The result was a thunderstorm of joy and relief raining on everyone. On a freeze-frame from the national TV broadcast — which the Nats tweeted as a GIF — it seemed as if half the fans in the bleachers had somehow smuggled in buckets of liquid and then threw their contents straight up at the same instant.
You would think that such a scene must have happened in many places many times. Probably. But I had never seen it before.
Everyone screamed, hugged and jumped up and down like small children presented with a gallon of ice cream. In the Nats’ bullpen, reliever Daniel Hudson abandoned his attempt to finish his warmups for the ninth inning to protect a 4-3 lead because his mates blocked his way, still climbing the bullpen fence. So Hudson fired the ball underhand — straight up, just like all the flying beer — and marched to the mound to send the Nats toward Washington’s first World Series win in 95 years.
A psychiatrist at that game pronounced the beer storm “amazing” and all of it “the best sport event of my life.” Thus, temporary insanity became purest sanity and health to us all.
These days, crowds — especially screaming, hugging and airborne-particle-sharing crowds — are almost a kind of crime against each other. Have we ever been so physically separated at a time when we feel divided in so many other ways, too?
When I want a boost, when I want to be certain that, whatever is wrong with sports — or even with people — there remains a whole lot more that is good, I think of that Oct. 1 image. I don’t have to watch it, though a Washington Post story preserved plenty of fan-shot crowd videos of that moment. It’s branded in memory.
So is the moment the Nats clinched the pennant. I jammed into crowds on the gallery level on my tiptoes. I don’t know why, but I wanted my glimpse of a mob of players on the field to happen amid a mob of yelling fans. Once I got on the field, the players, on their riser, didn’t seem as interesting as facing the stands and slowly turning to take in the whole three-deck panorama, with almost nobody leaving their seats.
The Constitution Avenue parade, one month later, was one of the ultimate D.C. sports crowds, so big that if you found six feet of steps to climb, you still couldn’t see the back of it. For five hours, thousands of people walked in a continuous dense stream from Metro Center to the Mall as thousands of others, feet tired, walked back in the other direction to go home. Every kind of person you could imagine, bonded by Nats gear, divided by nothing. No, that is a crowd.
We each have crowd memories, in different sporting events, such as Rock the Red home games during the Capitals’ trek to a Stanley Cup win, or block parties or that Caps parade.
Yes, I miss crowds. At a time when MLB’s eight first-round series this week will have zero fans, I look for excuses to remind myself that those throngs will be back. We will return.
If I had thought about crowds seven months ago, I would have been ambivalent. Many sportswriters are wary of crowds. When you must focus most, to file a column in minutes after a walk-off homer, they cheer until they shake your chair. Crowds, bah!
But I was wrong.
Sometimes we overlook what is most obvious. When I look at all the photographs on my phone from last October, not one is of a Nats pitch or a play.
Every photo was of the crowds, the faces and the scenes. Families, three generations or maybe four together, surround the statues of Lou Brock and Stan Musial outside Busch Stadium III in St. Louis. Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine fills up, seen from the highest row behind home plate, during batting practice, with the San Gabriel Mountains encircling it all.
There is a photo of a half-empty street after the last out in Houston, a line of taxis with no passengers to carry and a bar that is getting ready to close because the all-night bash Astros fans expected never happened. So sad crowds, too.
Life is, among a thousand things, an invitation to find an excuse to be happy. Often, that means a bunch of us find something we enjoy and do it together with no need to explain ourselves to anybody. My wife loves parades, especially the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, which she saw with an aunt as a child. She watches every year. “Goofy giant balloons, firetruck floats, marching bands and bad music?” I say. She just smiles.
What sports crowds tell us — cheering ones during a win, stone-silent ones after a defeat — is how much we want to have a common experience that we can talk and laugh about, but always with a sense of implicit friendship because we share the game itself.
Life can feel solitary, often chilly, each in our own skin; one heat that warms us is the glow of that whole range of shared memories. Yet in months, we have gone from having the choice of joining a crowd of thousands who share a passion to wondering whether getting 10 friends together is too much.
Of all the hardships of this pandemic, the one that seems to become more intense with time — almost unendurable for many, who glom together even when they know it is dangerous or selfish — is separation from all our groups, whether as small as family and friends or large enough to fill a stadium.
Seldom have Americans been separated in so many ways. On the anniversary of the night it rained beer and cola at Nationals Park, remember that there will be, there must be, a time when we can come together again.