Looks like a great day for baseball. No clouds, low humidity, temperature in the low 70s.
The Milwaukee Brewers are in town. It's a Tuesday in May, and the game doesn't really mean much in the grand scheme of things. It's one of 162 in a season that stretches from the last chill of winter to the first chill of autumn.
Baseball is the ultimate "everyday sport." A football team like the Redskins plays just eight home games, and every game is the Big Game, a major cultural event. Something around which people shape their entire weekend. Something that generates almost as much after-the-fact analysis as a land war in Asia.
But baseball is woven into summer like the stuttering of sprinklers or the imprint of a lawn chair on your back. More unifying than the filibuster, more reliable than the real estate boom, baseball has quickly become -- once again -- part of Washington culture. And though any single game, especially some
Tuesday game in May (against the ho-hum Brewers!), doesn't have the terrain-rumbling significance of a Sunday in the NFL, it still has its unique moments, its subtle pleasures, its little treasures that fans can mine over the course of nine innings.
And there are maneuverings behind the scenes that fans never see -- in the locker rooms, the dugouts, the press box. A ballgame is something far too complicated to be summed up with an agate-type box score in the next day's paper. No one person sees it all. No two games are ever alike. And even a humdrum Tuesday game can flirt with a special brand of perfection.
1 P.M. IN THE CLUBHOUSE
The catcher comes to work early, more than six hours before the first pitch. His name is Brian Schneider. He gets $2 million a year and few requests for autographs. For a millionaire, he's kind of blue collar: a working stiff. But he's also one of the smartest guys in the stadium.
Schneider long ago realized that the catcher gets no glory. He's the guy who's always squatting, with a cage on his face. He's got hard pads and soft pads and protective cups and a huge mitt and a helmet, and when he squashes himself behind the plate, he's like a big wad of gear. He looks less like a sleek professional athlete than like some kind of contraption -- part human, part garage sale.
His day starts with a kind of purposeful leisure. He gets to the park early to give himself some downtime. He needs to slowly build to the moment when he puts on his game face and starts catching 93 mph fastballs.
His first stop is the players lounge. He's already had a turkey club at the Manhattan Deli, downtown, with his wife (zero autographs, zero hint that anyone in the place recognized him as the starting catcher of the much-hyped Washington Nationals), but now he digs into some exotic food brought in by the Latino players. He's somewhat small as catchers go. He needs to eat.
"I lose six pounds a day," Schneider explains later. "You have to eat to keep your weight up. If not, you'll lose 20 pounds in a season."
Next he heads to the training room, to stretch. Catchers get beat up on the job. He's got a yellow-and-purple bruise on the inside of his upper thigh, from a foul tip. One problem with being a catcher is that you're never permitted to complain. That's not the catcher way. Catchers have to be indestructible.
"I take a foul ball off my leg, who do I complain to?" Schneider says. Certainly not to the glamorous pitcher, who will be Medivac'd from the stadium if he has so much as a blister. A pitcher is crippled by a hangnail, but a catcher has to play through everything this side of a gunshot wound.
Back in the players lounge, Schneider plays backgammon with the second baseman, Jamey Carroll. Schneider loses all three games.
They've got a big TV in the lounge, tuned to ESPN Classic. The channel is showing David Wells pitching a perfect game for the New York Yankees seven years ago to the day. In your entire life you'd be lucky to see a perfect game once in person. To pitch a perfect game, the pitcher not only must give up no base hits, he also can't walk anyone, and his team can't allow anyone to reach base on an error. It has to be 27 batters, 27 outs. It has happened only 17 times in the history of major league baseball.
2 P.M. WITH SECURITY
Emory Waters, director of security for the Nationals, is barreling through the front office following the first of several security sweeps. He's looked through the clubhouse, under seats, into trash cans and behind doors for anything that could turn an evening of family fun into a big league buzz kill.
Suddenly a receptionist yells out, "Those people from the Pentagon have been waiting for 15 minutes."
"They should have been here three days ago," Waters growls, and the elevator doors close behind him.
Plunging four levels from the upper reaches of RFK Stadium, he can think about everything he needs to do. Waters, 57, retired from the FBI last December after being an agent for more than 26 years. Then the new baseball team came looking for a security chief. Waters had been a standout shortstop in college and tried out for the pros before getting cut. This was a second chance of sorts. "There's no better place to be," he says. "The field, the manager, the players . . . I love baseball."
Yet he rarely glimpses a pitch at RFK. Something always demands his attention. Like the Pentagon: Earlier in the day, he got a call saying that the acting deputy secretary of defense, Gordon England, was planning to attend tonight's game. England's security detail would soon arrive at RFK to look around; normally, Waters meets with the bodyguards of VIPs several days in advance.
He also needs to review with the event staff the procedures for admitting players' relatives and guests to the "family room" near the locker room. Last night security guards unwittingly treated at least one player's wife gruffly -- they thought her pass for the family room was fake. It wasn't. Waters says he got an earful from a few players and wives.
