It’s been real, RFK

The circular shrine to crumbling concrete and peeling paint at 2400 East Capitol St. SE is about to lose its last reason for existence. More than 56 years after it opened, RFK Stadium will host D.C. United’s last home game–and then, with United moving to Audi Field next year, face a future of essentially nothing.

It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had a chance to inhale any of RFK’s fumes–since Sept. 23, 2007, when the Nationals closed out their three-year tenancy there with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. Beyond the win, the highlight of that afternoon was the “SHORT STILL STINKS” banner fans briefly hung from the outfield wall–a nod to the protest of fans at the Washington Senators’ final game at RFK in 1971 before villainous owner Bob Short moved the team to Texas.

Washingtonians tend to have long memories about RFK.

Mine start with the Rolling Stones concert I saw September of my freshman year at Georgetown, when anything east of Union Station seemed unimaginably distant from campus. I had neither the budget nor the interest to go to any Redskins games–even though our NFL franchise wasn’t objectively cursed at the time–but I did make my way back to RFK for the occasional mega-concert: U2 in 1992 (still the best show I’ve seen there), the Stones again in 1994 and U2 for a second time in 1997.

For Generation X D.C., however, “RFK + concert” will always equal “HFStival.” That all-day music festival put on by the long-gone modern-rock station WHFS packed the stadium and its parking lots every summer in the mid 1990s. I attended it two or three times as a paying fan–then covered it for the Post in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Seeing Soul Aslyum, Tony Bennett (!) and the Ramones close out that first show from the risers was definitely one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments. So was taking a break from carrying a notebook around 1997’s show to try crowdsurfing for the first and only time.

I also saw one or two Skins games on other people’s tickets, then later went to a few D.C. United games, but it took most of the next decade before I got any regular acquaintance with RFK as a sports facility.

The Nats’ home opener in 2005 kicked off the place becoming a part of my life every summer for the next three years. I developed a profound acquaintance with the many ways a bad baseball team can lose games, along with how hot a 45,000-plus-seat concrete donut can get when no outside breeze reaches the stands.

But we did win a few games too. My favorite after the team’s debut: the Father’s Day victory over the Yankees in 2005, when Ryan Zimmerman belted a walk-off home run over the outfield wall to and the place erupted in bedlam. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard RFK get so loud.

Sunday, I’m going to see if RFK’s last home team can win one more there. Soon enough, RFK will become like the old 9:30 Club’s smell or National Airport’s Interim Terminal–something D.C. types of a certain age laugh knowingly about more than they actually miss. But first, I want to see those stands bounce one more time. Vamos, United!

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Ranking my Nats postseason nightmares

It happened again. Of course it did.

The Nationals’ 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Thursday’s National League Division Series game 5 stands apart from the team’s other postseason exits for how utterly snakebit the Nats looked.

Barry Svrluga’s breakdown of the defeat only begins to capture what a shitshow this game was. The nightmare fifth inning alone–in which previously lights-out Max Scherzer got lit up for three hits, had a third strike turn into a run-scoring error when Matt Wieters dropped the ball and then airmailed it past Ryan Zimmerman (except play should have stopped after Javier Baez’s bat grazed his mask), saw the bases load on a catcher’s interference call, and walked in a run by hitting Jon Jay with a pitch–will haunt me for years.

But the upshot is the same as in 2012, 2014 and 2016: We lost a winnable division series in avoidable ways, leaving me with a strip of NLCS tickets to set on fire in the driveway before I wait to see which other city’s team gets to mob the infield after winning the World Series.

In the meantime, as an inveterate list-maker I feel compelled to rank the relative misery of our final home games in each postseason, all of which I’ve had the dubious privilege of witnessing in person.

4) 2014 NLDS game 2. Eighteen innings. Eighteen freezing innings. And all after we got within one out of a victory before robo-manager Matt Williams took out Jordan Zimmermann for Drew Storen because that’s what the book says to do. Giants 2, Nats 1, but we did still have three more chances to win–only one of which we took, leading to our fastest NLDS exit.

3) 2016 NLDS game 5. A great start by Scherzer turned to ashes in a horrible and prolonged (one hour and 5 minutes!) seventh inning that saw five relief pitchers give up four hits before Chris Heisey’s two-run shot in the bottom of the frame concluded our scoring in the series. Dodgers 4, Nats 3.

2) 2017 NLDS game 5. Seriously, this was grotesque. I’ve now attended maybe 250 Nationals games, and this one subjected me to onfield calamities I never thought I’d see even in the woeful seasons in which we lost over 100 times.

1) 2012 NLDS game 5. The worst. Witnessing a 6-0 lead collapse, inning by inning, into a 9-7 loss to the Cardinals ranks as my most painful sports memory ever.

And so the D.C. postseason curse grinds on. I would like to think that it will end in my lifetime, preferably before inflicting too much trauma on our daughter. But that’s also what I said to myself in 2012. And 2014. And 2016.

I miss skiing

This has been an oddball winter in Washington, on account of the nearly complete absence of snow. But it has been too typical in another respect: Once again, I’m doing a horrible job of propping up the skiing industry.

View looking uphill from Ski Liberty's chairliftBack in the pre-parenthood era, I had the opposite problem. Between day trips to the handful of places sufficiently nearby (one of D.C.’s less-obvious virtues is having the closest hill, Ski Liberty, less than an hour and a half away), long weekends in West Virginia and at least one trip a year to Colorado, Utah or some other faraway place with Real Mountains, I was spending serious money. Even without having to rent equipment.

