It took three hours and a whole can of red spray paint, but Rob Washington finally put a nice thick, shiny coat of Nationals red over his fireman’s helmet. The decals, some star-spangled curly Ws, took another hour to put on just right.
And five years after the Washington firefighter touched up the helmet for the Nationals’ 2012 playoff run, he still gets compliments and offers to buy it. Other fans recognize him at the 50-some home games he attends each year. Stadium stewards shake his hand. And every season on Opening Day, the goateed man with the helmet reappears to spectators rediscovering his acclaimed “Natitude.” Washington hasn’t missed a home opener since the Nationals came to the District in 2005.
“My granddad took me to a Senators game as a kid, and I was hooked ever since,” he said.
Baseball is back in D.C., and there is nothing quite like it, said Jeff Phelan of Leesburg. He left his family in the right field stands in the bottom of the second inning to wander around, take in the ballpark and buy a beer and hot dog.
His khaki sport coat and red pants make him look like a stadium usher. His Chicago Cubs hat makes other fans look a bit puzzled.
He’s just a fan of a game, he said, and he’s glad baseball is back. He dressed up for Opening Day because why not? Everything else in the ballpark seems to be sparkling clean. A janitor sweeps up peanut shells a few feet away on a floor that clearly has been recently power washed.
“I’ve been waiting all year for this,” Phelan said, as third baseman Stephen Drew bounced out to his spot in the field.
It’s his son’s first year playing Little League baseball, but Phelan has been teaching him and his two younger daughters the game since they were little. With his son, he’s moved on from explaining a balk to diving into sabermetrics.
“Baseball is math,” he said, and instead of his son keeping his eyes glued to a phone, Phelan would rather he get some fresh air and analyze the game to a level a bit advanced for a Little Leaguer.
His daughters, one right-handed and one left, will get there at some point, he said. For now, he knows they’re paying attention if they bring their gloves to the game and pester the bullpen catchers for extra baseballs.
Noah Hunter, 7 of Mechanicsville, Md., got a ball during pregame warmups by pestering Miami Marlins’ pitching coach Juan Nieves. Chris Hunter, his father, holds on to it for safe keeping the rest of the game, he said, but periodically hands it back to Noah so he can run his fingers over the seams while eating French fries.
Chris Hunter and his spouse, Nicole, were Baltimore Orioles fans until the Nationals came to the District. And when Noah got into sports, there was only one team who could claim his loyalty, his dad said. That was Washington, in part for its young stars and more-local stadium.
His favorite player is Bryce Harper. Why?
“He hits all the home runs,” Noah said, mimicking a swing, fry in hand while wearing a Harper 2016 All-Star Game jersey. Harper homered in the sixth inning on Opening Day.
His favorite position on his youth baseball team is “batter,” inspired by Nationals’ potent offense. After Washington signed catcher Matt Wieters to a splashy free agent deal before Spring Training, Noah said he wants to try getting behind the plate this season.
Sean Tihen’s 6-year-old daughter is also missing school to celebrate Opening Day. She got her face painted with a blue butterfly around her eyes before the game. By the third inning, she was set on waving to right-fielder Jayson Werth.
“My friend,” she calls him.
She waves frantically to him as he takes the field between innings, and if he’s looking the right direction — just to the left of the bullpen — he waves back. She has memorized all the numbers of the Nationals who will respond to such friendly greetings.
Mostly it’s Werth (“Number 28!” she screams), Harper (“34!”) and first baseman Ryan Zimerman (“11!”).
When Sean Tihen, of Falls Church, gets home from this game, he’ll flip on the Orioles’ home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, and his daughter will try to call out more names, like Adam Jones and Chris Davis. The family makes it to about 10 ballgames each year.
But Tihen, at least on Opening Day, thinks Washington has the team to beat.
The offense should carry the Nationals this year, said Chris Hunter, who follows the team closely. His family routinely picks through box scores in the newspaper over breakfast before school. The first six hitters are tough outs, he said. The starting pitching is solid.
But Washington doesn’t have a closer, Hunter said.
“I can’t believe they let [former closer Mark] Melancon go,” said Tihen.
But on Opening Day, things look good. Washington battles back from a 2-0 deficit to go ahead on a two-run home run from Adam Lind in the seventh inning, and Stephen Strasburg looked as good as ever on the mound during the 4-2 win.
“This is the year,” said Washington, the fire fighter. “I feel good about this team.”