But the Pentagon will have to come first.
Waters steps from the elevator into the lobby and greets four dark-suited special agents. There is no chitchat. "Do you know where the protectee will be sitting?" Waters asks. The "protectee" apparently holds a ticket for an orange wooden seat, not far from first base. One agent soon plops himself down and wiggles.
The seat is wobbly. The seat is . . . unacceptable.
A rational observer might wonder if a wobbly seat with a bolt missing at the base poses a security risk for a top Pentagon official. Nonetheless the agent looks up at Waters and asks him if he can fix it.
It's not Waters's job, but he says he'll try. He adds, "No guarantees."
IN THE CLUBHOUSE
Schneider sits on a folding chair near his locker. It's in the corner, almost hidden from sight -- the perfect spot for a catcher, because he's got the best angle on everyone else. Catchers don't miss much: They're always on alert, keeping track of something, thinking, which might be why so many of them go on to be big-league managers. But for now he's just a player, very conscious he's on the clock.
"We stretch at 4:20. Our batting practice starts at 4:45. At 5:30, it's their turn" -- meaning, the turn of the Milwaukee Brewers. These times are not rough estimates, or targets, or general guidelines, but rather are rigidly enforced and rigidly obeyed.
Schneider will probably never be a star unless he becomes a better hitter. The most famous catchers in the game are great hitters; no one seems to care much that the slugger Mike Piazza is so feeble behind the plate that he couldn't throw out a runner on crutches.
Schneider's batting average, on this particular day, sits a bit above one hit out of four official at-bats, not great, but not terrible, either. Hitting isn't really as important as defense when you're a catcher. "There's a lot of things we do that they have no stats. Blocking balls, handling the pitching staff. Calling pitches."
Yes, Schneider calls the game. He's the quarterback.
Here's a stat they do keep: Percentage of base runners thrown out while attempting to steal. Schneider led the majors in that category in 2003 and then did it again in 2004. He has a lightning- quick arm. "He's not the best defensive catcher in baseball, but he's close," says manager Frank Robinson.
4:19:52 P.M. ON THE FIELD
With eight seconds to spare, the Nats emerge from the dugout, to stretch. By 4:20:06 they're already doing a light jog up and down the third-base line. The only exception is Schneider, who lingers in the dugout, talking to a reporter, dallying until 4:20:25.
The players do a side-step exercise, as though learning to dance.
They do a high kick.
At 4:42 p.m. -- somehow he's three minutes ahead of schedule -- Schneider takes batting practice. He and two other players hustle in and out of the batting cage. Each player gets his allotted swings -- and not one more. Steal an extra swing at batting practice, and you'll be begging for a fight.
The team president, Tony Tavares, is standing just outside the home dugout, watching. When you're the team president you're in charge of everything from the catcher to the pitcher to the grounds crew to the concessionaires to the ticket takers to the way the advertisements look on the outfield wall.
"The building is a lot cleaner than it was before. You see people are cleaning off the backs of the chairs" -- Tavares gestures toward a worker tidying up seats just behind home plate. "Food service is still a work in progress. They are challenged by the lack of prep areas."
Out in center field, he sees a tear in the fabric of a large clock that features the Nationals logo. He'll have someone fix that. When a reporter points out that a mural high in the stadium features a batter holding a virtually invisible bat, he stares for a long time, clearly worried. Nothing is beneath his presidential gaze.
And there's the mound. RFK's dreaded pitcher's mound! It's been a matter of controversy for weeks. It's just too slippery, not firm enough, not sufficiently frictional. So tonight, after the game, a specialist will come to the stadium with a crew of workers, and they'll try to fix the mound again.
Someone is supposedly fixing the radar gun, too. Normally the crowd can see how hard the pitcher is throwing -- the number flashes on the scoreboard (87 mph, 92 mph, etc.). Rain zapped the radar gun. "It was left open, and nobody covered it with a plastic bag," Tavares laments. "It got fried."
At 5:29:02 p.m. the Nationals players hastily gather up the loose baseballs in front of the batting cage. A coach from the Brewers starts rolling a cart full of balls toward the mound. The shift change is on.
At 5:30:00, the first Brewers batter is at home plate, waiting for his first batting practice pitch. It's the starting pitcher, actually. Someone named Obermueller.
IN THE VISITORS DUGOUT
Tonight's guest on the radio pregame show: Brewers first base coach, Davey Nelson, formerly an infielder for the old Senators. Charlie Slowes, one half of the fledgling Nationals announcing team, sits on the dugout bench holding a microphone in the general direction of Nelson's face.
In 1971, Nelson scored three runs in the Senators' final game, the one the team officially forfeited when enraged fans, furious about the team's impending departure for Texas, stormed the field during the ninth inning.
After the interview, Nelson keeps chatting. He tells Slowes that when he was first traded to Washington he came to the stadium looking for Senators Manager Ted Williams. "I knock on a door, and it's not Ted, it's Vince Lombardi."
