A World Series title comes home to Washington

World Series celebrations were things for other cities.

That’s what I knew for a fact during the long twilight years when the city I chose didn’t have a baseball team. The next 14 years–first salted with 100-loss futility, then scarred with first-round postseason exits–didn’t shake my fear that I’d live my entire life while watching other places’ players jump on each other on an infield in October.

But that just happened. For my city. In my lifetime.

The Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in a game 7 that wasn’t supposed to happen after… the team started the season with a 19-31 record… our bullpen was revealed to be built partially out of balsa wood… we had to claw our way into the postseason via a come-from-behind wild-card win against the Brewers… we needed five games to beat Los Angeles in the division series and crush our own postseason curse… we swept St. Louis and jumped to a two-game lead over Houston that we then refunded to find ourselves down 3-2, needing to win two games on the road.

(By then, it looked like the primary accomplishment of our ill-spent World Series homestand would be providing an appropriate and deserved greeting to President Trump. Readers: It’s your right to boo a politician making a public appearance at a baseball game–and if that politician otherwise hides from all unfriendly audiences, booing might be your obligation as a citizen.)

We grabbed game 6 from the Astros, but game 7 saw us staring down eight outs from a second-place finish that I would have accepted. Can’t lie: I thought we were smoked then.

Wrong. We did it. We flipped the script. The Nats are world champions. They can replace the blank white flag that’s flown over the Nationals Park scoreboard since the venue’s 2008 opening with a pennant bearing four digits: 2019.

Your Sunday chore: Cheer on Marine Corps Marathon runners

There’s a huge athletic event taking place in our nation’s capital this weekend that you don’t want to miss.

No, not the World Series (but how freaking amazing is that?!). The Marine Corps Marathon takes place Sunday in D.C. and Arlington, and watching that is a vastly cheaper than a ticket to Nationals Park. Plus, the runners could use your support.

If you live in Rosslyn, Georgetown or Crystal City, all neighborhoods through which the course runs, you’ll have little choice but to spectate. But between Metro and bikeshare, you should have plenty of chances to find a less-mobbed part of the course (read: not on the National Mall or in Rosslyn) to cheer on runners. My advice would be to find a spot later on in the course, when they’re more likely to appreciate the encouragement.

My longtime favorite spot has been the Virginia end of the 14th Street Bridge, a cruel stretch of concrete near the 20-mile mark that is one of the most brutal parts of the run. But two years ago, police turned away spectators there, so I had to bike over to Crystal City.

What if you don’t know anybody running? Just look at what they’re wearing. Lots of runners write their names on their shirts, so you can cheer them on directly instead of shouting variations of “Go runners!” and “You got this!” Many others will wear shirts with their college or other affiliations on them, which is your chance to give an on-brand shout-out.

That’s also your chance to set aside all your usual sports rivalries. As a Georgetown grad, I’m prepared to yell “Go Orange!” if I see somebody running in a Syracuse shirt or give a “Blue Devil!” shout to a runner in Duke attire… okay, the latter gesture might still make me feel a little dirty inside.

There is, however, one risk to this. Speaking from experience, seeing the determination etched into people’s faces may make you want to run the Marine Corps Marathon yourself.

The Nats aren’t done playing baseball this year

A postseason series involving the Washington Nationals ended last night, and I did not wake up this morning feeling like I got hit by a truck.

That’s a novel experience. Every prior postseason appearance by the Nats–2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, which followed seven years of playoff-deprived baseball, which themselves followed 33 0-0 seasons in D.C.–left me not just staggering-around tired but emotionally crushed.

It wasn’t enough for us to lose the division series. Each time, we had to lose after giving ourselves a serious chance to win–in 2012, getting an out away from the National League Championship Series.

It looked like game five in Los Angeles would follow that dismal pattern. Previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg gave up a home run in each of the first two innings to put us in a 3-0 hole against the 106-win Dodgers that we still had not escaped by the start of the eighth inning.

