So there’s really no relationship between what will happen in this two-game series between the Angels and Nationals and what happened then. Except us. The few of us who were turned in to that team and that time, and can count it as a stitch — a pretty significant, colorful stitch — in getting from past to present.
Those Nationals — the first group of Nationals to play here following baseball’s 33-year absence from the District — arrived in Anaheim, Calif., having just completed a 13-game homestand in which they won 12 times, including the last 10. They arrived in first place in the National League East, a situation no one predicted would be the case for a bunch of ex-Expos. They were, at that point, some combination of cult heroes and downright mysteries, because MASN was not yet widely distributed, so even if you wanted to follow this burgeoning, summerlong story, you had to read the newspaper to find out what was happening. (What a world. What a wonderful world.)
The Nats got throttled in that first game in Anaheim, losing 11-1 to an Angels team that was also in first place, a thud to end the winning streak, because Esteban Loiaza and Sun-Woo Kim and T.J. Tucker each got pummeled, allowing 20 hits among them. (Like those names, don’t you? Don’t worry. There’ll be more.)
What followed the next two nights, I would argue, are the two most enthralling, back-to-back regular season games the Nationals have played in the 12 1/2 seasons of their existence.
We now have Max Scherzer’s two no-hitters and Jordan Zimmermann’s to close the 2014 season. We have Scherzer’s 20-strikeout game and Stephen Strasburg’s debut. We have Ryan Zimmerman walking off the Yankees on Fathers’ Day in 2006 and walking off the Braves to open Nationals Park in 2008.
Take them all, and add some more.
I’ll take June 15 and 16, Nats at Angels.
I’ll take them because, even as a nascent organization that had played just 64 games in its new home, the Nats brought baggage into those contests. Jose Guillen carried it all. The outfielder was an Angel in 2004, but he had a public tirade against Manager Mike Sciosica, was suspended in the middle of a pennant race, and was traded to Washington after the season. In the days before his return to Anaheim, it was clear to me that Guillen was still combustible.
“If you’re a manager and you call me into the office, and we talk in the office with closed door, it’s a different story,” Guillen told me the week before the Anaheim trip. “That’s why I don’t like it when people say I went after Mike. Mike called me and approached me in front of all my teammates right at my locker. He said I was not saying things I’m supposed to be saying. We were screaming face to face.
“As the manager, I believe, you come to me, you ask me to talk in the office, we talk.”
That Tuesday night, the Nats trailed, 3-1, in the top of the seventh when Scioscia — the only guy who will be in his same chair this week — removed starter Ervin Santana and turned to reliever Brendan Donnelly to face pinch hitter Carlos Baerga. (The names! The names!) And off we went.
Robinson, tipped off by Guillen, came out of the dugout and asked the umpires to check Donnelly’s glove — before he made a pitch. The umps did, and found globs of pine tar. “It was obvious,” crew chief Dale Scott said. “There was quite a bit of it.”
The umps ejected Donnelly. And here came Scioscia. The Angels manager was 46 at the time. Robinson was a couple months shy of 70.
“Let me tell you this,” Robinson said the following day. “If people let me intimidate them, then I’ll intimidate them. But I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. I am the intimidator.”
Scioscia began telling Robinson that every one of his relievers would be “undressed” when they came into the game. Robinson charged at the younger manager. They had to be separated, and here came the benches and the bullpens. Guillen exploded, the first time the Nationals had seen him come unhinged. He had to be restrained. But when things calmed down, he was still in the lineup.
In the eighth, Scot Shields — the replacement for Donnelly — hit Ryan Church with a pitch. Guillen was up next. He got an 0-1 fastball, and the swing he put on it was violent. The thing was a laser beam, a 1-iron that seemed to be no more than 10 feet off the ground on its entire way out of the yard to left. Tie game.
“I want to beat this team so bad,” Guillen said. “I can never get over about what happened last year. … Anytime I play that team, Mike Scioscia’s managing, it’s always going to be personal to me.”
The Nats took the lead when Junior Spivey singled home Vinny Castilla, added another run when Brian Schneider’s sacrifice fly plated Wil Cordero, and tacked on one more in the ninth. Final: Nats 6, Angels 3. And things started flying afterward.
“I lost a lot of respect for Mike tonight, as a person and as a manager,” Robinson said. “There’s nothing he can say to me now. Nothing. I don’t even want him to approach me. I don’t want him to try to apologize to me. If he even thought about it, I will not accept it. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
(Transcribing tape might be the worst part about being a sportswriter. That week, I remember racing to the press box and almost salivating before pressing “play.” There were no bad quotes.)
The next day, before the series finale, Robinson established himself as “the intimidator,” and then sent newly acquired Ryan Drese to the mound to try to win the series. But the manager now shared Guillen’s baggage, too.
“As far as forgiveness and stuff, I don’t feel like it right now,” Robinson said before the game. “I’m not that type of person. You step on my toe, it hurts for a while, and I’m not going to forgive you for stepping on my toe until maybe it stops hurting.”
Drese locked horns that night with — get this — Angels ace Bartolo Colon, formerly an Expo. Schneider led off the sixth with a homer, and that stood as the only run into the ninth, when Robinson called on Chad Cordero, who was emerging as a star. When he entered, he had 20 saves in 22 opportunities and a 1.09 ERA. And he opened the ninth thusly: allowing a single to Darin Erstad, then falling down while trying to deliver a pitch to Vladimir Guerrero.
“It was embarrassing,” Cordero said.
It also got tense — because of the score and the inning, but also because of the hard feelings that preceded it. Guerrero walked, and Garret Anderson singled the bases full.
“I was so scared,” Guillen said, “because I don’t really want to lose this game.”
And then Cordero did what he would do most of that summer. He struck out Steve Finley, got Bengie Molina to pop to shallow center, and blew a 1-2 fastball past Dallas McPherson. Nats 1, Angels 0.
Series over? Kind of. Guillen was just starting. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a person so ready to spew in a postgame clubhouse setting.
“I don’t got truly no respect for him anymore because I’m still hurt from what happened last year,” Guillen said. “I don’t want to make all these comments, but Mike Scioscia, to me, is like a piece of garbage. I don’t really care. I don’t care if I get in trouble. He can go to hell. We’ve got to move on. I don’t got no respect for him.”
Whew. Still makes me smile.
The Nats returned to Anaheim in 2011, when they were a wholly different entity, so this isn’t even the first trip back. The ’05 Nats team started 50-31 but finished 31-50 and in last place, starting a string in which Washington finished last five times in six years, and this Nats team is going for its fourth division title in six seasons.
But here’s why that series a dozen years ago, late at night on a cable network not many people could get, matters. It is history. In 2005, baseball history in Washington amounted to Walter Johnson and Frank Howard and everyone in between. It was real, but not many people had it on recall, the I-was-there-moments. Washingtonians who filled RFK Stadium that summer had a 33-year baseball void, or a relationship with the Orioles, or some combination of both.
Now, the people who stay up to catch these games against Mike Trout and the Angels, they remember the summer of ’05 and baseball’s rebirth here. They remember the 100-loss seasons, the first division title in 2012, Game 5 against the Cardinals, and on and on. They wonder if Matt Williams should have left Zimmermann in Game 2 in 2014. They remember Bobby Henley sending Jayson Werth home in 2016, when he was out by a mile.
They have history. Not like the Yankees. Not like the Dodgers. But they have it. And moments like June 15 and 16, 2005 are part of it, when we can say, “Remember when … ?” And it matters.