The legendary football coach. Lombardi had signed on with the Redskins after his great run of championships in Green Bay.
"So Lombardi looks at me and says, 'Can I help you?' And I say, 'I'm looking for Ted Williams.' And [Lombardi] says, 'Well, he's a few doors down. I'm Vince Lombardi.' And I say, 'Wow, this is a great honor, sir.' And he says to me, 'Who are you son?' And I say, 'I'm Davey Nelson.' And Vince Lombardi says, 'Oh, yeah, the second baseman. They just traded for you. I hear you're pretty quick . . . Hey, can you catch a football?'"
Slowes says, "That's such a great story." His voice is full of regret. If only he'd gotten it on tape!
The stadium gates have just opened to fans, and Waters is back on his golf cart. Suddenly he spots an unshaven waif named John lurking near one of the gates. John is one of the most audacious ticket scalpers around.
"Hi, John," Waters booms from 50 feet. He hops off the golf cart and has a few words with the man, who slinks away without protest.
"I told him to have a nice evening and get off the property," Waters says.
Not 10 minutes later, Waters zooms through a pedestrian tunnel, and there's John, peddling tickets.
5:58 P.M. IN THE CLUBHOUSE
Schneider has been watching video of the opposing pitcher, this Obermueller guy. No one particularly impressive.
Now Schneider is getting his pads on. He puts a rubber brace on his right knee. He puts another pad on his left knee. These will be covered eventually by his shin and knee guards. He changes into a clean, white pair of pants and into his cleats, a pair so new he has to lace them up. He has a contract with Nike; the company gives him all the shoes he needs.
Schneider was drafted by the Montreal Expos organization right out of high school, spent time in the minors and first came up to the majors in 2000. Skipping college was the right decision, he thinks.
"I'm having a blast . . . You get to play a game in front of a lot of people, and you get paid a lot of money."
Schneider has to get ready for his pregame strategy meeting with Nationals starting pitcher Claudio Vargas and the pitching coach. They have to figure out how to pitch each Brewer. Schneider says that if they get beat, they want to get beat while sticking to their plan.
"Their leadoff guy, Brady Clark, is having a real good year," Schneider says. "If he gets on base, he can steal a base."
They'll make sure to throw him strikes. They won't let him have a walk, a free pass to first that would let him take second on a steal. He'll have to earn his way on base, with his bat.
6:30 P.M. THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
The Orange and Blue line trains are now disgorging a stream of fans at the Stadium-Armory station. They flow up the escalator into the sunshine, greeted by hawkers handing out free M&M's candy bars and free game programs. It's a beautiful evening at what, until recently, was an underutilized and somewhat down-at-the-heels sports venue. But now: Free candy for everyone! Not to mention the delicacy, long absent, known as major league baseball.
The ticket windows, retro gritty, do a steady trade in upper-deck seats. Season ticket holders saunter through the turnstiles with the confidence of the connected. But there is only one fan destined to sit in Section 115, Row A, Seat 9.
Because ballparks frown on letting spectators occupy the playing field itself -- say, sitting on a little stool right behind the home plate umpire -- one must settle for the next best thing. That would be a seat in the first row, a few feet to the right of home plate, at an angle of approximately 8.5 degrees from the pitcher-catcher axis.
Here, for most of the game, you will have an unobstructed view of each pitch -- its trajectory, its spin, its break, the moment of contact or whiff. This is, essentially, the batter's view. One procures this view by begging the occupant of that seat -- a cute little boy -- to sit on his mother's lap.
It's a $95 season ticket owned by Modell's Sporting Goods, and distributed as a perk to its employees. In this section, delineated by blue seat cushions, all of your food and soft drinks are free, delivered by cheerfully obsequious valets bucking for big tips from high rollers.
THE WORST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
A gloomy Gus might dwell on the things you can't see from the worst seat at RFK. Home plate, for example. Also the catcher, the batter, the third-base line, the pitcher (above the knees), 1 1/2 infielders and two of the three scoreboards.
But a few bad seats are inevitable at a retrofitted blast-from-the-past ballyard. Section 548, Row 13, Seat 2 is a hard wooden perch covered with peeling yellow paint. Seven bucks. Tippy-top row, far above and way beyond right-center field. The last 30 steps are only slightly less vertical than the Eiger. Hailing the beer guy is like calling down to a street vendor from a fourth-floor window. The nearest fellow fan would be a heroic flight by paper airplane.
The view is, uh, "partially obstructed," in the sense that a spectator must hunch over until his eyes are at shin level if he wants to glimpse the batter. Otherwise, he's staring into the backs of the jumbo scoreboard and various advertising signs that hang from the cantilevered roof.
But you can see:
Two of the four bases -- plus part of another -- and the corrugated steel housing of the scoreboard, several insanely precarious catwalks, four industrial-strength cooling fans, numerous pigeons and the streaks they leave behind.