The only consolation it seemed we could claim would be reaching the NLDS at all–via a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Brewers in the wild-card game–after nobody expected the Nats to play anything but golf in October after a wretched 19-31 start.

But then history did not repeat itself. Solo home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game and sent it to extra innings, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent the Nats bustin’ loose, and bedlam erupted in front of TVs.

And now the Washington Nationals are going to St. Louis to see if they can’t pay back the Cardinals for 2012 and win a pennant for D.C. for the first time since 1933 (the first Nationals) and 1948 (the Homestead Grays).

In the meantime, we know we’ll never again have to hear people carp that the Nats have never won a playoff series–the same way the Capitals blew up their Death Star by finally beating Pittsburgh in a postseason series last summer. The Caps weren’t content to kill off just one sports curse, and I trust the Nats aren’t either.

If only I weren’t going to be out of town for every NLCS home game next week…

Three decades of D.C., or how I learned to stop worrying and love the District

This Wednesday, classes began again at Georgetown University–which was my reminder that 30 years prior, I arrived in D.C. for my own new-student-orientation exercise. And somehow, I never got around to leaving.

I think that the awkward kid from New Jersey with the bad haircut has improved with age, but I know the city on the Potomac and the Anacostia has.

We overcame Marion Barry’s mayoral mismanagement and the city’s subsequent fiscal ruin (although municipal corruption lives on). The District’s population has topped 700,000, a level last seen in the 1970s, while the Washington area now ranks as the country’s sixth-most populous. Downtown is no longer pockmarked with parking lots, and neighborhoods teem with new development–some at the expense of residents who lived through the bad times. We have a baseball team that may yet advance past a division series in the postseason. The rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner. It’s vastly easier to get around without a car.

Yes, we have issues. Housing costs too much–but at least we don’t have San Francisco or New York’s insane real-estate markets. The summer weather is usually outright hideous. I wish there were more places to get a good bagel or a cannoli. Every place has its tradeoffs, and these are ours.

My appreciation of the upsides of here has advanced immensely too. For the first two years at Georgetown, I scarcely ventured farther from campus than Dupont Circle and spent my summers away. But I didn’t leave for the summer after my junior year, instead working an unpaid internship (thanks, Mom and Dad!) in the West End. That’s also when friends started bringing their own vehicles to off-campus group houses, allowing me to get to know much more of the District and its surroundings. (You haven’t fully lived K Street traffic until you’ve driven it in a 1977 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed stick shift.) An expanding Metro system further opened up the area to me, eventually leading me across the Potomac to Arlington.

It took me another three years to began discovering the bike-accessible parts of the D.C. area and realize one more great thing about living here: You don’t have to ride far to find yourself in the middle of a forest or overlooking a gorge, with only the sound of airplanes to remind you that not that many miles from a major city’s downtown.

Three decades in, I continue to find new parts of this place to celebrate and discover, as D.C. license plates used to say. And I’ve collected enough Washingtoniana memories to bore younger people with my curmodgeonly recollections: the reek of the old 9:30 Club, National Airport’s Interim Terminal, the evil and stupid taxi-zone map, seeing Fugazi play at Fort Reno shows. I look forward to gathering many more.

D.C. may be the city that politicians love to hate when they sneer about “Washington” (before deciding to stay here after they lose an election or retire), but it’s become the center of my world. My choice to go college someplace not at all like rural New Jersey seems to have worked out pretty well so far.

Ballparks I’ve visited: 17 and counting

Spending Monday through Friday in New York to attend a couple of conferences brought a couple of benefits a little afield of work: catching up with old friends and crossing another ballpark off my list.

