In my first year on the Nationals beat, during the terrifying unknown that was spring training 2015, I would head out to the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium around 7:58 a.m. Usually, one of the grounds crew members was working on the field then. If he was too close, I would move down the dugout away from him. If not, I could stand there on the stairs, staring out at the Viera, Fla., sunrise, and hum “The Star-Spangled Banner” without anyone overhearing. The clock would turn to 8 by the time I finished, signaling the opening of the clubhouse to the media and the start of another baseball day. I would take a deep breath, turn away from the field and head down the stairs toward the entrance. Play ball.
Not long after I began that ritual, we heard brand-new National Max Scherzer hummed the anthem in the bullpen before his first live batting practice session of spring training. For him, the exercise was yet another representation of his dedication to detail. For me, it probably should have been the moment I made an intake appointment with a therapist — or, at least, another such moment. But it gave me time to set a mental agenda, ready myself for the strange, mysterious world of the baseball clubhouse and remember how cool the whole thing was.
Baseball has been a part of my life since T-ball, a daily ritual through middle school, high school and four years of college softball. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wanted baseball. When sports editor Matt Vita took me to a coffee shop and asked if I would be interested in covering the Nationals, I tried so hard to act like I’d been there before and stay cool, but I’m sure my face betrayed me. At least once a day for four years, sometimes during my renditions of the anthem or those of others, sometimes between innings, sometimes on the walk home, it would all hit me again. I was so lucky to find my way back to baseball.
At first, I was nervous. Adam Kilgore’s were massive shoes to fill. But I learned from my colleague, James Wagner, that the best way around the awkwardness of beat life was through it, to simply never quit. From the patient guidance of my colleague Barry Svrluga, I learned an incalculable amount about handling the ebb and flow of the baseball beat. And from Tom Boswell, I learned to listen to joy when it strikes and my gut when it rumbled. They all made dozens of introductions on my behalf. Their reputations all preceded me, and expanded my credibility by association.
With their help, the beat grew less overwhelming. It gave me indigestion. But it also gave me life lessons, and it gave me friends. Dan Kolko became one of those treasured friends, keeping things light while maintaining a knack for letting me know when I was out of line. Mark Zuckerman saved me from locking myself in numerous National League stadiums and press boxes, literally and figuratively. Jamal Collier provided endless Harry Potter commentary to get me through the rain delays and was always willing to hear one of my silly theories — and to debunk it. Todd Dybas always tolerated my puns a little more than I expected. Jorge Castillo, who put up with me longer than anyone else on the beat, was an incredible teammate and friend, for which I’ll probably never be able to thank him enough.
As for Nationals personnel, I wish I could tell you all my stories about them here. I would need a book for that, and after fighting through this work of self-indulgence, I’m not sure who would read it.
But the stories are mostly positive, like this one: The team was gracious enough to host a going-away happy hour for me at the winter meetings, at which one member of the organization asked, “So what’s your favorite Nationals crisis of the last four years?” The question sparked spirited debate and a half-hour of laughter among not only those who reported on the crises but those who oversaw them. Nationals personnel can laugh at themselves now because everyone in that organization still thinks the best is yet to come. Not all organizations feel that way these days. I know not many people do, either.
But for six months a year, almost every single night, the game gives fans and players and executives — and even writers seeking the perfect story — a reason for hope. And every night, without fail, even in seasons where they say they’ve sworn off the baseball habit, the same fans peek back at the game, just in case. Sometimes, the game winks back.
When rain delays tested my sanity, early flights tested my physical well-being and lizards in my hotel room tested the upper octave of my vocal range, I remembered what it was like to be a little kid, obsessed with baseball, hoping so hard it hurt. I hope that little kid would have liked my Nationals coverage. I so enjoyed getting to provide it.
In a few hours, when I board a flight to Iowa that signals the official end of my time on the Nationals beat and the start of my coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign, I’ll probably hum the anthem to myself again. I will do this largely to deter strangers from starting casual conversation, but also to remind myself of the main lesson I learned from covering the Nationals for four sometimes-grueling years:
I will never remember all the times I held back. I’ll remember the ones, like after Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby, when I became so immersed in that world that Kilgore told me to stop spewing spirited thoughts into the press box ether and write them down instead. I won’t remember the times a player dropped his bat and acted like he’d been there before. I’ll remember Scherzer, drenched in beer, so determined to enjoy his no-hitter before taking questions that he nearly made me miss deadline. I’ll remember David Vincent, the late, great official scorer who wore funny hats to the stadium some days just to have some fun. I’ll remember how fan after fan told me where they were sitting the night Jayson Werth hit that homer in 2012. I could go on and on.
It’s just a game — a heartbreaking, heartwarming, life-changing game that can mean as much to you as you let it. And please, never be shy to let it mean something to you. It can give you so much. It’s given me so much already. Thank you for reading our coverage for the past few years. It was an honor to share them with you.