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How the Nats Brought Me Home

By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B01

The oddest thing happened to me on Metro a few weeks ago. I had a conversation with a complete stranger.

The fellow sitting next to me and I chatted all the way from the New York Avenue stop to Farragut North. Mostly we talked about a bunch of guys neither of us had met and whose names we barely knew -- names like Vidro and Sledge and Schneider. But we also touched on the vagaries of the Red Line, our kids, the slow approach of spring. We never introduced ourselves, but as I got up to leave, he said, "All right, Buddy, see you at the ballpark."

Bound by baseball: In a town where so many people are from somewhere else, rooting for the Nats has helped provide the civic glue that holds a community together, the author says. (Haraz Ghanbari -- AP)

I don't often talk to anyone on the train, being a head-buried-in-newspaper kind of commuter. And I never talk about baseball, being someone who follows no sports. Zero. None. I haven't since college. I find out who wins the Super Bowl from Monday's front page. March Madness to me is when the forsythia bloom.

Much to my surprise, the arrival of the Washington Nationals has changed all that -- not just the way I look at sports, but more importantly, the way I look at Washington. For 15 years, I've felt like a resident alien here; now, a brand-new baseball team has made the city feel like home. For the past two months, my usual anonymous glide through town has been enlivened by affable chats, tiny moments of unity with someone reading the same sports page, even a spontaneous post-home-run high-five from a woman behind me in the beer line at RFK.

I'm thinking about this guy who works in my building. For years, it's been how ya doin' and a nod, usually as he's wheeling a bin of rubbish down the hall. But the other day, he's wearing a red cap with that "W" on it and we end up leaning against the wall, talking about . . . pitching. Turns out his name is Sam, he's married and lives in Seat Pleasant, and he's worried about our middle relievers. Our middle relievers.

Last week, I was talking on the phone to my boyhood best friend from my home town, Americus, Ga. He was giving me grief about the pounding the Braves gave the Nationals on their first meeting and pooh-poohing the revenge we got the next night and how April means nothing and just wait until Atlanta is 20 games ahead of Washington. . . and I got mad. Really mad! He was dissing us!

He had to stop me. "Wait a second. Us? 'Your' team? You watched those games?"

My team, yeah. But even more surprisingly: my town. I now own my first article of clothing with the word "Washington" on it. Suddenly I'm actually part of a city that has always seemed largely filled with strangers.

Don't get me wrong. I've always liked living here. Since the day I arrived for graduate school in 1989, I've been taken with the District's obvious appeal -- the center-of-the-world gravitas, the low-rise human scale, the astonishing abundance of fascinating people. I met my wife here and made my family here, and we've built a life rich with great friends and free museums. But there was always something missing. I've never felt the hard sense of belonging that came so easily in my home town or my college town or even dread Atlanta, site of my first job. I've never lived anywhere longer than here, and I have no plans to leave. But somehow I've just been passing through.

It's a cliche that must drive all the folks crazy who were born at Howard or Sibley or Georgetown hospital, but Washington often strikes me as a place where no one is from. So many people arrive, pump up their résumés for five years and cycle out without ever taking the Michigan plates off the car. You can live in Washington for decades, and people still ask you if you're going "home" for the holidays. Our big parties -- inaugurations, Fourth of July fireworks, Cherry Blossom Festivals -- are really national gatherings, not local ones. It's the nation's capital and they say it belongs to all Americans, which makes for a pretty thinly spread community.

Sadly, the times I feel most welded to Washington are the bad times, minor and major. We're all in it together when, say, we climb a few notches in the worst-traffic rankings, or when Congress takes another whack at local sovereignty (even though I now live across the District line in Takoma Park). To be honest, the greatest communion I've felt with the region was during the 9/11 attacks and the sniper rampage a year later. Nothing gets citizens scrambling into the same boat like the shadow of death passing overhead.

Except, it turns out, baseball.

I wasn't always immune to sports fever. I coached pee-wee football for three years and was such an NFL nut in my youth that I once sanded half of my truck in a botched attempt to paint it Atlanta Falcons red. But the drunken alums at the University of Georgia and the increasingly shrill coarseness of pro sports dulled my interest. The Redskins? Too corporate. The Wizards? Too indoors. The Capitals? A hockey team. (As for the Orioles, I've never understood the appeal of a team that represents a foreign city and, worse, does so with a designated hitter.)

No, by the time I got to Washington, politics was my only sport; those were the standings I followed in the paper every day and the plays I kibitzed about with other fans. But alas -- speaking of increasingly shrill coarseness -- politics is a sport that severs more bonds than it forms. And so I went on with life in Washington without much in the way of civic glue.

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