Photos from the stands of Fenway Park, Safeco Field, Dodger Stadium, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, Citi Field and Jacobs FieldWith Thursday’s visit to Citi Field, I’m now up to 11 current ballparks, plus six defunct stadiums. The ones still in use, sorted by how often I’ve been there and, for the places I’ve visited only once, oldest to most recent attendance:

  • Nationals Park: In three words, my baseball home. It’s not the best looking ballpark, but it works well. And it’s been amazing to see the neighborhood grow up around this place. Now if I could just be in the stands to watch the Nats win a postseason series instead of lose one
  • Camden Yards: I don’t know exactly how often I’ve been to Orioles games here–I don’t have dates for the visits in the ’90s before I kept a digital calendar. Anyway, it’s a great ballpark, aside from having concourses without a view of the field.
  • Fenway Park: Seeing the Red Sox beat the Yankees here in 2002 remains one of my better baseball memories, and that experience also finally got me to start paying attention to standings and box scores.
  • Pac Bell Park: No, I’m not calling it “Oracle Park.” Three renamings in 16 years is weak, and Oracle’s abuse of intellectual-property law is grotesque. Aside from that, lovely place.
  • Wrigley Field: My wife and I saw the Nats beat the Cubs 5-4 here in 12 innings during the magical first half of the 2005 inaugural season.
  • Progressive Field: My uncle got some amazing seats for an Indians-Yankees game in 2007–so good that my friend Robert Schlesinger, watching at home, noticed somebody wearing a Nats cap behind first base and then recognized me. Thanks, Uncle Jim.
  • Dodger Stadium: We were in the stands here in 2012 for Bryce Harper’s second game as a Nat.
  • Coors Field: On the first day of Free Press’s National Conference on Media Reform, I decided to ditch the afternoon events and scalp tickets so I could see my second home opener in a week.
  • T-Mobile Park: My wife and I caught a game at the then Safeco Field in June of 2013. Good job on the ballpark, Seattle.
  • Rogers Centre: I had a ballgame-sized hole in my schedule the day I arrived in Toronto for the Collision conference last month, so I bought a ticket and saw the Red Sox thump the Blue Jays 12-2. Sadly, the long security lines outside prevented me from getting in before the first pitch and hearing two national anthems.
  • Citi Field: This is another good retro ballpark, but the absence of development nearby makes it an outlier among ballparks.

And here are the defunct ballparks I’ve visited, listed in the same order:

  • RFK Stadium: My fondest memory of this concrete donut will always be watching the Nats bring baseball back to D.C. in 2005.
  • Veterans Stadium: The first major-league baseball game I ever attended was at the Vet, which probably explains why the baseball gene didn’t activate until years after that childhood outing to Philly.
  • Astrodome: This should come with an asterisk, as I definitely remember going to the Astrodome during the year my family lived in Houston but can’t swear under oath that it wasn’t a rodeo.
  • Three Rivers Stadium: My brother and I saw Barry Bonds play for the Pirates here in the summer of 1991. As I recall, the Pirates lost.
  • Yankee Stadium: I wore a Red Sox cap in the bleachers in 2005. Let’s just say I felt like quite the minority at this Yanks-Jays game.
  • Shea Stadium: I saw the Nats edge the Mets here in 2007 and kept thinking of how much the place reminded me of RFK, but with a lot more air traffic overhead.

As for ballparks I haven’t visited, PNC Park tops the list by a considerable margin. (Anybody know any tech conferences in Pittsburgh?) Petco Park probably comes next; I could have crossed that off the list last summer had I flown into San Diego two days before a family wedding there instead of one. After that? I’ll leave that up to where travel takes me and if it leaves ballgame-sized gaps in my calendar.

Beer and behavioral economics at Nats Park

When an exhibition game at Nationals Park this spring revealed that beer prices there this season would hit $16, the sports commentariat went entirely and understandably crazy. Sixteen bucks?! That’s absurd.

Nats Park beerOr as a Yahoo Sports headline put it, “The Nationals’ new beer prices could pay for Bryce Harper’s contract themselves.”

But Mark Townsend’s post and others also noted that these higher prices were for 25-ounce servings. Paying either $15 or $16 for the equivalent of two quality beers doesn’t seem so bad.