6:35 P.M. IN THE BROADCAST BOOTH
Slowes and his radio partner, Dave Shea, are settled in now with the first pitch minutes away. They sit at opposite ends of a long table, in this spartan box of a booth with a small soundless TV monitor between them that is too far away to be conveniently viewed by either man. The announcers, unlike some better-known major league announcers, have no gofers to fetch them food or drink. They grab their own coffee between innings, though Slowes says he is careful not to consume too much liquid during games: "The restroom is a lonnnng ways away."
WITH THE STATISTICIAN
High in the press box, Jeff Campbell flips open a laptop. A self-described "baseball nerd," Campbell has what is, for him, the perfect job: Box-score maker. Number cruncher. He's the person who is in charge of compiling statistics for the most statistics-obsessed sport in the world.
Campbell works for Stats Inc. His account (monitored by a troubleshooter and a second scorer watching on TV in Milwaukee) will be the box score in tomorrow's newspaper, and the instantaneous feed to hundreds of baseball-related Web pages. Within a few days, a second and third team of Stats Inc.
observers will scrutinize the game on videotape and plug in more detailed information -- the raw material for baseball's statistical mania, the data that allow coaches and fans to know, among a trillion other things, exactly how likely it is that Brian Schneider will hit a fly ball against a left-handed pitcher in the late innings with runners on base.
"Statistics measure the greatness or futility of a player, and no baseball discussion is complete without them," says Campbell, who keeps score even when he's attending games as a civilian in the stands.
Tens of thousands of fantasy baseball fans have been driving the demand for super stats of the kind provided by Stats Inc. "Fifteen, 20 years ago, fans cared about wins and losses and that was about it," says Campbell. "Now, they want to know about RBIs, walks, ERA, and wins and saves and doubles -- it's crazy."
Now it's time for Campbell to go to work. He types the first of the thousands of numbers he'll record over the next three hours:
Temperature, 68 degrees. Humidity, 41 percent. Wind, right to left, 10 mph.
6:54 P.M. ON THE FIELD
Schneider has to "pick up" the pitcher. It's part of the ritual. He's already done his final warm-ups, out in left field, but now he jogs to the bullpen, puts on his helmet, squats in the dirt and lets Vargas pitch to him.
Four minutes later, they both stand at attention for the national anthem.
7 P.M. WITH SECURITY
The final lyric of the national anthem -- braaaave! -- times perfectly with the squawking of one of Waters's radios. There's a problem out in Parking Lot 8, Waters is told. He rushes off the field, past players and umpires, into one of the dim tunnels beneath the stadium where he hops aboard a golf cart.
THE BEST SEAT
Vargas is now on the mound, taking his final warm-up pitches. He is allowed precisely eight, not one more.
Even as Vargas is warming up, you find reason for concern. His fastball is fast -- it explodes over the plate, right at you -- but it's not hopping. It's coming in flat -- no rise, no fall, no gee or haw.
You find yourself, in your front-row seat, timing the pitch, like a real-live game of Orbitz baseball, twitching a little at the moment you'd swing or click the mouse. With some uneasiness, you notice that in the Brewers on-deck circle a few feet away, the first Brewers' batter, Brady Clark, is twitching, too.
AT HOME PLATE
Clark takes his stance.
Schneider, squatting, flashes the sign between his leg: One finger -- fastball. (Two fingers is a curve, three a slider, four waggy fingers a change-up.) He sets up low and away: The pitch should be outside, something that might tempt Clark to swing but couldn't be put into play easily.
Vargas winds up, and throws the ball belt-high right down the center of the plate. Grooves it. A meatball.
It never reaches Schneider's glove.
IN THE BROADCAST BOOTH
The first pitch of a baseball game is a bit of pomp and, like most pomp, usually inconsequential. The batter seldom swings. An umpire calls a ball or strike. Nothing really happens. The moment serves as a leisurely introduction for all involved, including a play-by-play radio broadcaster, who typically uses the first pitch to greet listeners in an unhurried, mellifluous tone that promises them a pleasant evening with him regardless of what is about to happen on the field. Slowes has mastered the trick of sounding at once tranquil and eager in this moment, his voice perhaps a tad slower and more dramatically resonant than usual. "First pitch of the game on the way," he likes to say in the instant before the coiled pitcher lets go of the ball.
So, as Clark enters the batter's box, Slowes says: "Brady Clark versus Claudio Vargas. The -year-old right-hander from Santiago of the Dominican Republic ready to go." And then, as Vargas goes into his windup, Slowes utters his comfortable line -- "First pitch of the game." And a moment later there's a crack like a rifle report.
