The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘There’s no crying in baseball,’ but Tuesday at Nationals Park was different

Juan Soto wasn't at Nationals Park on Tuesday, but reminders of him certainly were. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Walking past a vendor outside Nationals Park on Tuesday, season ticket holder Neal Denton paused when he saw a navy San Diego Padres cap.

It was mere hours since Washington Nationals superstar outfielder Juan Soto had been traded to the Padres along with first baseman Josh Bell. Denton, a 63-year-old whose seats overlook Soto’s usual spot in right field, couldn’t resist buying the hat and sporting it with his red Washington polo for Tuesday’s game.

Having seats in a row deep down the first base line made Soto a stalwart of Denton’s trips to Nationals Park. That makes his farewell to the 23-year-old slugger sting even more.

“They say there’s no crying in baseball,” Denton said. “But I’m feeling a little bit misty today. I think we all are.”

Denton enjoyed watching the surrounding sections “erupt” when Soto jogged out, and he expressed hope that the Nationals can replace him with someone who can incite a similar reaction.

But since he will find it impossible to root against Soto, Denton said he hopes Soto’s trade ends in another World Series ring, even if it can’t be with Denton’s team. Maybe he’ll give the Padres hat to a somber Soto fan, he said, or maybe he’ll wear it when San Diego comes to town this month — when Soto runs out to right field as a member of the visiting team.

Denton had hoped that would be a sight he would never see, and he had wondered whether Soto might be able to spend a long career in Washington.

“I think in my heart, I had hoped that we could watch this young man grow up here, be a team leader here,” Denton said.

It was a sentiment shared by many fans at Nationals Park on Tuesday — as well as many outside of it. In the middle of the Nationals’ clubhouse is a line of cubbies, each marked with a player’s name on a white label, filled with envelopes containing fan mail and requests for autographs.

At the end of the line are two cubbies for Soto. Two mail slots weren’t enough to contain all that had been sent to the slugger, with two more unlabeled cubbies overflowing with envelopes for him.

Losing a star such as that has left a fan base bemoaning his absence.

Jonathan DiSciullo, 34, was in the stands for the Nationals’ first game in Washington. Disgruntled by the organization’s decision, DiSciullo said Tuesday’s trade makes the road back to contention feel years longer.

“I’ll probably invest less time, less money in the team for the foreseeable future, but I’ll always be a fan,” he said. “And just hope that they maybe make more pragmatic decisions in the years to come.”

By first pitch at 7:06 p.m., New York Mets fans had packed the stands of Nationals Park, with chants of “Let’s go Mets!” overpowering the cheers of the home crowd. There was a wide range of feelings in that crowd, headlined by disappointment to see one of the organization’s brightest stars depart.

Some, such as DiSciullo, were dismayed by the trade. But others, while disappointed to lose Soto, were intrigued by the prospects arriving in the deal. Fred Middledorf, a 74-year-old who has been a fan of Washington baseball since the days of the Senators, said the trade didn’t surprise him.

“I think it’s going to turn out okay,” he said. “I’m disappointed in seeing Soto and Bell go, but that’s just the way it is.”

Balancing Middledorf’s sadness is an excitement to see the five prospects acquired in the trade. When General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked about his message to fans after the trade, he gestured to his World Series ring.

“I wore this ring purposely, okay?” he said. “It shows what we’ve done in the past and what we’re going to do in the future. And, in 2019, we had a slogan: Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. We’re in a bumpy road right now, and we believe that, coming out of this thing, it’ll be a beautiful place.”

In a ballpark filled with blue and orange Tuesday night, the end of that bumpy road was hard to see — even in a 5-1 win. An hour before first pitch, Soto’s jersey already had been pulled from the shelves of the ballpark’s team stores. And among the Washington fans who were in the stands, there was hope and curiosity — mostly overshadowed by negative feelings.

The crowd was bolstered by three home runs, lifting spirits as the night wore on. And even after another star left town, Denton said he’ll be back, year after year.

“I talked to one of my best friends today who was thundering around,” he said. “ ‘That’s it. I’m done. No more. I’m done.’ But you’re going to meet me here for a game tomorrow. He’ll be fine.”