Games even on the fringes of pennant races are supposed to be taut, not just on the scoreboard, but in the stands, in the gut. The Washington Nationals played such a game Tuesday afternoon, and the announced attendance was 25,066. But that’s just the number of people who bought tickets for a game originally scheduled for Monday night, the night after the mass shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, less than a mile from Nationals Park. When the winning run crossed the plate in the bottom of the ninth, maybe a fifth of that total sat in the stands.
“It’s just an odd feeling,” said center fielder Denard Span, whose at-bat resulted in the error that gave the Nationals a 6-5 victory over the Atlanta Braves. “It was a different feeling to start the game. It felt a little weird.”
Sports have often been focal points after tragedies, a symbol of some degree of the routine, the mundane, a distraction. “As a group in the United States . . . the sooner we get back to normal, the healing process starts,” Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez said before the game. But the Nationals were clear that they couldn’t serve as some salve for the community. They, too, needed to play so they could move on themselves.
“Once you’re on that ballfield, even if there’s a tragedy in your own family, that ballfield is like a sanctuary,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “When you got your cleats on and you’re kind of playing in the dirt, all things leave your mind.”
Yet Tuesday at Nationals Park couldn’t help but be marked by reminders. Before the opening game of what became a day-night doubleheader, Navy Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked through the Nationals’ clubhouse issuing Navy hats, dark blue emblazoned with gold ‘N’s, to players. The team wore those hats during warmups, and they donned their patriotic jerseys — dark blue with a script ‘W’ decorated with red-and-white stars.
At 12:55 p.m., both teams stood outside their dugouts, likely the straightest, most attentive lines since opening day. Public address announcer Jerome Hruska’s voice thundered in acknowledgement of the shootings — “Yesterday, the nation’s capital was devastated by a senseless act of violence just a few short blocks from here at the Washington Navy Yard,” he began, and then asked for a moment of silence.
For exactly one minute, the park, normally abuzz before a game, stood still.
“We’re still feeling it,” starting pitcher Dan Haren said afterward. “I think at least when I woke up, driving to the field, crossing over the bridge — I look over there, and it made me think about it, and putting on the blue jersey before the game with the Navy hats, I think that we were all thinking about it all game, really.”
The Nationals had already been involved in the tragedy even as they made the decision Monday afternoon to postpone that night’s game. In the hours after the shootings, D.C. officials asked if they could use one of the team’s parking lots as a staging area for families awaiting to reunite with loved ones who may have been trapped at the Navy Yard all day. The team worked with the Red Cross to provide blankets, chairs, restrooms and food, and staff also helped get food to employees detained inside the Navy Yard.
“Having the involvement of the team was essential given how close the stadium, the team is to the Navy Yard,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who stopped by the ballpark before the night game to shake hands with Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner and his family. “You’re talking about hundreds, thousands of people. To have the stadium available was really important.”
The stadium, Tuesday, returned to hosting baseball. Not under normal circumstances, but baseball still.
“It’ll probably take a couple days before you feel safe or you realize that what has happened really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Span said. “But just an odd 24 hours.”