Watching the ball rocket high over the head of Nationals left fielder Marlon Byrd, Slowes immediately thinks: That one is leaving the yard. The home-run call is a highlight for any play-by-play announcer, his chance to shine. But Slowes is not in love with the way he calls a homer. He has been tinkering with it, like a pitcher experimenting with a slider. He knows that, at 44, he doesn't have a signature call. What he usually says is more or less a riff borrowed from a famed Yankees broadcaster, the late Mel Allen. Slowes has added one word to that phrase: "Going, going, gone -- goodbye."
A friend, knowing how Slowes loves Jackie Gleason's classic television series "The Honeymooners," has suggested that he create a new home-run call with a variation on a famous Gleason line: "This one is going to the moon, Alice." Maybe throw in a "Bang! Zoom!" But Slowes has worried about inventing a home-run call that sounds contrived. His one attempt at "going to the moon" didn't sound quite right.
There is no time to rethink anything now, not with Clark's missile becoming a speck in the air. Instinct takes over.
"Hit deep to left field," he cries out, his voice quickening now, giving way to the nasally staccato he favors in moments of drama. "Back goes Marlon Byrd. Way back to the warning track, to the wall, and this one is gone. Goodbye."
"Not much doubt with that swing by Brady Clark," says Shea. "He was looking fastball all the way, and Vargas gave him one."
"And he left it upstairs," Slowes adds.
THE WORST SEAT
Not even a lowly journalist is dumb enough to sit in the worst seat in the house. A dozen seats over, in Section 548, Row 13, Seat 14, it is possible to see home plate without contorting like a Chinese gymnast. Still obscured, however, are fly balls, large swatches of right and center field, and a portion of shallow left. Also, certain details are too distant to make out, such as the strike zone.
You settle into this seat in time to hear a recorded announcement: "Morphumwah blorga zort mumfo gruhmuhna."
Then Vargas climbs the mound. "Climbs" is an assumption -- from a tenth of a mile away, it's hard to be sure that the mound is actually elevated.
First pitch, first swing. Because light travels so much faster than sound, a decent interval passes before you hear the tock.
The ball soars into the large blind spot created by the signage.
In left field, Byrd dashes in pursuit of the unseen ball, even as the rest of the Nats betray a certain lassitude. What could be happening? Must be a foul ball or . . . a homer. Sitting in the worst seats sharpens a fan's powers of deduction, much as a blind piano tuner develops an exquisite ear.
At last, the ball drops back into view -- in the left field bullpen.
WITH THE STATISTICIAN
Campbell enters "H," for hit, into his computer, and is prompted by the software to describe the play, then the direction, distance and velocity of the ball.
He chooses "HR," for home run.
He then has a choice of "fly ball" or "grounder," and chooses fly ball.
To determine direction and distance, he uses a pie-shaped grid of the field divided into 22 sections. He chooses "E," which corresponds to left field, about 12 degrees to the right of the third-base line. He also decides that the ball was hit about 350 feet. Finally, Campbell types in the exact time of the pitch:
LOWER DECK, THIRD-BASE LINE
Elena Iuga is looking for a beer vendor. She isn't thirsty; she wants to find a particular vendor -- her client.
Iuga is a lawyer in the District. She has come to the game with her boss, Paul Strauss, and a paralegal. They sit in their firm's regular seats. The beer vendor she seeks is president of a tenants association in the process of buying a low-income apartment building. Iuga has paperwork that her client needs to sign right away to seal the deal for the tenants to buy their piece of the American Dream.
THE WORST SEAT
One beauty of baseball is the pastoral tempo, the lulls and lacunae, the moments when a fan might relax, exhale and simply enjoy the beauty of twilight, or the graceful flight of a bird on the wing, far below you.
THE BEST SEAT
You are happy with your seat, sitting there, twitching with the hitters. You become a connoisseur of the concussive sciences, learning to distinguish a well-hit ball from a popup purely by sound, which arrives in real time, unimpeded by distance, undistorted by amplification, like a house concert in a small living room: A "tock" is a deep fly that might clear the wall. A "tick" is a blooper. A "tack" is a sinking line drive. A "teck" is a grounder. From here, you could shut your eyes and still know what was happening.
You know you are in a great seat, no question, a super-hot to-die-for Modell executive seat. But there is a woman about 80 feet to your left who is occupying a seat that you think might be better. She is in the first row, too, but is right next to the Nationals dugout, with a voyeur's view of the players. And, because of the shape of the foul territory, her seat is even closer to the action.
You approach her, and offer to trade her your great seat for hers, plus a sweetener, $100 cash. She declines. And now you know she has the best seat in the house.
ON THE FIELD
Now the bases are loaded, two outs, two strikes, the Brewers are leading, 2-0, the game is 16 minutes old -- and it's still the top of the first. Vargas has labored on the mound, has had to shake off the first-pitch homer, has given up another run and is on the verge of a complete disaster. His pitches are up in the strike zone -- belt-high. He needs to throw knee-high. The difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch can be a matter of inches. Schneider doesn't need to go to the mound and tell him how important this next pitch is. They need an out, desperately.
