The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Season and hope on hold for Nats fans as MLB lockout delays Opening Day

Nationals Park and the surrounding neighborhood were supposed to be buzzing early next month, but now it's uncertain when or whether the season will begin. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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There were reasons for optimism as March arrived. The pandemic, once again, seemed to be easing. Masks were cautiously tucked away. Vaccinations rose. Infection rates plummeted. And the promise of baseball’s Opening Day, America’s annual beacon of better things to come, awaited.

Too bad, said baseball’s owners and players. Talks to end a months-long lockout imposed by the owners cratered Tuesday. Opening Day, scheduled for March 31, was officially closed.

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In a world anguished by war and darkened by disease, it wasn’t catastrophic news. But to have an ached-for diversion snatched away felt like yet another whack on the head in a decade full of them so far.

“I think all fans are just bummed about it,” said Chris Nahlik, 39, a Washington Nationals season ticket holder who lives in Arlington. “We go through all winter waiting for spring to come so that we can look forward to baseball, look forward to being outside and hanging out with people.”

Now Nahlik, who held on to his season tickets even when he and his wife moved to Michigan for a couple of years, will have to wait a little longer. Or maybe a lot longer. The Nationals’ first series against the Mets in New York has been struck from the schedule. So too its home opener against the Phillies on April 4. Five games canceled so far, and who knows how many more to come.

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Local businesses, food vendors, ticket takers and ushers, all counting on a full season of revenue and paychecks, are left in the lurch. There’s nothing to do but keep checking Twitter for word of an agreement and hope that most of the season can still be salvaged. But optimism didn’t abound. The two sides had no plans for new negotiations or meetings as of Wednesday evening.

If the shortened season is a disappointment for fans, it’s doubly painful for people like Jeremy Gifford. He’s a Nats fan, but also the owner of Walters, a sports bar and restaurant across the street from Nationals Park where on game days the establishment’s 300-person capacity is stretched to the limit. Fans pack in cheek by jowl well before the first pitch and long after the final out.

Gifford has about 50 employees who have been readying for the season and the paycheck bump that comes with it. Losing a month of home games, if it comes to that, could cost the bar 12 percent of its annual revenue, he said.

“With baseball, for us it’s like a squirrel who has to hide the nuts in the summer to get through the winter,” Gifford said. “Opening Day is the biggest day of the year, and you’re never going to recoup that.”

Not getting a deal done to open the season on time hurts his business and it hurts baseball as well, he said.

“Especially after covid, there’s a lot of people who are going to truly feel like this is a bitter pill to swallow,” Gifford said.

The canceled games come at a particularly troubled time for baseball. Much of America rotates on the seasons of sport as much as the weather. And baseball has long meant springtime and sunshine and hope eternal. But its status as America’s pastime is showing wear and tear.

“Baseball is facing an existential crisis,” Alva Noe, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark,” wrote in an email from a conference he is attending in Copenhagen. “There is a sense among more and more fans that the people running baseball — the MLB leaders — are failing the sport, that they don’t love it enough, or understand its true values.”

Attempts to reach younger fans with gimmicky rule changes and an expanded postseason are actually undermining the game, Noe said.

“I’m not a conservative. The game evolves,” he said. “It has changed radically over the last 10 years under the pressure of the new baseball analytics. But I fear we’re losing trust in those who should be our game’s custodians.”

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Paul Legere, a real estate agent who lives on Capitol Hill and has coached Little League and high school-age teams, typically attends 10 Nats games a year. But he’s not holding his breath waiting for the pros to return.

Last weekend he watched three baseball games at Catholic University, where his son, Chance, pitches on the team. And he recently began his job as the junior varsity coach at Wilson High School.

“If you’re a baseball fan and not just a stadium scene fan, there are plenty of options,” said Legere, 58. “I will not miss MLB and only wish for the lockout to end because of the stadium workers that will actually suffer.”

After two seasons affected by the pandemic, Stephanie Springer, 44, was ready to embrace a full return to baseball, but the lockout has put an end to that.

Springer grew up in Rockville and she and her husband, Stuart Wallace, are big Nationals fans. They got married on Opening Day 2013 and went straight from the courthouse to the stadium. The couple and their now 7-year-old son moved to Connecticut in 2020 but were looking forward to returning to Washington for games this summer. That too will have to wait.

In the meantime, she’s excited about watching her son play Little League.

“His season will probably start before the MLB season starts,” she said, laughing.

Some die-hard fans want baseball back, no matter what. Ted Peters of Haymarket, Va., is one of them.

“It became ingrained in who I am,” he said of a sport he played in Little League, high school and college.

Peters, 56, grew up a Senators fan and, when that team abandoned Washington, he switched his loyalties to the Baltimore Orioles. When baseball returned to the District for the 2005 season, Peters was on board. He drove up to Philadelphia to attend the team’s first game on April 4, 2005, (a loss) and estimates he has made it to about 900 since. A shortened season won’t stop his fandom, he said, as long as the Nats do come back.

“They could play two games and I’ll be there, because look, we waited 34 years to get a team back here,” Peters said. “It gives you a feeling like no other when you can attach yourself to the home team, which we didn’t have for 34 years. And now we do and that’s something you can cherish as a baseball fan.”

Peters has had as much fun as anyone at Nationals games. Seven years ago he decided to dress up as Captain Obvious, a character from a commercial, wearing a white captain’s outfit complete with epaulets and a red sash with Obvious stenciled on it. The team’s losing years didn’t bother him. And he shared its joyful 2019 title run with his dad, Pete, who took him to his first baseball game 53 years ago.

But it was the games he went to near the end of last season that probably mean more to him than any. In April of last year, a few days after attending his daughter’s wedding, Peters was diagnosed with covid. It almost killed him. He was intubated and put in a coma. He went into the University of Virginia hospital in April and got out in July. The doctors and nurses who helped him asked what his goal was in getting better.

“The very first thing that I said was, ‘I want to be able to walk to my seat, sit down, enjoy an entire game and walk up the stairs again,’” Peters recounted.

And so when the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox came to Nationals Park for series at the end of last season, Peters was in his regular seats — in Section 110 — dressed as Captain Obvious and rooting for baseball.

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