Pick a favorite moment, maybe when Livan Hernandez threw that first pitch, back in April, and the cameras flashed around Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, and you had to blink, be it from the glare or, in some cases, the tears. Or maybe when Frank Robinson, a hero from yesteryear, became a hero again, staring down an opposing manager, standing up for his team. Or perhaps it was one of those nights, 47 in all, when a 23-year-old kid peered out from under his flat-brimmed cap, watched the final out, and then thumped his fist to his chest in self-congratulations, another save for Chad Cordero, another win for the Washington Nationals.
They brought pain, too, no doubt, the pain that comes when expectations rise -- did they really spend seven weeks in first place? -- and then crumble in excruciating fashion during stifling summer evenings. And they brought controversy, because not everyone in the nation's capital wanted baseball to return, and there is still no owner, and the questions about what happens next continue.
"But overall," outfielder Jose Guillen said last week, "how much better could it get? What more could we want? Great city, great fans. And hopefully, we have a great team for a long time."
When Washington's first season with baseball since 1971 ends this afternoon at RFK, the team that departs the field won't be confused with the great teams of this year, because it couldn't score runs when it needed to, and will end the season out of the playoffs. Yet it was a ride that was nothing short of extraordinary, more than a city handed a team full of flaws could have expected. There were even weeks when the playoffs seemed utterly reachable in one moment, an absurd dream in the next.
Today, more than 30,000 fans are expected to show up at RFK to watch a game against the Philadelphia Phillies that means, essentially, nothing for the home team. For most franchises, it would be a normal close to a season which, in the end, will finish quite close to .500, the standard for mediocrity. Win today, and the Nationals will have a winning record, 82 wins, 80 losses. Lose today, and they will have split the season down the middle, 81-81, and could very well end up in last place.
What, really, is memorable about that?
"I'll never forget it," Guillen said. "With these fans, they make it so we have to remember it."
When the final out is made this afternoon, the fans who remain likely will rise and clap, as they have done all year. They did it when the team arrived in town, when Hernandez, the burly Cuban, won on Opening Night against the Arizona Diamondbacks. They watched from afar when Robinson, a Hall of Famer as a player, challenged Mike Scioscia, the manager of the Los Angeles Angels, during a game in June out west, when the two men went face-to-face, when the benches cleared and the Nationals pulled together for a comeback victory that spurred their stay in first place in the National League East Division. They rose and hollered for all of them, even for Rick Short, a 32-year-old man who had never played a game in the major leagues. But here he was, getting a hit for Washington, so Washington returned a standing ovation.
"I don't know," said catcher Brian Schneider, "if we'll ever get to experience anything like this again."
But the fans have cheered only those qualities they have seen, and there was so much more. They would cheer if they saw Brad Wilkerson with both his shoulders, and sometimes his back and his forearm and his thumb, wrapped heavily in ace bandages, a mummy. They would laugh if they listened to hitting coach Tom McCraw, 64, jawing with first baseman Nick Johnson about how, if the two ever met on the golf course, McCraw would whip Johnson. They would chuckle if they watched Tony Blanco, a rookie from the Dominican Republic, performing his chief duties in front of the bathroom mirror, cropping the hair of veteran Carlos Baerga, making sure each ink-black strand was in its precise place.
And when Robinson or the players encountered the fans walking through the city, the fans would yell their approval.
"You guys play last night?" Robinson said he heard more than once.
"Yeah," Robinson would respond. "But we lost."
"Oh, don't worry about it. We're just happy to have you guys here. It's great to have baseball back in the city."
The Nationals sold more than 2.7 million tickets, well over their preseason goal of 2.4 million. They were hindered by offseason wrangling, in which District Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) brokered a deal with baseball officials to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, only to have the D.C. Council balk at plans to raise money for a new stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront by taxing the city's largest businesses.
"It was a crazy, crazy time," Nationals President Tony Tavares said.
There are more crazy times ahead, to be sure, because Major League Baseball still has not selected from among eight groups interested in owning the team, which is expected to command $450 million. An announcement could come this month, but it also could be delayed until November. It won't come until the team and the city agree on terms of a lease for the new stadium.