Vargas throws a fastball, inside, and the Brewer, Billy Hall, swings over the pitch for strike three.
In the dugout, Schneider goes up to Vargas and says: Who cares about the two runs? They only got two. You came back and got the big out when you needed it.
The Nationals go down in order in the bottom half of the first -- three batters, three outs.
In the top of the second, Vargas struggles again. He gives up a single, then a bloop to center that falls for another hit, then lets a Brewer named Jenkins smash a ball into right field for yet another hit and another run. Vargas now has given up six hits and three runs -- and has managed to get only four outs.
Beyond the left field fence, some relief pitchers get up in the bullpen. The cavalry is getting ready.
Schneider goes to the mound and tells Vargas, "It's going to be a long game if you keep the ball up."
IN THE BOOTH
A blowout would also be a nightmare for the radio announcers. Charlie Slowes ponders what other material he has that can keep his listeners entertained if the game ceases to be competitive. One thing comes immediately to mind: the Davey Nelson-Vince Lombardi story. It wasn't wasted!
Story told, he trains his attention on the beleaguered Vargas and the Milwaukee cleanup hitter, Carlos Lee, who is at the plate with runners on first and third. Slowes is half-glancing at a grid on which he keeps statistics of every player in the National League, while studying the on-field action. Next to the grid, he has his game scorecard, on which he prints the players' names and statistics in letters so tiny only someone who has at least 20-15 vision, like Slowes, could read it. Vargas kicks at dirt. Lee wags his bat. "Vargas, the pause," Slowes intones, "the pitch. Swing and a high fly ball down the left field line. Byrd going back, way back, in the corner, at the wall. He leaps and can't get it. It is gone. Goodbye. Into the Nationals bullpen. For Carlos Lee, a three-run home run . . . It's Milwaukee six and Washington nothing."
That does it. The announcers will need to look for new story lines, do more with statistics, find a wacky tale or two to amuse.
LOWER DECK, THIRD-BASE LINE
Iuga has found her client, collected the vendor's signature. Despite the bleak events on the field, she and her legal colleagues are jolly as they juggle celebratory beer, hot dogs and bags of peanuts. Iuga, intent on her food, still manages to clutch her client's crucial documents protectively at her side.
Iuga was born in the Romanian province of Transylvania. Just a few years ago, she was a lawyer working as an interpreter for the mayor of Cluj, the city known as "the heart of Transylvania." Iuga's salary was $80 a month. Her monthly rent was $60, not including utilities. She couldn't afford to buy food. So her parents, who lived 100 miles away, sent groceries each week on a bus that arrived on Saturday. The food her parents sent never lasted all week. For a day or two before the bus arrived, Iuga went hungry.
Iuga was at work one day at Cluj city hall, just surfing the Web, when she came across a posting by Paul Strauss, who was looking for a lawyer to intern in his law firm in the District. Convinced that she was born lucky, Iuga boldly applied for the internship -- and landed it. Strauss jokes that he was looking for a blood-sucking lawyer and couldn't pass up one from Transylvania.
A few hundred feet away, a pitched ball glances off a swinging bat and shoots up in the air. It seems to be arcing right toward Iuga. Strauss and several nearby fans leap to their feet and strain to catch the ball. Iuga sits still. She wonders why all the people around her are leaping to their feet.
Then she sees the ball. Coming right for her!
The ball drops into Iuga's lap. Doesn't hurt a bit. The ball is so . . . light.
She doesn't scream or shout, or even move. She just sits there, marveling at her luck, as nearby fans continue to search for the ball in confusion.
A reporter shows up, and Iuga, cracking peanuts, admits she knows very little about baseball. She smiles and says, "I come for the food."
7:39 P.M. ON THE FIELD
Schneider walks toward the mound very slowly. He is in no rush to reassure Vargas. Vargas is done. Frank Robinson is ambling out from the dugout, and when he reaches the mound he extends his hand, palm up. He wants the ball, the universal signal that it's time for Vargas to head to the showers. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, a cartoon depicts a manager in just this position. The manager is saying to the pitcher, "It's not you, it's me." But in this case, it's definitely Vargas.
Tomo Ohka, a relief pitcher, makes the long transit from the outfield bullpen, takes his eight practice pitches, and then ends the inning.
In the bottom half of the second, the Nationals go down in order again.
Same in the third. After three innings they've had only nine batters, the minimum. After four, only 12. After five, only 15.
This guy for the Brewers -- what was his name? -- Obermueller? -- is pitching that thing you never see: a perfect game.
8:25 P.M. IN THE BOOTH
Talk about a wacky story line: the Milwaukee pitcher, 28-year-old Wes Obermueller, who has not yet won a game
in the 2005 season, has not allowed a base runner as the game moves into the sixth inning. When Schneider leads off the sixth by hitting a high chopper over the head of Obermueller, it seems the moment when the perfect game must be broken.