And with the price of a pint at Nats Park having escalated from $10.50 or $10.75 to $12–the less-obvious land grab in this year’s changes to ballpark eating and drinking–spending $15 or $16 for a 24-ounce pour or a 25-ounce can becomes the only defensible option if you don’t want to feel quite so abused by your transaction.

Also less obvious: After you’ve had one of these economy-sized servings, buying another seems much less defensible than getting a second round might have appeared last year. Even with the Nats’ angst-inducing performance this summer, do you really want to down the equivalent of two-thirds of a six-pack at a game? The marginal utility just isn’t the same, not if you want to pay attention to the proceedings on the field.

And that’s how the Nats have gotten me to spend and drink less at the yard this year–not simply by charging more, but by exceeding the 25- to 50-cent annual price increase they’d conditioned me to expect, then giving me an option that only requires accepting the risk of beer getting warm in the sun.

Still free after this year’s round of ballpark price hikes: real-world lessons in behavioral economics.

City of champion: my Caps story

I haven’t been to a Capitals game in over 15 years. And when the Caps won it all Thursday night, I had to run out to our front porch and shout “C! A! P! S! Caps Caps Caps!”

Sports do funny things to you. Sometimes they’re also good things.

D.C.’s last major championship came in 1992, when the sports gene had yet to be switched on in me (aside from Georgetown basketball). The years since have been a tapestry of pain for D.C. sports fans, Caps fans foremost. Our teams have excelled in finding early playoff exits, often in the most gruesome manner imaginable–but no local franchise has gotten bounced from the postseason more often than the Caps.

(I know, D.C. United has won championships, albeit not since 2004–but Major League Soccer hasn’t been around nearly as long as MLB, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL.)

Consider the last decade alone: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 all saw a Caps departure in the first or second round of the playoffs, with the only difference being which team besides Pittsburgh was the instrument of our demise. So I had few expectations when the Caps started the 2018 postseason by blowing consecutive two-goal leads against Columbus–except they then declined to implode as usual and instead won that series in six games.

So I, who had not attended a game in forever for various lame reasons (expensive tickets, plans fell through, busy schedule, blah blah blah) and only occasionally followed a game online (being cord cutters put live viewing out of the question for years), found myself going out of my way to watch this Caps postseason. Over three weeks of travel, I caught games in various bars and restaurants and on one airplane, in between wearing out my phone’s battery to track the score.

That’s how I watched us beat our recurring nemesis Pittsburgh from a United Club in SFO–after asking the bartender if I’d get thrown out for asking them to turn off the Giants game. Another D.C. fan was sitting next to me at the bar, and we high-fived as the Caps blew up their Death Star and slayed the D.C. postseason sports curse.

Belated, renewed recognition: Hockey is a fascinating sport to watch, combining chaotic force and precision to yield the chance that the game can turn around in 15 seconds.

The Caps had to make it interesting one more time against Tampa Bay by losing three games in a row after winning the first two. But we shut them out in the final two games to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1998, when I had watched the Caps get swept by Detroit.

The confusing prospect of a D.C. team playing for a championship got me to attend a Caps event in person, the team’s last pre-finals practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. The place was mobbed when me, my wife and our daughter showed up, and it was great to see so many people give the team one last push on their way to Las Vegas by cheering the players as they walked to their cars.

Five games into the finals, I spent seven and a half of the longer minutes of my life willing the Caps to keep the puck on the other side of the rink from Braden Holtby (whom I couldn’t have picked out of a lineup two months ago) and please get an insurance goal. My city’s team held on, I jumped up and down and hugged my wife–and after my front-porch exultation, we popped open some bubbly to toast the Caps.

Now it’s done. The Caps came home from Vegas with the Cup Friday afternoon. D.C. has a championship. And everybody here has a story to tell to themselves and to their kids about persistence through adversity.