For Nationals, A Long Night's Journey Into Day

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

The cleaning crew started sweeping up debris in the upper deck at RFK Stadium -- an hour before the game started. The beer vendors turned off their taps -- 90 minutes prior to first pitch. And that postgame birthday party for Ryan Zimmerman? Well, Thursday night became Friday morning, and the newly 22-year-old third baseman could have celebrated with eggs and bacon rather than beers and peanuts.

The game will go down in the record books quite simply as a 3-1 Washington Nationals' victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, one that severely hurt Philadelphia's hopes for a playoff berth and gave the last-place Nationals at least a small measure of accomplishment as they play out their season this weekend with a series against the New York Mets.

But in folklore, the game's stature will only grow. To any of the few hundred fans -- most of them vociferously rooting for the Phillies -- who stuck around through a 4-hour 27-minute rain delay to the game's end at 2:07 a.m. yesterday, the experience will be remembered for the wackiness.

"It was like playing in college again," said Zimmerman, the Nationals' third baseman from the University of Virginia. "A bunch of people who had been there for a while -- if you know what I mean."

Listening to the tipsy Philly faithful -- and some Nationals fans, who crooned a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Zimmerman -- it was clear it took a little extra juice to ride this one out.

It would have been enough to watch it pour for hours after the scheduled 7:05 p.m. start, wiling away the hours by staring at the banks of empty seats. It would have been enough to say you stayed for the first pitch, which came at 11:32 p.m. -- or seven minutes after David Nelson belted out the National Anthem, complete with the explosions and fireworks from the upper deck that likely woke up a resident or two on neighboring Capitol Hill.

It would have been enough to watch Nationals President Stan Kasten -- sitting in the box behind home plate with owner Mark Lerner -- holding an old-time metal ticket booth sign that read, "Ball Game Today."

But there was plenty left over. Team officials were under severe pressure to get the game in because of Philadelphia's standing in the playoff race, and the fact that, should the Phillies finish in a tie for a playoff spot, they would have to play a tiebreaking playoff game on Monday. But if Thursday night's game had been rained out, there was a chance the Phillies would have had to return to Washington for a makeup game Monday.

So the two teams played, even though the Phillies had to get to Miami for a season-ending series with the Florida Marlins after the sun had risen yesterday, even though it would in no way help the Nationals avoid finishing last in the National League East.

The Nationals, meanwhile, picked up last night with an essentially meaningless game against the New York Mets, who have already won the division title. Yet the Washington players and coaches did so with a story to tell their grandchildren -- the game that ended after 2 in the morning. "It'll be 5 o'clock when you tell the story," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "It gets better as the years go on. It might be daylight when we finish" telling the tale.

Robinson has competed since his rookie year of 1956, and sources with knowledge of the situation confirmed yesterday that he was informed in meetings on Thursday with Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden that he would not be asked back for next season. He said, through all his 51 seasons in the game, he had never been through such an odd affair.

"And I hope I never do again," he said, cracking a smile, knowing his fate.

The game followed a 4-hour 53-minute affair that ran 14 innings from the previous night, Wednesday. It came on a day when Robinson was forefront in everyone's thoughts, and preparations were being made for him to go out with some sort of celebration during the final weekend of the season.

And it came on a night when the daily Presidents Race -- a "contest" between 10-foot tall renditions of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and hapless Teddy Roosevelt (who has never won) -- ended in near catastrophe, when Jefferson took a massive tumble on the warning track. The runner-playing-the-part-of-a-dead-president wasn't hurt -- just unable to support the weight of his massive head -- and thus provided one of the most hilarious moments of a season that, for the Nationals, has been filled with down times and now will conclude with the end of the line for their Hall of Fame manager.

"I don't know if we'll ever experience that kind of atmosphere again," catcher Brian Schneider said.

As for the baseball, the Nationals won because rookie left-hander Mike O'Connor -- who grew up in Ellicott City and graduated from George Washington -- allowed only an unearned run in his five innings of work, and because three relievers shut out the Phillies the rest of the way. Nationals right fielder Ryan Church hit a solo homer in the second, a blast that came just as Thursday became Friday. And Schneider provided the difference with a tiebreaking, two-run single in the bottom of the sixth.

All that meant the Nationals had won two of three from the desperate Phillies, who trail the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres by two games in the race for the National League wild-card playoff berth.

Yet the Phillies' fate wasn't sealed because their fans gave up. Holding signs -- "We Have a 9 a.m. Class in Philly" -- they cheered and chanted despite the hour, seeming to revel in the absurdity of it all. When Nationals mascot Screech approached a group of them, they taunted, "You're no Phanatic!," paying homage to their own mascot, the Phillie Phanatic. They chanted at their radio broadcaster, at their most valuable player candidate, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, at nearly anything or anyone that was still in the ballpark.

"I asked a couple of them if they had jobs," Schneider said. They assured him they did. They were just calling in sick yesterday morning.

In the end, though, they might have been sick about their team's fading chances. After the final out -- yes, that's right, at 2:07 a.m. -- the music thumped in the Nationals' clubhouse, where the Washington players celebrated their role in sticking it to another team, for fighting against a club that had much more stake in this game.

Or, maybe, they just celebrated the conclusion of the evening.

"It's over," said Church, slumped at his locker. "Let's go to sleep now."

The clock read 2:25 a.m.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company