“You!” he shouted at the fans, and though the din of Minute Maid Park drowned out the rest, it was enough. His appreciation for a fan base that hadn’t always repaid him in kind shone through. The fans erupted again for the man who had piloted the Nationals past the juggernaut Houston Astros in Game 7 to capture the franchise’s first World Series title.
The clubhouse, when Martinez reached it seconds later, seemed somewhat subdued compared to the previous four clinching celebrations. They still shouted; they still danced; they still poured alcohol all over each other. But this one felt less frantic. Maybe it was a mission accomplished. Maybe it was the oldest team in the league, the self-proclaimed “Viejos,” finally getting tired. Maybe it was because some of the chief partyers went missing.
Television cameras needed Nationals, so at 11:58 p.m. Central time, minutes after the celebration started, a half-dozen players hustled out to the sets. Trea Turner almost carried his Clase Azul tequila onto the field before someone suggested it might not be the best idea. The shortstop kept his goggles and North Carolina State helmet but abandoned the white-and-blue ceramic bottle near the dugout railing. It caught the attention of Houston police officers, who were standing near home plate.
“Is that a bong?” one asked.
“I don’t know,” said another. “Should we go over?”
They debated it for a few seconds until a third voice chimed in, urging them to leave it be.
“They just won the World Series!”
The players, unburdened by season’s end, spoke on TV as candidly as they had all year. Howie Kendrick, usually reserved, dived into the finer points of the hitting-tee routine he credited for his prowess at the plate. Turner revealed the right index finger he broke in early April, the one that sidelined him for six weeks, never fully healed. (He tried to make a closed fist, but he couldn’t bend the finger far enough.) Stephen Strasburg joked his 6-foot-5 frame didn’t fit into the 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 he won as World Series MVP, so he might give it to 5-foot-8 Adam Eaton instead.
The cameras, after a while, switched off. The broadcasters and the Nationals dropped any pretense and spoke to each other as ballplayers. Pedro Martinez complimented Strasburg on his growth as a pitcher. David Ortiz unwrapped one of his “Big Slugger” cigars and handed it to Kendrick. Frank Thomas shook his hand and pointed to right field.
“I love your game,” he said. “Keep hitting it over there.”
The champagne-soaked players started shivering. Eaton eventually ran back to the clubhouse as, a few feet away, Turner yelped: “I thought this place was indoors! It’s freezing!”
Players filtered back into the clubhouse, and it seemed like each existed in his own miniature world. Victor Robles danced wearing a cape fashioned from a Dominican Republic flag. Aaron Barrett rap-battled a verse of “Grillz” with a communications official. Tim Mead, the president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, huddled with Kendrick.
Mead and Kendrick stared at the baseball in Mead’s hands. It was scuffed from Kendrick launching it for a two-run, lead-seizing home run in the seventh inning. It had a yellow bruise from smacking the right field foul pole.
Across the clubhouse, Nolan Ryan sought out Anthony Rendon. The executive adviser to the Astros stole a quiet moment with the fellow native Texan. Ryan put his hands on Rendon’s shoulders and grinned.
“I’m so happy for you!” Ryan said.
“Thank you!” Rendon replied.
Finally, at 12:44 a.m., the clubhouse speakers rolled on the comparatively low-key “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang. Players showered, ripped down whatever remained of the plastic and dressed. One player handed three $100 bills to the Astros’ clubhouse manager responsible for the visiting team. Another Astros employee snapped a photo with Juan Soto. The team bus left the stadium a few minutes after 1 a.m.
The night continued, for most, on the third floor of the nearby Four Seasons. Javy Guerra arrived with his fiancee, whom he will marry in two weeks. Patrick Corbin came with his extended family. Gerardo Parra brought his daughter Aaliyah, the little girl who unwittingly sparked a movement with her favorite song, “Baby Shark.”
Family, friends and team staff joined. The moment felt theirs as much as the players. It belonged to ownership, to baseball operations, to those behind the scenes who every day nudged the organization forward. It belonged to the players’ loved ones, their support systems through a daily grind for eight months. It belonged to all of them.
The private room behind two security guards radiated. This was the night players had chased since they were children. What happened earlier at the field was a dream come true. What happened at the party was waking up and realizing it’s still real.
The clock marched toward morning. The difference between late and early blurred. The tricky thing about nights you waited your whole life for is that they end, too, just like the rest of them. But these nights are different. They flare feelings to help you remember. They spur stories to be later told and retold.
And maybe, because they have that power, they didn’t actually have to end. This one in Houston, the one that seemed as though it might never come, the one that crowned the Nationals World Series champions, felt like that. It could, in a way, live forever.