It was a glorious day at the ballpark.
Now, there were extenuating circumstances here; it was rainy, and the first pitch was moved back by more than an hour, and it was a school night. So maybe you can forgive us, and the rest of the fans who joined us in leaving that Monday game before it was even scheduled to start.
But Wednesday was a matinee, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, against a division rival, with a close score. The code of Real and True Fan Behavior would dictate that only fans with vomiting children would be permitted to leave early, and maybe not even them. And yet both radio broadcasts couldn’t help but remark on the fact that some fans had somewhere else to be.
“These Nationals fans must know about Jeurys Familia,” Josh Lewin said in the top of the ninth. “There’s a steady stream of fans just leaving the ballpark with the Nationals 2-3-4 hitters about to come up in the bottom of the ninth.”
“That could conceivably be in part some groups that are here and may need to catch a bus at a certain time,” added his partner, Howie Rose. “But it’s not even 3:30 yet, and the game started at 1:05, so you would think they’d hold the bus til at least 4, right?
“One would think,” Lewin said.
“Or maybe they just wanted to see Bryce Harper hit, and now that he has, they’re going home,” Rose wondered.
The Nationals broadcasters had already asked the same question.
“Thirty-eight-thousand-seven-hundred, the paid crowd here this afternoon, a big one,” said Charlie Slowes a few minutes earlier. “Too many for my taste headed to the Navy Yard metro. Two-nothing game, top of the 8th, home team has two more at-bats? It’s not time to leave. Hopefully later on, those folks leaving will be happy for us to tell them they blew it by leaving early.”
“We’re gonna stay, see how this one turns out,” said his partner, Dave Jageler.
“Absolutely,” Slowes said. “Where else would we rather be?”
The problem is, sometimes even paying customers would rather be somewhere else, even with the outcome of a Nats game in doubt. And another problem: from the high perch of the Nationals Park broadcast booth, and from almost every seat in the house, such folks are tough to miss.
Which is why every season, this issue comes up. It was a national topic in 2014, when more extenuating circumstances — bad weather and 18 innings — led to a whittling of the crowd during a playoff loss to the Giants. It was a topic last spring, when at least one player expressed some disappointment at fans leaving early in another meeting with the Mets. It’s been a topic countless other times.
So, should we care if paying customers leave early? As with most things in the world besides disgusting gross mushrooms, I can see both sides. It’s more fun for everybody when there’s a big crowd: cheering fans lead to more cheering fans, while exiting fans make you feel like you’re at a party that went dud. A big and boisterous crowd looks nice on TV and sounds nice on the radio, and it makes the game feel more exciting and important to the people who are a part of it. Wanting fans to stay is like wanting Wizards second-round playoff games to sell out; it’s a stamp of legitimacy on our sportstown-ness, a sign of people who really care.
On the other hand, we modernists have all agreed that most fan behavior is not to be judged. That, presumably, should include the “opting out of attendance” choice. If I’m paying for the product, and I decide the product I paid for is seven innings of hardball (or zero innings of sport, plus three bobbleheads), why in the world would someone insist that what I actually paid for is eight or nine innings? Leaving early does not connote a lack of faith in the home team; it could just as easily connote a lack of faith in Metro, or a burning desire to get home in time for the evening news, or general ennui, or excessive sweatiness, or just a family decision that it’s time to go.
Either way, we should probably make our peace with this phenomenon. You will sometimes be able to see Nats fans leaving early through the center field gates — against good teams and bad, in close games and blowouts, in the afternoon and at night, in sunshine and rain, in May and July, on weekends and weekdays. Sometimes, a perfect day at the ballpark wraps up before the game ends. (Or before the game starts.)