At the Stadium/Armory Metro stop a few hours before the Nationals play the Mets on the Fourth of July, "Little Christopher" Howland demonstrates how he's planning to position his glove to catch a foul ball. The 10-year-old from Fairfax, who's played a little outfield himself, plants his feet and turns the glove up, opening it slightly. "I'll be getting under the ball, " he explains. Nearby, 6-year-old Ben, a brother of few words, just grins, opens and shuts his catcher's mitt and stands behind his mother, Cecilia.
It's the family's first Nationals game and it feels like the start of something old. Something Chris Howland Sr. remembers from childhood baseball games with his own father. "It's okay to root for Philly or the Orioles, but when you have a home team to root for yourself, that's exciting," he says. It's hard to know whether your feet actually touch the Metro platform on a game day in the nation's capital. It feels just as likely that the energy of fans who've waited 34 seasons for baseball to return to the city has conjured up some kind of funky kinetic field to help carry the thousands of Nats fans (44,331 announced attendance for the holiday, the largest crowd of the season) to the game.
Outside, it's 88 degrees. But it's baseball in Washington that's feeling hotter than July. The Nationals are without a marquee name, without a modern stadium -- heck, without owners. Most of the time, they're winning real ugly.
But they're looking kind of sweeet, daddy.
For those who like to break out pencil and paper, each at-bat and run batted in and on-base percentage is freighted with history and this, here and now, is nirvana. But maybe you've only been to three games in your life. You can't speak intelligently about the infield fly rule and you wouldn't know a National if he bit you. You can still parachute in and get all caught up. At RFK Stadium, the players say they're loving the Washington fans. The fans, buying up tickets and W caps, are saying we love you right back, baby, whoever you guys are (after all, just try to find a Nationals game on television). And just maybe this buttoned-up city, known for its partisan lines and Beltway lines and frown lines, is onto something.
Will it last? Oh, who cares?? It's sweet summer sweat, the Fourth of July at the ballpark and halfway through the season, the home team is in first place in the National League East.
Oh happy day!
And just watch how that happiness divides up, little by little, over a long holiday weekend.
"We get asked to sign autographs by kids telling us they love us," says a grinning Lamont Poteat, a 16-year-old batboy from Southeast Washington. It's Thursday afternoon, just after the Nationals beat the Pirates, and Poteat and fellow batboys Jonathan Kolker and Jonathan Russell are furiously scrubbing mud and grass from the players' cleats. Dirty work, maybe, except these days even cleaning cleats can make you feel like the man.
The batboys will tell you that winning makes all the difference. Winning means club music and hip-hop in the locker room and the usually serious manager, baseball legend Frank Robinson, throwing baseballs to the crowd.
Pitcher Chad Cordero, one of the team's two All-Stars, has been out driving and taken stock of all the Nationals caps he passes. He has overheard fans talking about how well the team is doing while out in Georgetown a couple of times. So what if they didn't recognize the 23-year-old ace closer standing behind them -- he's still feeling the love.
At the games, "They're on their feet and they're yelling and clapping. You can definitely feel it and see it. You can definitely sense them out there and that makes you more excited," he says.
Robinson isn't given to rhetorical flourishes when talking about his team. Before taking the field against the Mets, he is careful and measures his words because you put too much spin on the ball and it has a way of turning on you. Still, "It feels like we belong here."
Along the third-base line, Jeff Copp and John Sullivan, both 21-year-old Marines, are waving caps and yelling furiously trying to get an autograph from Nats outfielder Jose Guillen or infielder Vinny Castilla because, well, "they're the bomb," says Copp.
Bum luck, Guillen just looks up briefly.
No matter. The cousins, who grew up in Iowa, a state without any major league sports teams, are spending the holiday together after being on the other side of the country (or the world) for much of the past year and a half. "I just got back from Fallujah in March," says Sullivan, who is visiting Washington, where Copp is stationed at the Marines barracks. "It's awesome spending time with him, hanging out. We were like brothers growing up." And now, with other family members far away, the cousins like brothers get to hang out at a game. "It's awesome to have baseball back in the city," Sullivan says.
And that means different things to different folks. Some like the grimy, no-glamour feel of RFK, a place not to take a first date. Or at least judging by some of the shorts and old T-shirts, it's a place where it's really okay to be a slob. It's not where you go to see or be seen. It's just a place to watch this scrappy team of regular guys with a lot of heart show up to do their jobs. A place without flashing lights or screaming hype coming at you. Where you get to sit, chillax (chill out, you know, relax.) and watch a game that's played in real time, which is the only time any of us actually have.
Outside City Sports downtown on Friday, Doug Padgett, a stay-at-home dad and doctoral student in religion, is looking for a Nationals cap, getting caught up in the romance of the whole thing.
It's Americana, he says. "Savannah, Durham, Portland, every place I've lived in my life, towns have a special relationship with their teams." And now Washington has that. Maybe we'll get screaming Nationals fans just like all those screaming Yankees fans. And maybe baseball this season is just special enough to bring disparate folks together. When Padgett takes his dog to the P Street park, he says people talk about the Nats all the time. "A friend from the dog park, a guy I went to a baseball game with, is a Republican," Padgett says. He himself is not. So there really is some potential for this town to come together. Back at the stadium this Independence Day, television producer Rodney Clark and 12-year-old son Rodney Clark II drove in from Port Tobacco, Md., to take in their first Nationals game. Clark says he grew up in the area. "I remember when the Senators were here then -- to have my son out here, it's a fabulous feeling." He wishes things didn't have to change. Why can't the city of Washington own the Nationals? Why can't they be publicly owned like the Green Bay Packers, he wonders. It would do so much to bring the city together, he says. "As soon as we get an owner, maybe that's when things go downhill."
On the field, the Nationals are losing, breaking their six-game winning streak. It's a shame, but it doesn't take a win to save the day. Clark drapes a casual arm around the back of his son's chair. After the game, they're going home to regroup, maybe take in some fireworks. "It's up in the air right now," he says. Meanwhile, it's just a dude and his dad. And for some that seems just the right equation for this holiday.
Perhaps there'll come a time when a gleaming new stadium takes the team upscale. When television cameras turn the players into stars and they won't hear fans loving them up close because they'll be too busy ducking away. Perhaps protracted ownership battles and all the city's mad squabbles will dull the team's luster and siphon off the joy. And even the simple lure of baseball on Independence Day when it's 88 degrees won't be enough to give a little of it back.
Perhaps there'll come such a time. It's just not today.
On the Fourth of July in a rickety old stadium, the first-place Nationals lose to the Mets.
But, oh, it's a happy day.