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At Nationals Park, an embarrassing fiasco and an absolute joy

Nationals Park, before the game. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Two events were held at Nationals Park Thursday night. The first was a rain delay that lacked much in the way of rain, and it was an abomination, a self-inflicted black eye and a disrespectful affront to thousands of fans.

That the Nats screwed up is obvious: Their decision-making was suspect (much of the delay was conducted without benefit of a tarp, a crucial clue that something was amiss); their communication was inadequate (fans weren’t told what was going on until 9:35, about five minutes before the tarp was removed); and their response to the misfire unsatisfactory. By the time the teams started playing ball — after a delay that lasted as long as a typical game — most of the crowd was gone, and justifiably so: Kids had bedtimes, Metro was closing and the information void offered no particular reason to remain.

They finally played baseball Thursday, and the Nats lost to the Braves

Just one example should suffice: Dave Moser, who has two full season tickets, used his reward points to get 18 additional seats for families connected to his youth baseball team. His group waited until the tarp came out, and then finally left around 9, hearing about the 10:10 start time during their car rides home. His reward points are gone, they spent something like $100 on parking and food and drinks, and they saw exactly zero pitches.

“Maybe they should use the money they gained from the evening to improve the pen,” he suggested.

Here’s a different suggestion: Every fan with a ticket to Thursday night’s game should be able to exchange it for a future ticket, or for a voucher to the team store, or for something to acknowledge the frustrating, baffling and baseball-less ordeal most fans endured. Rain delays are part of the deal. Interminable rain delays without rain are not.

But even as the larger group of fans seethed, a different group settled in. These were the fans who had been there since 7, but had nowhere to go and no reason to leave. Or the fans who left the stadium, but then heard that their tickets would still be honored, and returned. Or the fans who showed up at 10 or 10:30, on the promise of a wacky, cheap, and unforgettable night.

Nats call a rain delay, but the rain was slow to come

I was in that last group. I can’t speak for everyone who changed out of their pajamas, drove to the park, found free street parking, scored a $5 ticket and was almost immediately handed a free SpongeBob frozen treat with gumball eyes, but I can sure speak for myself. And I’m here to tell you the baseball game that finally shuddered to life was an absolute joy.

You knew it as soon as you wandered in, too. Instead of the usual metal-detector routine — the tables, the bins, the lines, the hassle — you just cruised right through the gates, holding your keys and phone, re-creating some innocent outing from the last century. The first noise I heard inside was the tiny crowd roaring for Gio Gonzalez on a third-inning two-strike pitch — not a normal Nationals Park response. The first person I talked to was a 12-year-old boy, Rocket Pop in hand, who was already back in line for more free ice cream.

“I’m just going around and around,” he told me as he waited for his third complimentary treat.

Because while the team didn’t do anything for the fans who couldn’t stay, they sweetened the deal for those of us who could — the young and single, the vacationers, the middle-aged parents whose kids were already in bed. Free ice cream. Free waters. Free sodas. An invitation to sit anywhere we wanted. A vast expanse of seats in which to stretch out. They cut off beer sales somewhere in the third inning, and it didn’t matter.

“They’re giving away free hot dogs, I swear to God!” my friend Ryan Rusbuldt told us at some point, and he’s now my friend because every random-ish person I sat with in section 127 is now my friend. “THEY’RE GIVING AWAY FREE HOT DOGS!!!” he then screamed, and I’d be surprised if 20 percent of the park didn’t hear him.

A three-hour bore: Fans who wait out delay are not pleased

We were all in it together, which is just one of the many ways this reminded me of 2009 or 2010, the Natinals era. Those were dark, awful times in this franchise’s history, but they now have some weird nostalgic glow, same as every pop-culture phenomenon years after it breaks through. Following the team was different then; sadder, yeah, but also homier, and quirkier, and more personal. You would watch the losses on TV, knowing that 8,999 of your closest pals were doing the same. You would go to a game and feel like you knew half the crowd, just like Verizon Center before the Caps turned. It wasn’t a rooftop Happy Hour bash, or a networking event, or a scene. It was a family get-together. Like a wake, maybe. One with jokes.

And so fans started organic cheers on Thursday, cheers the whole park could hear. Many sarcastically booed Dusty Baker when he decided to make a pitching change at 1:04 a.m. Some wandered through the concourses between the action, sitting in a different section every inning. Some stayed in their assigned seats, even way up in section 313, home of those N-A-T-S Nats Nats Nats cheers. At the high-water mark, they counted 25 fans in the 300 level. Why stay?

