For Nationals fans, a joyous day of playoff baseball ends in heartache

It started as a carnival for a city long-deprived of October Madness.

In the hours before the first postseason Major League Baseball game in Washington since the Great Depression, before hype turned to humiliation, a workaholic fan base known for a sometimes muted, late-arriving brand of cheering showed up early. They’d finessed small lies to bosses and teachers, postponed meetings, scoured cable guides for the elusive MLB Network.

They dressed in red and waved Natitude rally towels. Some even brandished the goofy hallmarks of fans gone wild, including Jayson Werth clip-on beards, red-and-white painted faces and a custom Nats superhero suit that one boy wore.

“I think Washington is finally getting into it,” declared a man named John as he shouldered his way through the crowded turnstiles.

John wouldn’t give his last name in order to preserve the cover story he had used to leave the office an hour earlier, which involved a fictitious ophthalmologist. He wouldn’t say where he worked, either, but allowed that he was a researcher in the part of government responsible for protecting the republic’s interest on the high seas.

“I told [the boss] I had to have my eyes dilated, so I couldn’t come back in,” John said. “I would have told him the truth, but we have a major project due next week.”

A few minutes later, a formation of four F-16 fighters buzzed the stadium, the thunder of their engines answered by a matching roar from the record-setting crowd of 45,000. (This being post-Sept. 11 Washington, the House sergeant at arms had e-mailed a don’t-freak-out alert about the flyover to staffers on Capitol Hill.)

Then, when the starting lineup took the field, the red-clad sea of spectators produced one of the loudest noises yet heard in five-year-old Nationals Park.

“Listen to this crowd!” exulted Nationals radio play-by-play announcer Charlie Slowes over the concourse speakers.

Whitney Gurner and Jessica Lopez had two of the worst seats in the park: last row, upper deck, way, way down the left field line, near the light tower.

The Capitol almost looked closer than home plate. A raw autumn wind was whipping across their faces. A fence was brushing the backs of their heads. They couldn’t have been happier.

“There are no bad seats here,” said Gurner, a 25-year-old restaurant manager who ran around work waving her tickets the day she scored them online.

But hope took a hit early in the game, when the St. Louis Cardinals took a lead in the first inning that they would open up into an eight-run shutout.

Fans struggled to stay upbeat on a gorgeous fall day, but many of them found it easy to get a little work in.

As the game inched to its pained midway point, Bill Pierce recharged, plugging his BlackBerry adapter into an outlet on the back wall of the Stars and Stripes Club.

“I’m about to jump on a conference call,” said Pierce, senior director at a public affairs company, APCO Worldwide, who had been reading and sending e-mails from his Section 220 seat. “This is Washington. We’re obsessed about our work.”

Nats fans, many of them new to baseball and all of them without a home team in the playoffs for 79 years, were scrambling to understand the strange customs of postseason ball. Many expressed outrage that the biggest game here in four generations was slotted for a weekday at lunchtime, making it impossible for them to attend.

“I think a lot of people had to cancel when they found out it was a 1 o’clock game,” said Janet Dooley, an Alexandria postal worker who was thrilled to snag an $85 ticket on the third base line Wednesday morning. Her fingernails read, “Go Nats.”

Even worse, the game was being broadcast on a niche cable channel, the MLB Network, that many couldn’t find on their televisions.

“The Yankees are in prime time every night,” Frank Garcia of Woodbridge complained as he passed under the colossal American flag suspended by D.C. Fire Department ladder trucks over the center field gate. “We’re not getting a lot of respect yet, but I guess that has to come.”

Outside the park, there were baseball hot spots in some places but a business-as-usual vibe in many more.

At St. Peter School on Capitol Hill, children were given permission to ditch their regular uniforms and attend morning Mass in Natitude red. And hundreds of students committed truancy, mostly in the company of their parents.

Zachary Rusinak, 8, played it straight with his teacher in Chesapeake, Va., getting his makeup work in advance and finishing it on the three-hour drive to the game with his father, Richard.

“This beats listening to a person talk all day,” Zachary noted.

At Maddy’s Tap Room in downtown Washington, the bar stools were filled for the early innings, with the game on every television. Groans erupted after a Cardinals home run in the second inning.

But in other places, no one bothered to look for the MLB channel. Quan Hai Lua Cafe, the lone sports bar in the Eden Center in Falls Church, was deserted except for a waitress playing video games on her phone. The three flat screens above her were tuned to ESPN. She said the bar gets a regular crowd for NFL games, but baseball?

“Never.”

At the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon, Robert Miailovich, 74, watched the game with a handful of other fans, including a yoga teacher who had ditched her TV at home in the hope that a change of scenery might improve the team’s performance. Miailovich, a retiree who does not have cable, wanted to attend the game but was baffled by the ticket-selling Web sites.

“It’s been fun watching people get excited,” he said, pausing to groan as an outfielder missed a catch.

In the end, joy gave way to heartache.

It took 79 years and three days for playoff baseball to return to Washington. It took seven innings for fans to begin streaming through the exits, as Natitude turned to Saditude.

“The atmosphere was great to start, but [the game] was pretty disappointing,” Ian Gervasi said outside the Half Street exit as the game was still going on.

“Pretty awful,” agreed his friend Scott Lilly as a 6-0 Cardinals lead became an 8-0 Cardinals lead.

“It’s a sad face,” Colleen Thurston said. “I was thinking of staying through the end of the game. It’s the playoffs; we should support them.”

There’s baseball, but then there’s the Beltway.

“At this point,” she said, “it’s about beating traffic.”

Paul Duggan, Fritz Hahn, Sara Kogod, Ben Pershing, Paul Schwartzman, Ian Shapira, Annys Shin and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

 
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