A few minutes before the national anthem Tuesday night, Charlie Brotman stood on the Nationals Park concourse and bought a Bud Light tallboy. He had come from a souvenir shop, where he had purchased programs and caps and the line snaked around.
“I felt like I was in Disneyland,” Brotman said. “It was incredible.”
Brotman was getting ready to watch his second MLB All-Star Game in Washington, the one he thought would never happen. For the first, he had a different vantage point: Brotman was the public address announcer at RFK Stadium in 1969. He was 41 years old then, and now he is 90. He watched one team leave, then another, then waited 33 years for a team to return.
Another milestone came this week, when the annual summer showcase rolled into town and the baseball world turned its gaze to a stadium, a neighborhood and a baseball city in full bloom.
“You see a lot of daddies with their kids,” Brotman said. “For the rest of their life, the kids and the daddies will say, ‘We went to the All-Star Game!’ This is a monumental moment for Washington.”
When the Lerner family purchased the Washington Nationals from Major League Baseball in 2006, it made procuring an All-Star Game in the nation’s capital a mission. It became reality this week, in a part of town since transformed from blighted to trendy. Yards Park became Play Ball Park, Fan Fest took over the Convention Center and Bryce Harper raised the event to a crescendo Monday night by winning the Home Run Derby.
“For everybody, it’s been an overwhelming experience in the best sense of the word,” Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said Tuesday afternoon, standing in the home clubhouse shortly before the National League took batting practice. “A lot of people worked very hard to make this happen. We spent three years putting this together. We’re very proud of everybody in our organization. It’s a special moment for everybody in the family, the city. I think everybody’s done it right, and the city is responding in incredible fashion. There’s a buzz around here that you don’t see very often. It’s just great. It truly is a dream come true.”
Tuesday night, more than 40,000 strolled through the gates, among them Jennifer Lopez and Kate Upton, the wife of Houston Astros all-star Justin Verlander. A collage of jerseys roamed concourses — Altuves, Poseys, Scherzers, Judges, Molinas, Machados, Griffeys, even a Clemente, a Valenzuela and a couple of Gibsons.
“Bucket list,” said one of the Gibsons, 60-year-old David Chestnut, who moved from Champaign, Ill., to Alexandria three years ago and bought a partial season ticket package.
As varying fans and segments of the city mingled, so did sectors of the D.C. sports universe. Wizards point guard John Wall attended the Home Run Derby in support of Harper, a friendship that developed as they grew together from precocious No. 1 draft picks to full-blown adulthood. “We talk all the time,” Wall said. “We’re cool.” Wall lingered outside the clubhouse Monday night, embraced Harper and posed with him for a photo. He had been energized by Harper’s mashing, along with the rest of Washington.
“That was dope,” Wall said. “It was great.”
Tuesday night brought more only-in-D.C. bold names to the park. CNN political analyst David Gregory sat three rows behind the National League dugout, next to his 15-year-old son, Max.
“I took him to games in the first season, on a sweaty July or August night, in RFK, when the team was horrible,” Gregory said. “I think we kind of dreamed of a time when not only the Nationals would hit their stride, but when we would be a major center of the baseball world. I think the All-Star Game is the ultimate validation: We are the center of the baseball world.
“The baseball world sees a really thriving and amped-up baseball community. We’re the nation’s capital, and people think about politics. People forget people are raising their families here; people from Maryland, Virginia — they represent all kinds of backgrounds. A lot of people working in government, working in the military. This is a great community, and it’s a great community for sports. We’re fired up.”
A few rows behind Gregory sat Al Hunt, a season ticket holder and venerable Washington journalist. He was near the usual seats of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who instead sat in the upper deck, according to the Associated Press. “It’s just special,” Hunt said. “There are Hall of Famers here.”
He had come to the All-Star Game with Dick Flavin, the poet laureate of the Boston Red Sox. “I’m 81 years old,” Flavin said. “It’s my first All-Star Game. I blew off the game in ’99 [at Fenway Park]. Biggest mistake I ever made. I’m making up for it tonight.”
As the players finished their warmups, Iris Henley came up to say hello to Hunt. Henley, a 74-year-old who grew up in Washington, said she has attended every Nationals regular season home game, except two, since baseball returned. She keeps scorebooks from the games, and now she would add an All-Star Game scoresheet to the pile.
“It’s very surreal,” Henley said. “It’s very energizing. I’m looking forward to Friday, when they get back to normal.”
Antwan, a 28-year-old beer vendor who grew up in Southeast Washington, hawked Budweiser and bottles of water behind Section 114. He remembered when the NBA All-Star Game came to D.C. in 2001, but he was much too young to work it.
“It’s a million-to-one in a lifetime,” said Antwan, who declined to share his last name. “It’s right here in my home. I didn’t have to travel. I’m a D.C. native. And more money. More fun. Hopefully we’ll get a Super Bowl. It’s the first step to good things coming to the city.”
Those who attended the game at RFK 49 years ago still remember what they saw — the mammoth home run from Willie McCovey, the rainout, all of it. Those at Nationals Park will remember Max Scherzer striking out Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve and watching Aaron Judge and Mike Trout smash home runs. It may happen again in their lifetimes, or it may not. For one night, Washington hosted a celebration of baseball, and baseball got to celebrate Washington.
“This is a big, big deal,” Brotman said. “You see all these names on television. It’s like a Broadway show on TV, and then seeing it on Broadway. It’s a big difference. It’s a thrill that I’ll never get over.”