“Why not?” Scott Pedowitz countered, as he kept score. “I mean, being at the ballpark is better than not being at the ballpark, right? … We like these seats. It’s where we watch baseball. And someone’s got to lead the cheer.”

People with kids stayed, too. A family of five from Brookline, Mass., who went to their hotel during the delay, then headed back to the park when the game began and remained until the bitter end. (“It’s a memory,” explained Sarah Weingart, the mother.) Another family from West Virginia, there to celebrate Barrett Cook’s 10th birthday. (Bryce Harper threw him a ball, one of three he left with.) The Narcross family from distant Frederick County, Va., there so 5-year old Thomas could see his first game.

“Have you had fun?” I asked them.

“We have had fun,” Todd, the dad, said.

“Have you had fun?” young Thomas asked me, and I laughed a real laugh, and not for the last time. Thomas, turns out, left with a ball too, one caught by Steve Miller, a college sportswriter who had visited The Post’s offices Thursday afternoon to interview me for his podcast. He and co-host Paul Fritschner were at home editing that podcast when they heard about the delay and figured they might as well head to the park for some weirdness and fun.

That’s what Michael Gibbons was doing, too; he and his two friends caught a late-night $17 Uber ride from Arlington, got free tickets from fans who were leaving, got eight free ice creams and six free waters, and got an extended appearance on the video board, where Gibbons dramatically unzipped his Superman onesie to reveal a Nats T-shirt.

“If there was ever a time to wear a Superman onesie to a Nats game, this was the time to do it,” he argued, fairly convincingly. “It’s late-night baseball,” he went on. “People are just out here having fun. There aren’t business people having a drink, or here with their clients. It’s people enjoying the game, enjoying baseball. If you don’t enjoy baseball, you’re probably not waiting until 12:30 to watch the game.”

Which is exactly right: It’s hard to imagine anyone was at Nationals Park after midnight who didn’t dearly want to be just there, just then. Columnists are supposed to have big ideas, but I only ever have one, and it’s not all that big: that we go to sporting events because they’re the rare moments that let us feel like little kids, guilt-free. I wrote some version of that on my cover letter to The Post in 2001, and this night was more proof. This was wandering over to the local college and standing by the backstop for a game, except featuring the best players in the world, plus the Braves. You could hear every bat smacking a ball, every ball smacking a glove. You could hear every fan heckling Kurt Suzuki, every bullpen groan, every fan keeping the faith.

“That was amazing,” my (new) friend Jacob Rasch said sometime after midnight, as a single fan clapped for Matt Grace. “There was one person in the crowd cheering. I’ve never seen that before.”

Our fun didn’t make up for the tens of thousands of miserable customers who left without recourse; we were spoiled, in fact, to make up for their suffering. They didn’t get the freebies or the sweet seats, and they didn’t get the late-night laughs and group cheers. The team still needs to make them whole, no matter if a wobbly forecast was to blame. (“We know the fans came to see a game, and we hate that we made them wait,” GM Mike Rizzo said as part of a longer statement.)

But if you ever need a reminder of why you like the game, find a 10:10 start time and a $5 ticket, a bowl of vanilla soft serve and a bunch of sort-of-strangers whose only agenda is to smile, while rooting for extra innings. There was Johann, who sat in his seat for two hours before any rain came, watching the Phillies play the Pirates on the big screen. (“It actually was pretty nice out,” he noted.) There was Jason from San Diego, who’s picking up his vacationing kids in Pennsylvania on Friday, and had nothing but time. (“Better than going to a regular game,” he said. “This was so much more interesting.”) There was David from Alexandria, who was in bed with the lights out when he decided he might as well drag himself out.

“And now I watched a boring loss, and I’m gonna go back to bed,” he promised.

It wasn’t really a boring night, though, plus he got a free Diet Coke out of the deal. He was like the rest of us, a little punch drunk as the PA system played “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” (and we all tried to stop thinking about tomorrow), but still plenty pleased. The game ended at 1:20, the final big-league game of the night by about 60 seconds. The lights went out before we were ready to leave, like we were closing down a bar three hours after last call.

I got back to my free parking spot around 1:40 and headed home, listening to Phil Wood on the postgame show. The first caller was a guy named Greg. First-time, longtime. He began with a monologue praising Wood, pretty much the sports-radio equivalent of that ballgame.

“Thank God,” he finally said, “we’ve got baseball in Washington.”