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Weird, it was: Inside the first Star Wars Day at Nationals Park

(Alex Brandon / AP)

Amid the Stormtroopers with laptop fans hidden inside their costumes and the princesses in wigs, the women in the Red Loft wearing tiny Darth Vader dresses and the men in Jedi cloaks downing Leinenkugels, the fans dragging around heavy black robes in heat that would make Tatooine blush and the serious role players swinging away with lightsabers in the center field plaza, it was tempting to think a few far-far-out thoughts about Star Wars Day at the ballpark.

That this was about more than just novelty concessions like Jawa Juice, scoreboard graphics about “the Sith Lord Kershaw” and a half-successful attempt to make fans chant “Use The Force” (and that didn’t refer to a put-out at second). That this was a peek into the very (tauntaun) guts of our 21st century diversions, how our irrational passions seem normal through repetition, why 40,000 of us would gather in a fiery arena to sweat through our various costumes: the red ones with Harper printed on the back, or the white-and-blue ones covered with droidy decorations.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all, but who cares?” said Blair Nottingham, and that worked for the entire spectacle: the cross-dressing Racing Presidents, the grounds crew members in costume, the massive lines to take your picture with a droid, Ian Desmond hugging Yoda, Dark Side representatives standing at attention for the Anthem, all this going on while two of the National League’s best teams faced off.

“This is what it would be like to go to Comic-Con and have a baseball game break out,” said Scott Brown of Centreville, as he walked through the madness.

You could find two brothers (and Braves fans) from Delaware showing off their new $75 Stormtrooper costumes in that Red Loft bar, even as the Dodgers were scoring their first run on a Max Scherzer wild pitch. Or a Pirates/Dodgers fan dressed as Boba Fett together with an Orioles/White Sox fan dressed as an Ewok, both from Pennsylvania, who left their seats because there was more action in the concourses. (Of course, there’s more action on a D.C. streetcar line than there is from this depleted Nats lineup.)

Or you could find Star Wars fans like Hunter Campbell, waiting in the outfield plaza for that fifth-inning battle scene to commence. Did he know the score of the game?

“No clue,” he said.

What about the starters in this nationally anticipated matchup, which lived up to the hype for eight innings?

“Yeah, Scherzer and the Dodgers pitcher,” he quipped.

So why was he at a baseball stadium for a baseball game?

“For this,” he said, gesturing at the characters readying to perform in front of a growing crowd. “I came for these guys: Darth Maul and his buddies being jerks. It should be amazing. And I kind of want to know where the Sith lords buy their Velcro boots.”

Sure, there was a good deal of that, like Jeremy Breese celebrating his 21st birthday while dressed as Qui-Gon Jinn. I asked him if he could name any players on the Nats.

“None,” Breese admitted. “I’m no good with names like that.”

Of course, there’s no chance I had ever heard the name Qui-Gon Jinn before Sunday.

But it was a cinch to find fans who were passionate about both baseball and Star Wars, and who were almost ecstatic about the opportunity to mix these hobbies. One woman, Ruth Koerber, said the day brought together her two very favorite things in the world, creating a feeling she compared to an orga….well, to a really really really enjoyable feeling.

Matt Powers, a 31-year old from Springfield, has tattoos paying tribute to both Star Wars and the Dodgers; he called Sunday’s game “otherworldy” and “beautiful,” saying it was “about a love for the game and peace and love for the galaxy around us.”

Stephanie Scuiletti — a baseball fan in Rebel Alliance earrings, lightsaber sunglasses and an R2D2 dress — said she had already made new friends before the game even started. Helen Lloyd, a Nats season-ticket holder dressed as an elaborate Ahsoka Tano, said the concept “works perfectly for us.” And Jen Schimmenti of Falls Church, wearing a Curly “W” Wookiee t-shirt and holding a jumbo head of Darth Vader wearing in a Dodgers hat, described a sense almost of freedom.

“It’s celebrating geekiness,” she said. “You’re allowed to walk around and be a dork. It’s awesome. I feel comfortable just being nerdy. I don’t celebrate my nerdiness on a daily basis, but this is like bringing two worlds together: the sports world and the nerd world.”

Now, the Nats no longer need gimmicks to sell out their stadium, certainly not on a July weekend against the first-place Dodgers, a likely playoff opponent. Sunday’s crowd was the 11th of the season of at least 40,000; that already surpasses last season’s total, and it’s not even August. Friday’s and Saturday’s games also sold out, and team officials have already said next year’s Star Wars Day would involve a less sexy matchup.

And sure, there were critics of the promotion, who said it felt minor-league, or stupid, or unnecessary. But one fan after another strolling the stadium said it was both special and appropriate for baseball — with its nerdy numbers and three-decimal-point stats — to open its doors to a horde of geeks, even during a big-time matchup like this one.

“There have been baseball nerds for approximately as long as there has been baseball,” pointed out Aaron Margolis, who was dressed as Han Solo.

Fans described how perfect this was for families where one son loves ballgames and the other loves blasters, where mom wants to watch the game while her son wants to see hand-to-hand combat. And they explained how both passions so often developed in childhood, involving family bonds and more than a tad of fantasy.

And so Elina Kent and her dad George — baseball fans who once shared a catch at Fenway Park — were at Nats Park, in costume together, for one last father-daughter outing before Elina goes to college in the fall. She was dressed as Jedi Master Aayla Secura, massive blue tentacles thingees cascading down her back. His face was painted in Sith style.

It didn’t take much prompting before fans in robes and ballcaps ticked off the similarities in the two sorts of fandom, the way both interests offer a sense of community, a feeling of belonging.

“Emile Durkheim calls this collective effervescence; I think he was on to something,” said Patricia Brent, referring to the French sociologist while wearing her Sith robe. “Being around all these other people doing the same thing, it amplifies the feelings you might already get, the feelings of enjoyment.”

That holds equally for the grown-up Boba Fetts posing for photos with the kiddie Boba Fetts, and for the Nats fans doing their Wil-son chants and two-strike cheers.

“You have different fans and communities that are committed to their groups, but they’re all diehards,” said Matt Morley, the commanding officer for the Old Line Garrison, one of the volunteer groups that staffed the game with authentic-looking Star Wars characters. (Morley was wearing a Stormtrooper costume at the time, so his quote may be approximate.)

This was all such a jumble of symbols and meanings that you wonder what an alien — or a Japanese exchange student — might make of it.

“Very great,” pronounced Daz Miyamoto, one of four Japanese students who attend William & Mary and came to Sunday’s game. “It’s pretty weird,” he also said. (They had never been to an MLB game before, but when they heard about the Star Wars promotion they bought costumes and watched the movies to prepare.)

And he’s right. It’s both great and weird. And adding a large version of Calvin Coolidge (dressed as Luke Skywalker) dueling with a large version of George Washington (dressed as Darth Maul) maybe lets you see how weird the entire enterprise is: the ovations, the fantasy leagues, the adults dressed up in baseball costumes, the 40,000 folks sweating through a 5-0 loss. Why do they do it?

“Obsession is a hobby,” said Jim F., a government worker dressed up as a Jedi Knight, beer in hand. “It’s just different flavors of fanaticism.”