Nats Don't Even Need a Hit to Reach Fan Base

By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

In the dog days of August, real Nats fans are the ones who love the team not for its performance but for its very existence. They are men, mostly middle-aged, who had a team named the Senators taken from them once. And they are men, mostly clad in red, whose goal is to prevent that from recurring. So they believe in a kind of baseball karma, in a universe of what-goes-around-comes-around, in which the meek will inherit the Earth.

Or, at least, the pennant.

How else to explain their gathering yesterday morning in the ESPN Zone downtown, when about 70 fanboys of various ages sat around circular tables, waiting for a noon Q&A session with pitcher John Lannan? In a strictly rational world, such a gathering could not take place, for according to strictly rational statistics, the Nats are the worst team in baseball.

And yet, there they were, Gary and Yates and Ed and Ray and Jeff -- three of whom own season tickets. They have gotten to know each other well through these sessions with their Nats. This is the fourth of five meet-and-greets in 2008, and they've been to most of them.

"You gotta stick with 'em," says Yates Haigler, who still wears his tattersall button-down shirt and took the rest of the day off from work. Gary Markwood sports his red Nats jersey, red Nats bracelet and black Nats watch. And has a Nats lunch bag slung over his shoulder. Tufts of gray hair poke out from under his red Nats cap, like a baseball-loving Einstein.

They are the lowliest players on the diamond, these Nats, but "not in our hearts," says Ed Hale. He is 48, a middle school teacher from Arlington, who sees the Nats winning it all in 2010 and has carried his paraphernalia into class to coax his students, in vain, to share his passion. "I'm still happy to have a team. They're going to get better. I believe that."

"You wait 33 years for a team," adds Ray Mitten, 47, in a Nats cap and watch, "winning is not your first priority. Just following a team when they win -- what's the point ?"

So they break bread together, chowing wraps and burgers and fries. Markwood can't even order before being halted by his regular waiter, who says, "I already knew you wanted a Southwest [chicken salad], glass of water."

They exchange the knowing lines that signal membership in this club and escape the rotten record of the present. "We took them out of it, the Nationals did," Markwood says. "That was sweet." And he is not talking about Tuesday night's loss to the Mets, but a happier time, when his team beat the Mets in a 2007 series down the stretch.

"Did you go last night?" he asks Hale. "No, but I saw that catch Willie Mays-style," answers Hale, referring to a play made by the far less eminent Willie Harris.

Mitten remembers the "most moving moment" -- the first opening day in Washington, back in 2005. And Hale recalls the time they reeled off 10 straight wins. And Markwood drifts back to Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off homer against the Yanks, on Father's Day in 2006, in front of the largest crowd for a Washington baseball game since the boys returned: 45,157.

The Nats were down 2-1 in the ninth and put a man on base, and Zim's dad predicted it, and the ball cometed over the fence. And the players mobbed home plate, and the fans roared, and Zim came out for a curtain call, the first in Nats' history.

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