packed up and moved to Boston.

I couldn't bring myself to become a Red Sox fan. First, it would be disloyal to my Tigers. But second, Boston fans seemed so angry. Every play meant life or death, and the slightest mistake by a player or manager caused fans to call for their head on a platter. It was all about self-pity and an inferiority complex with the team about 200 miles to the southwest in the Bronx. I just didn't get it.

I spent my middle school and high school years secretly rooting against the Red Sox, while trying in vain to follow the Tigers. I tried to go at least once a year when the Tigers visited Fenway Park. It wasn't the same. Sure, I rooted like heck for the Tigers to win, but I was disconnected from what nowdays might be called "Tigers Nation". (I hate the "Nation" term, by the way)

I came to college in Washington, D.C. Most of the people I knew there were fans of eastern teams: Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Mets, etc. They were all so freakin intense! This was life or death to them, and they were awfully obnoxious about it. I rooted for all those teams to lose, just so I could laugh at the reactions of the fans that I knew.

Something didn't seem right though. It's a little obnoxious of me to root against teams just for the joy of seeing someone else's defeat. Those people were obnoxious, but they put their hearts on the line for their team. This hit home even more when I watched the reaction of my high school friends after the Red Sox won the World Series. But I still felt disconnected from the Tigers.

Then we started to hear that Washington might get a team. Good, good stuff, I thought. The national capitol should definitely have the national pastime. Peter Angelos reared his ugly head and became the villain. We all know how easy it is to root against him.

I found myself caught up in the fever. I fumed when Linda Cropp nearly killed baseball. And when the deal was resurrected, I spent a two hour lunch waiting in line at the RFK team store. Good ol' Bill Ladson even interviewed me outside the trailer after I was done.

It was obvious to me, that after investing so much emotion in Washington baseball, I had to at least support the team. I didn't feel comfortable abandoning the Tigers.

Many of my friends urged me to adopt both teams. The AL/NL separation would make it possible. Besides, my brother, a Red Sox fan, living in a community when they win a championship is the greatest feeling ever.

The Dean of Washington Baseball, Tom Boswell, settled it for me. In his March 30 chat, he answered my question about dual loyalties:

Alexandria, Va.: Maybe you can answer this, Boz. I grew up a Detroit Tiger fan, but came to DC for college after living in Boston for high school. I plan to say in the DC area for a long time. Is it possible to be a Tiger and Nationals fan? Better yet, is it a violation of the code of the sports fan?
Tom Boswell: Yes, it is possible. But probably requires high moral character. Teams "on the rise" that haven't actually risen yet can break your heart. That describes both the Tigers and Nats.

I'm not too sure he completely understood my question. But with the blessing of a guy like Boz, I was going to give it a try. Tigers first, Nats second, that's how it would be.

I went to Opening Night. I won't bother to recount my experiences, as I've already done so here.

But it was the following Sunday when the Nats took over first place in my heart. I wrote about it at the time here. In the seventh inning, Nick Johnson rips a shot to the outfield. Jose Guillen waited near second to see if the ball would be caught. But Vinny Castilla took off from first right away. When the ball dropped in safely, Guillen and Castilla wheeled around the bases about three feet apart. I was jumping up and down, trying to "will them" around the bases to score the tying runs. They slid into home on top of each other and leaped into a bear hug. RFK exploded, and I went nuts.

Vin and Pops

That is the moment when the Nats became number one. I'll always root for the Tigers and hope they win. But I'll never get back the connection I used to have to them. An autographed picture of Ernie Harwell, Alan Trammell and Al Kaline hangs on my office wall as a memento of some fond Tiger memories.

But I have that connection to the Nats now. I literally live and die on each pitch so far this year. I've seen part or all of 30 of the 34 games so far this year. Blabbering incessantly online while watching the game with guys like Chris, Yuda, Basil, Ryan, Brian & even the "conNATStant lurker" (plus others I can't remember) is something I look forward to every night. I just hope my fiancée understands!

Well, that's my story. If you read this far, congratulations. Maybe I'll let you buy me a Foggy Bottom at RFK sometime soon.


Blogger Chris Needham said...

Good stuff!

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Nataholics Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great off day reading! I even went back and read your two linked posts from the opening home series. Keep up the great entertaining writing!

4:04 PM  
Anonymous DMCj (f/k/a conNATSlurker) said...

Good stuff, indeed. My experience was different, as I grew up here, but still I've been dazzled at how utterly, hopelessly hooked I am on this team already ...

Thanks for the anonymous shout-out (though as you know I've finally come clean) and I look forward to many more heartfelt ramblings in the days, weeks and years to come.

Play ball ...

4:48 PM  
Blogger Basil said...

Great, great post. I love these personalized entries that we all seem to churn out every now and then.

There are so many points in this post where I've made a mental note to comment or ask a question that I've forgotten all of them.

Instead, I'll just ask: where in DC did you go to school?

8:33 PM  
Anonymous todd said...

Nice post!

7:54 AM  
Blogger D said...

Well said, well said indeed.

8:40 AM  
Blogger MattNats said...

Enjoyed your post. It's always nice to hear how folks come to loving a team. For many, it's not all cut-and-dried (i.e., Born in NY, became a Yankees fan).

As someone who's from a town that didn't have a MLB team, and therefore has a more circulitous path to Nats fandom, I can appreciate it.

3:01 PM  

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