For most of the players, and most of the season, the franchise's flux was peripheral, and as the Nationals gathered in their tiny clubhouse Friday afternoon, passing around pictures and bats and specially marked "Inaugural Season" baseballs for each other to sign, they reflected glowingly about the experience of bringing baseball back to Washington. Yet they also spoke about their offseason concerns, because they want to be normal players on a normal team -- finally.
"I hope they get off their butts and start moving [on ownership], because I think this city could be a major factor in Major League Baseball," Wilkerson said. "The market, the education of the fans and everything this city has to offer, I think it could be one of the top four or five places to play in the whole major leagues.
"But I think having Major League Baseball owning this team, there's still a cloud over the team's head, where a lot of things can't move in the right direction to make it the best it can possibly be."
The Nationals' average attendance of 33,703 tickets sold through Friday included thousands of no-shows, yet the players complained not once. In 2004, they played in front of an average of 9,357 fans in home dates split between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico, an arrangement which they abhorred.
"Montreal was a great city," said Jose Vidro, the veteran second baseman. "There's very few cities like it. But we were there to play baseball. We're not there on vacation.
"To go to the stadium and watch nobody there, even sometimes when we were playing good, we feel like we didn't get anything back. To come here knowing that there's going to be people there, knowing they're going to respond to you, that alone makes everything different. It makes you want to come to the ballpark and play hard, play well."
The success on the field was varied, marked by a 10-game winning streak in June in which RFK, 44 years old, shook to its dusty and creaky core. At one point, the Nationals owned baseball's best record at home. They won games by one run with such alarming regularity -- 12 straight, at one point -- they started to wonder about it themselves. "We couldn't do anything wrong," Schneider said.
"This ballclub seemed like even if we got behind, we were so confident, we felt like we were going to win, and we did," Wilkerson said. "I don't know if I'll ever be a part of anything like that again, even just the winning streak, all the close games. But the combination of doing it while we were here for the first year, that was amazing."
They took over first place in the division on June 5, built a 51/2-game lead on July 3, and went into the all-star break up by 21/2 games.
"The first half," Robinson said, "was magical."
And in part because of that, the second half was miserable. At one point, the team lost 15 of 18. On July 26, they dropped the first of three games in Atlanta when Cordero uncharacteristically blew a save. That night, they fell out of first place. They never returned.
"A lot of things went south," Vidro said. "The games we were winning in the first half, we were not winning. The plays that we were making earlier, we were not making. The key hits, the two-out hits to drive in runs, we didn't get any. And that was it. And then, I think, that kind of deteriorated the team, piece by piece."
They stopped getting along as well. They held closed-door meetings and sniped at each other. Robinson became so disgusted with what he took as a lack of focus that he turned off the music, cut off the card games and shut off the television in the clubhouse. "Chemistry," Robinson said, "is always good when you're winning. . . . But this team, I thought it would hang together. I really did."
To a point, even into September, it tried, putting aside differences, sweeping the Mets in New York, riding into San Diego playing its best ball of the second half. And on Sept. 17, it ended. The Nationals led the Padres 5-0 in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs. And they lost. Cordero, the kid closer who, at season's end, will have saved more games than any player in baseball, gave up a game-tying grand slam in the ninth, and the Padres won in the 12th.
Afterward, in a clubhouse strewn with players who remained in full uniform 30 minutes after game's end, Wilkerson tucked himself deep into a corner locker, as if he were a piece of luggage, his head down. "I blew it," Cordero whispered in another corner. There, the dream died.
But Friday night at RFK, in a game the Nationals would go on to lose, an announced crowd of 30,375 leapt to its feet during the seventh-inning stretch, belted out "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and then jumped up and down as the speakers blared. Nearly six months earlier, on the night baseball returned to Washington, they had figured out that the stands along the left field line, if everyone hopped a bit, bounced. Who cares if the team was out of the race? The fans jumped. The stands bounced. RFK, for one of the final times this year, shook.
Baseball is back in Washington. Next spring, it will be back again. And with each season that ends like this one, with a final game that means nothing, Washingtonians will relearn what, perhaps, is the sport's most important phrase.
"Wait till next year," Guillen said, and he winked.