But it wasn’t until Tuesday, in the second game of a doubleheader, that Lamb noticed a direct shot of her usual seat in Section 100. And that was weird.
“It was like a haunted house,” Lamb said of the visual. “It made me feel that in some parallel universe, I’m there. But that’s not this universe. You can’t let yourself think too much about it, because it would just be paralyzing, but it could have been different. It all could have been different.
“Post office sends everybody five masks back in April? Federal government says this is serious, shut it down? You cannot go down that rabbit hole. There’s an infinite number of parallel universes, and in any number of them I would have been in that seat.”
Lamb then connected that to other gatherings. Everyone has missed something since the world shut down months ago. When baseball returned in July, Nationals fans knew there wouldn’t be a proper World Series celebration, an in-person ring ceremony, a chance to see a banner raised toward the sky. But then their team lost and lost and kept losing until, this week, the Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention with four games left.
In interviews with a dozen fans, the season was described as both appreciated and entirely disappointing. Players had expressed wanting to help people break the monotony of life at home. So has baseball been this soothing lighthouse, a guide toward a sliver of normal in the novel coronavirus pandemic? Or in Washington, did it only lead to more stress?
“In a way, it did,” said Susan Vavrick, a longtime fan who derided all the rule changes for 2020: the universal designated hitter, an automatic runner at second in extras, seven-inning doubleheader games and a three-batter minimum for relievers. “Would I feel differently if they were better? It’s possible. But it’s just not real baseball. The team that wins the World Series should get an asterisk. And the teams that are bad, like us, should get an asterisk, too.”
Nationals fans are very protective of the 2019 title. That they couldn’t bathe in it — or give the team a hero’s welcome — was widely considered the worst part of the year. They are hoping the club bumps the celebration to next spring, even if it will feel different and a bit forced. The fans may never watch a number of pending free agents in-person again, including Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Michael A. Taylor. They have had to settle for TV.
Lamb called it a “sad, long day after the party.” Vavrick often tunes out in the seventh or eighth inning, something she never does in normal seasons. The rules have made it hard for more traditional fans. The results and injuries have been frustrating. But Jen Underwood has actually felt a heightened appreciation for Washington’s championship.
Imagine being a White Sox fan right now, Underwood says, and shut out from your team’s first postseason run since 2008. Wouldn’t that be worse?
“Everything is weird with baseball, just like everything else,” Underwood said. “But if it’s going to be a weird year and we’re not allowed in the ballpark, I’d choose this one.”
Manager Dave Martinez said Friday: “The fans, they’re the ones that really got cheated. Hopefully moving forward, I’ve been saying this to the Lerner family, we do something special for them, whether we bring all the guys back, the guys that are here, whatever.”
Underwood is gripping any bright spots of the odd year. She listens to the radio broadcast with her two teenage daughters. They get lost in the banter between Dave Jageler and Charlie Slowes, the team’s radio voices. There was a walk-off homer for rookie Yadiel Hernandez on Tuesday, a 16-game hitting streak for Trea Turner awhile back, huge numbers for Turner and Juan Soto. And, for many, the games are still a relaxing escape.
Vavrick has bookmarked the Baseball-Reference page for total homers before a 22nd birthday. Soto shot up the list this summer, going from 12th to fourth all-time, passing Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez and Ronald Acuña Jr., among others. Soto is behind only Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro and Eddie Mathews. Soto entered Sunday’s regular season finale at 69 career home runs, three fewer than Mathews.
“I still watch every game because of Juan Soto. You try to find those little things that make it worth it,” Vavrick said. “If this was a full season, I really think Juan could catch Mel Ott at 86 home runs. That’s another element of this year: A lot of what-ifs.”
When Bob Vrtis moved to Florida, he claimed fewer games in a group season ticket package. But since 2007, when he first became a plan holder, Vrtis always kept Opening Day and the last home game. In recent years, he would travel up to Washington and share each with his kids and grandkids. The family tradition now spans three generations.
Opening Day is their fresh start, a sign of spring, Vrtis’s annual chance to reconnect with his friends on the Red Porch in center field. And the last game, typically at the end of this week, is when jerseys and hats are tossed into the stands. But Vrtis was caught off guard when asked whether he had any plans to fill the void this Sunday. He hadn’t given it a thought.
“I didn’t know the season was already over,” Vrtis said with a laugh. “I guess that’s one of the sad parts: I didn’t even know.”