My First Visit to Nats Park

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I remember as a teenager watching the Washington Nationals play at RFK Stadium when they first came to town. The house that George Allen and Joe Gibbs established in the 1970s and 80s while building the Washington Redskins into a dynasty. The same field that John Riggins would take on Sundays, allegedly filling the huddle with the smell of last night’s whiskey and cigarettes.

This was 2005, around the time that Dan Snyder lured Joe Gibbs out of retirement for a second round coaching the Redskins. Despite Snyder’s inept front office management and horrifically bad signings, Gibbs was able to take the Redskins to two playoff appearances in four years. Arguably a more impressive feat than his Super Bowl runs in the Redskins glory days, what with the worst owner in all of professional sports latched onto his back like Yoda on Skywalker, only without any of the wisdom. (Snyder may finally be winning people over with his hiring of general manager Scott McLoughan, but any Redskins fan will tell you: Don’t speak too soon. There’s still plenty of time for Snyder to screw this up, or for McLoughan, a recovering alcoholic, to find Riggins sitting on a stool somewhere in the clubhouse.

When the Nationals played there, the stands were still painted in Redskins burgundy and gold (for all I know they still are), but it wasn’t John Riggins trucking defenders on his way to a 15-yard touchdown scamper. It was Alfonso Soriano smacking homers over the makeshift Green-Giant-looking wall at RFK Stadium, and baseball legend/Baltimore hero Frank Robinson managing the team. I wonder how many Orioles fans Robinson himself won over in his short stint in Washington. Having a new baseball team in Washington might have been as welcome a sight for disillusioned Orioles fans as the sight of Gibbs back in town for despondent Skins’ fans.

My attitude toward the Orioles, the team I followed growing up, was one of indifference in 2005. Peter Angelos’ management of that team post-Cal Ripken was on par with Snyder’s worst. The Albert Bell signing was as bad as Snyder’s signing Deion Sanders, if not on the same level as the Albert Haynesworth deal, arguably the worst signing in sports history. Then again you could ask a Yankee fan about Alex Rodriguez, but at least he helped deliver a title.

The only reason I was going to Nationals games then is because a lucky connection was feeding me free tickets. With access to the “Diamond Club” nonetheless. “Welcome the Diamond Club, gentlemen,” I can hear the attendant saying right now. I was 17 years old then, stuffing my face with free hot dogs and whatever else I could get my hands on, watching baseball again in our Nation’s Capital, for the first time in 34 years, even if it was in RFK, which was and still is falling apart.

I bring all of this up only because I went to my first Nationals game in the new stadium the other evening. I guess it’s not so new anymore, but I’ve been in Colorado the past few years, watching baseball from Coors Field’s Rock Pile. The last time I really paid attention to professional baseball, the Rockies’ main slugger was Andres Galarraga. Galarraga playing tonight? That one used to get chuckles, what with Galarraga being out of baseball for about a decade at that point.

Once again I scored a free ticket. My roommate works with a group of teenagers in the D.C. area, and two of them couldn’t make it to the game. So another roommate and I took her up on the tickets. It felt good to be back at a baseball game. I felt like an American, like a Washingtonian, sucking ballpark food and $10 beers. Max Scherzer, the Bowie-eyed freak, was on the mound, and he had the Cleveland Indians blanked until the sixth inning, working on a no-no. But at some point he made an errant throw to first, and the wheels sort of fell off, at least momentarily. That’s really all the AL Central-leading Indians needed to comfortably escape with a 3-1 victory. It’s a nice track that Nationals Park, and I’ll be back for more.

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