The face of Washington sports Tuesday night belonged not to Nicklas Backstrom, nor to John Wall, nor to Yunel Escobar. The face I’ll remember belonged to John Hartnett, making his way toward the exit at Nationals Park, all giggles and giddiness.
The 30-year-old lifelong D.C. sports fan sat in the 100 level for Tuesday’s Nationals-Cardinals game. He and his friend spent much of the night staring at their phones, getting “every single possible alert” about the road playoff games featuring the Wizards and the Capitals while watching the Nats head to extra innings.
At around 10:39, the Caps topped the Islanders on Backstrom’s overtime goal to even their first-round playoff series at two games apiece. Perhaps two minutes later, Wall and the Wizards finished off a surprising blowout of the Raptors to take a 2-0 lead in their own first-round series. This was the first time both franchises had ever — ever — won playoff games on the same night. And at Nats Park, the anticipation for something special grew.
“Everyone,” Hartnett said, “was just going crazy.”
Ten minutes later, Yunel Escobar blasted a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th, pushing the Nats past the Cardinals, the villains from Washington’s brutal playoff disappointment in 2012. Escobar slid headfirst into home. Fans around the area hugged, laughed and screamed. All of this was too much happiness. Which is why MASN cameras soon captured an unwitting Hartnett joyfully skipping and shimmying his way back home.
“I don’t know, as a lifelong D.C. sports fans, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Hartnett said 90 minutes later, still pulsing from that trifecta. “The city was 3 for 3. Like, 3 for 3? It felt so good. It felt so good.”
A few stops up the Green Line, Rod — a 26-year-old from Arlington — experienced the same rush. As each Washington team won, he and his roommates poured a shot of Fireball. By the time the night was over, they had a new trifecta in front of them, which they downed while shouting out insults about D.C. foils Pete Kozma and Colin Cowherd. Like rooting for D.C. sports teams, their 66-proof trifecta burned a bit; unlike rooting for D.C. sports teams, it felt good.
“It all came together, and it all happened in like a 10-minute span. It was nuts,” Rod told me as their celebration continued. “We immediately went out and bought as much booze as we had cash for, and just celebrated and toasted to D.C. sports, because it doesn’t happen very often. … Every wrong that we’ve ever felt felt right for just one night.”
Not every celebration involved hard alcohol. (Although many did, at least according to my social media feeds.) Brian Murphy — a 38-year-old father and local sports blogger — watched the trifecta at home in Chantilly; the Caps on his television, the Wizards on his iPad, the Nats on his phone. What did he expect to happen? The same thing we all expected to happen.
“I think you know the answer to that,” Murphy said. “I’ve been a D.C. sports fan my entire life. I’m trained for the other shoe to drop at any moment.”
This is the context. Normal sports fans in other cities will scoff at people like 23-year-old Harris Fanaroff, who e-mailed me “This. Was. The. Greatest. Night. Of. My. Life” amid the cacophony of online celebrations. (He later amended it to the second-greatest sports night of his life.)
But Washington hasn’t been normal, in all the ways we’ve detailed so many times: playoff heartbreak, gruesome injuries, just enough promise to keep you interested, more than enough letdowns to make fandom seem absurd.
“Me and my buddies were just expecting everything to go wrong,” Fanaroff said, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. The Wizards were cruising, but when the Raptors cut a 22-point lead to 13, I could hear my girlfriend sighing and fretting from the other room, awaiting the impossible collapse. The Caps were controlling overtime, but that fan base treats crushing doom like an intermission report: just a regularly scheduled, inevitable part of the sport. The Nats blew a lead in the ninth inning — DREW STOREN BLEW A LEAD AGAINST THE CARDINALS IN THE NINTH INNING — and so of course they would lose in agonizing fashion.
Except it didn’t happen. None of those gut-wrenching things happened. Only good things happened. Happy things. Happy things?
“Here I am an hour later, still not exactly coming down from the high,” Murphy said.
“I’m still feeling fantastic,” Hartnett said around midnight, about five hours before he had to leave for work.
“I’ve got to be at work tomorrow at 7:30 a.m., and I don’t think I’m going to sleep before then,” said Rod, he of the Chinatown party.
“After the Nats walk-off, we went and bought some more beer and pretty much celebrated like we won the World Series, because that was as good as it’s gonna get,” said Luke Polant, a 21-year old from Ashburn.
“Negative thoughts flowing through us, and then just to have that positivity, it was just total jubilation,” Fanaroff said. “Jumping and screaming, hugging each other — literally like we had just won the game.”
“A good night for Washington,” Ernie Johnson said on TNT’s NBA postgame show. “Big Night For Washington,” declared a “SportsCenter” graphic, above the logos for all three teams. (And they even used the right Wizards logo!) “Great night for DC fans!” ESPN’s SportsCenter account tweeted. “D.C. sports’ Best Night Ever,” David Aldridge wrote. “All the DC teams win today,” tweeted Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker, along with some party-time emojis. “Everybody won. Everybody…won. I can’t even…,” tweeted Nats blogger Max Duchaine.
Even longtime voice of Georgetown basketball Rich Chvotkin got into it, tweeting the video of Hartnett’s ebullient dance while adding fist-bump emojis. Fist bump emojis! Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
This night, of course, didn’t mean anything in particular — the Wizards and Caps still have (first-round) playoff series to complete, and the Nats are five months away from truly meaningful games. Maybe the NBA and NHL teams will fail to get out of the first round. Maybe the Nats will disappoint again. Don’t even look at that Redskins schedule.
But three seriously enjoyable wins within 10 minutes? On a night when your reflexes were telling you to clutch your head — and your pearls — just in case? It’s enough to make you, well, dance a slightly off-kilter, one-man jig of joy. The line starts behind John Hartnett.
(Thanks to @bencelestino)