But Obermueller steps back on the mound, traverses along its incline, nimbly leaps to catch the ball, and throws Schneider out. "That play is a lot more difficult than he made it look," Slowes tells his listeners. "He had to go down that downslope [behind the mound] . . . That was acrobatic . . . The kind of play [you get from] a former shortstop." Which is what Obermueller is.
A ground out ends the inning. "One, two, three for the sixth inning in a row," Slowes says, with emphasis on each word. "And that's 18 [hitters] set down in a row by Obermueller . . . And through six [innings], perfecto."
As predicted, the evening is relatively calm. The dark suits from the Pentagon haven't called; presumably the wobbly chair was fixed. There have been no fan ejections, no incidents of indecent exposure, no arsons -- all of which have precedent this young season. "Usually by now someone has taken a piss in the stands," Waters says.
It's been hours since he stopped by his office to trade his wingtips for sneakers. Still he seems tired, and the pain in his back makes a slight limp increasingly noticeable. He must have walked 10 miles around the stadium today.
A nearby security guard spots him and says that she just let Bud Selig -- the commissioner of Major League Baseball and former owner of the Brewers -- up into the press area. Waters stiffens, asks the guard, did she check ID? No, the guard says.
Quickly, Waters limps up to the press area.
He pokes his head into press box after press box. He sees no one even remotely resembling Selig. Waters turns to the guard: You show me who it was.
Now the guard looks into each box, finally pointing out a young man with dark thinning hair and a pastel tie.
If he's Bud Selig, Waters is Joe DiMaggio.
THE BEST SEAT
First, the bad news: The Nats are getting creamed. Now, the good news: The Nats are getting creamed.
What that means is that people are leaving the park. There is a tap on your shoulder. It is the woman from the Really Best Seat in the House. She is holding out her ticket. A gift.
THE WORST SEAT
You can't savor every nuance from the deep cheap seats, yet even the worst seats have noticed the Nats batters falling one-two-three, one-two-three, inning after inning.
The theory out here is that Obermueller is using a magic baseball. This is based on the fact that, from this distance and angle, the white ball seems to vanish into the pale backdrop of the third-base path as it zooms homeward. Now and then, you get a flicker of a glimmer of a hint of a streak of it, as if the ball were a subatomic particle flashing through a Wilson cloud chamber. But most of the time, you don't see it again until catcher Damian Miller lobs the ball back to the hill. If it is a hill.
THE REALLY BEST SEAT
This is the ticket. This is the seat. Section 119, Row A, Seat 7. You are in the first row, in a position to extend help or hindrance -- as you deem appropriate -- should the catcher or third baseman lean into the stands after a foul ball. To your left, 10 feet away, is the Nats dugout, and your view of the truly grungy anarchy within is unobstructed and complete. You are so close to the Nats on-deck circle, you can practically touch the guy inside it. As the batter marches from dugout to circle, he passes your appraising gaze, and you can read in his eyes fear or confidence.
If there is one small concern, it is this: There is netting behind home, but it ends a few feet to your right. Up to that point, the stadium feels it necessary to protect its fans with a net, to avoid death, maiming or dismemberment. But here, nothing. You are naked. To the true connoisseur, of course, the added danger is a plus. A little . . . frisson. Baseball is supposed to be thrilling. The only actual negative is expressed by the man to your right, in the second-best seat in the house. Bob Brown is a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm that owns his seat. He is there with his nacho-gobbling son, James, who is 8 and attending his first baseball game.
"With these seats, James is gonna be spoiled forever," Bob observes.
True, true. The soft tyranny of heightened expectations.
This is a weakness we graciously accept, as Nick Johnson strides by five feet away, his stubbled face betraying determination, leavened by grim realism.
MEZZANINE, THIRD-BASE LINE
John Peter Illarramendi, 30, is counting pitches, one by one, in his head. The Bethesda man says his father, who knows a lot about baseball, thinks the number of pitches a starting pitcher has thrown is important, so John Peter counts. He and his father, Ramon, are sitting in folding chairs positioned against the rail above the first tier of stands. At 69, Ramon's knees are too bad for him to negotiate the steps. Still, father and son never miss a Nats game if they can help it. Already they have become so sentimental about their games together that Ramon wears all their old ticket stubs in a clear pouch around his neck.
Ramon, who is from Venezuela, was once a diplomat for that country. John Peter, Ramon's youngest, is a sometimes actor, currently appearing in the role of Hermes in "Perfectly Persephone" at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. John Peter has Down syndrome. Like his father, he speaks with dramatic flourish. "I have an inner disability," John Peter says. "It is invisible."
John Peter also has diabetes. He brought syringes with him to the game and insulin, packed on ice. Through the night, he monitors his blood sugar level to determine if he needs more insulin. "It's very complicated," Ramon says softly. "I admire him a lot."
Ramon grew up watching baseball games on the cheap. But their tickets tonight cost $40 each.
At a recent Nats game, the announcer invited kids to come down from the stands and run the bases. Watching, Ramon was thrilled. "That, to me, was joyous," he says. "The exuberance of all those kids running. That was incredible. What baseball does to a city . . ." He pauses. Ramon hesitates to make any negative remark, he says, but it bothered him not to see more minority children running the bases or in the stands. He points out whole sections of empty seats in the upper decks, and wondered why the team doesn't give those tickets away. "If the Nats are going to do something good for this town, those seats should be filled every day with kids from schools in the District," he says. "The team should work with the city to give every child a ticket, one hot dog and a Coke."
Ramon chokes up. His eyes moisten. "Excuse me," he says. "I get emotional."
John Peter reaches out to pat his father's arm. "I wish my dad would be the owner of the Nationals," John Peter says, "He would give an example of what baseball is."
THE WORST SEAT
It must be almost 700 feet from here to the best seat in the house. If you squint, you can just make out the tiny figures in the first row beside the dugout; they look no bigger than the type in this sentence. You count four people -- or maybe two skinnies and a fat -- and then . . .
Ten empty seats!
What waste! What squandered sumptuosity! What decadence! Your feeling in this moment must be akin to the way Sudanese refugees feel the first time they see an episode of "Beverly Hills 90210."
Fortunately, just as you are thinking this, Milwaukee's Junior Spivey launches a fly ball to short center, and, thanks to the unique vista out here, you can't help noticing that Washington right fielder Ryan Church is sprinting in what seems to be the wrong direction. But no -- he's backing up center fielder Brad Wilkerson, who is charging to make the catch. Such a subtle glimpse of the game's choreography. Just as Wilkerson makes the catch, Church arrives precisely where the ball would end up if Wilkerson had somehow missed it.
Maybe seeing the ball is overrated. You get the big picture, and the big picture is lovely.
SECTION 514, UPPER DECK
The peanut vendor in his red cap and yellow jersey shimmies down the central alley that circles the stadium beneath the lights blazing against a black sky. He stops, and smiles at a young couple, dressed up for a date, in the first row. "I will dance for you if you buy peanuts," he says, doing a little hip waggle, just to give them a taste. They laugh. Everyone's loose up here. They get to their feet for the seventh-inning stretch and belt out "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with what appears to be Miller Lite-fueled glee.
8:53. For the first time in that first row of Section 514, a man in a red Nationals cap says the words: "I think he's pitching a perfect game."
8:54. Jamey Carroll raps a single to right. Perfect game over.
The exit tunnels fill with the backs of fans.
IN THE BOOTH
To hang around an announcers' booth during a lopsided game, one now devoid of even the remote possibility of a perfect game, is to understand that baseball is the only sport with time. When Brady Clark, who has four hits tonight, comes to the plate, Shea says, "Whatever he's eating, I want some."
"You know what?" says Slowes. "He's probably not eating what we're eating. That's why he's in the majors . . . What I'm really trying to say is we probably wouldn't like what he eats."
"Wheat germ," Shea says, laughing. And through all this chatter, nothing important has happened on the field.
Slowes glances at one of his grids, when a foul ball shoots straight back toward the announcing booth. "[It's] right underneath Charlie, who didn't notice it," Shea says. "If you were trusting me to dive and save you, Charlie, you were out of luck."
"Ah, it didn't have the trajectory," Slowes mutters.
"Ye of great faith," Shea says.
They both need faith, late in this hopeless game, to believe that they still have an audience.
IN THE CLUB HOUSE
Jamey Carroll tells reporters, "It's a loss. It's over with. You take it and learn from it."
Brad Wilkerson tells reporters, "We'll come back tomorrow, be ready to play, and take care of business," and then says, as though required by law, "We got to take 'em one day at at time."
Manager Frank Robinson tells reporters, "It was one of those nights."
A coach walks by Claudio Vargas, the pitcher who got tagged so badly he would soon be released by the Nats, and says, "You all right?"
Vargas nods, and says, "Just a bad day."
Where's Brian Schneider? He's icing down his shoulder. Part of the routine. He's thrown the ball all day long, he has to tend to his most crucial weapon, his right arm. He's one of the last to leave the locker room, just as he was one of the first to show up.
Tomorrow he'll be back. Stretching is at 4:20.
Two Nats fans straggle into the rapidly cooling evening, more than four hours after they arrived. One has watched from the best seat in the house, and one from the worst. They have seen the same game from remarkably different perspectives, but they share the same point of view: It was a loss. An 8-2 blowout. A really lousy game for the Nats. Almost an embarrassment.
And yet . . .
It was baseball. Baseball in Washington on a beautiful spring night.
And so, all things considered, it was nearly perfect.
This article was reported and written by Magazine staff writers Joel Achenbach, Mary Battiata, Michael Leahy, David Von Drehle, Gene Weingarten and April Witt, contributing writer Tyler Currie and Magazine editor Tom Shroder. Shroder will be fielding questions and comments about the article Monday at 2:30 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.