Having a baby put a stop to most of that. Instead of expecting to rack up 10 ski days a year, I was lucky to get in one or two–and none out of town.

In prior winters, I could at least count on the occasional blizzard giving me a chance to cross-country ski around the neighborhood. This year? Forget it.

Meanwhile, my ability to give myself an occasional day off to make that drive to one of the local hills has atrophied. It turns out that while freelancing from one’s home does let you dodge your responsibilities long enough to stage an efficient Costco run on a weekday morning, blowing off work for an entire day is no easier than in any other full-time job.

So it’s now been almost two years since my boots, skis and poles got any use. And it’s been almost a year since I last grabbed the cross-country skis for a tour of the neighborhood.

This is lame, and I’m not happy about it–especially not after reading this fine overview of nearby skiing options from my fellow Nats fan/victim William Yurasko. But as I type this, it’s 50 degrees outside with a high of 63 forecast tomorrow, and besides we already have a bunch of things on our schedule. Maybe next weekend?

So, that happened. Again.

It was past 2 a.m. on a weeknight in October when I started writing a blog post, which has come to mean that my city’s baseball team has lost another postseason series.

The Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Dodgers did not hurt as badly as 2012’s gut-punch loss to the Cardinals or our 2014 demise at the hands of the Giants, highlighted by an 18-inning defeat at which I had the dubious privilege of being in the stands for every single pitch. We never had the game in the bag, and there was no catastrophic moment of failure. But the output is the same: a need to spend a few minutes “reflecting on everything that’s good about my life.”

(That link doesn’t point to the original ESPN copy of Bill Simmons’ magnificent post on the 2003 ALCS, because some idiotic ad fail makes it unreadable for more than a few seconds. As Simmons has been wont to say: No, I’m not bitter.)

nats-park-2016-nldsOn one level, I know that the cherry blossoms will bloom again next spring, and every team will be in first place on opening day. I will once again enjoy seeing batters leg out triples and fielders turn double plays. And if the Nats are good enough to get into the postseason, anything can happen.

On another level, I want to see my city win a championship while I am alive to enjoy it, and our recent history does not give grounds for optimism. The Capitals have gotten closer than any other local franchise with their 1998 appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, but since then they seem to have developed a postseason glass jaw. The Wizards suffer from the same ailment, plus it’s the NBA and the same handful of teams win the finals anyway. The local NFL franchise looks doomed on multiple karmic metrics, and I’m pretty much checked out of football anyway.

I would love to see Georgetown win the NCAAs more than almost anything, but I don’t think my alma mater is mercenary enough to make that happen. Getting to the Final Four in 2007 was pretty great, but next year brought the calamity I refer to as the “[varying expletive] Easter Sunday game,” and it’s been bad ever since.

That leaves the Nats. I like their odds in the long term, given how open MLB’s postseason is to teams that jump on it–remember, Kansas City won it all last year. But I’d also like to see myself spending an insane amount of money on postseason tickets while the onetime Washington Senators fan who sat next to us last night can enjoy it too.

See you at Nats Park in the spring. This is my home, this is my team. D.C. or nothing.

You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.

 

The Nats Park entrance music we need

Baseball has returned to the nation’s capital once again–a phrase Washingtonians could not say for 34 years–and with it comes a new season’s ballpark soundtrack.

Yes, trades and departures have silenced some of the Nationals’ better tunes, like Tyler Clippard’s crafty pick of the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” or the Michael Morse at-bat sing-along of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” But as Bryce Harper’s solo shot reminded everybody during Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Marlins, the Nats remain blessed with the finest home run celebration ever, the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose.”

Nats Park home opener 2016That song should be all the hint the Nats need about finding entrance music that both speaks to here and gets people nodding their heads or tapping their feet. Here are my nominations, none of which show up in MLB Plate Music’s quasi-authoritative list and all of which you can and should enjoy on this Spotify playlist:

“Waiting Room,” Fugazi: Anyone who doesn’t perk up on hearing the bass line that opens this D.C. punk-rock classic is welcome to root for Atlanta. Besides, this song deserves better local-sports treatment than its turn as soundtrack material for our snakebit NFL franchise.

“Run Joe,” Chuck Brown: This cover of Louis Jordan’s song would help to remedy the insufficient supply of go-go at Nats Park. And if no player picks it, the team could still play it to celebrate a successful steal.

“What Do You Want Me To Say,” The Dismemberment Plan: I am sufficiently in the tank for this band that I struggled for some time to pick a worthy at-bat song from their catalogue. This one got a nod for its propulsive start.

“Hello,” Back Yard Band: This improbably peppy cover of Adele’s ballad is not only likely to confuse visiting teams and fans, the shout-outs to D.C. neighborhoods would make it a great fit for the ballpark just across South Cap from “Southwest, Southwest…”

“Mt. Pleasant,” Tuscadero: There has to be a player for the Nats who either lives in Mount Pleasant or a few blocks away in Columbia Heights and who therefore needs to adopt this 1990s bubble-gum-punk salute to that ‘hood.

“DC or Nothing,” Wale: Some of the lyrics here would be a little edgy in a MLB context (see also Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” another tune that would be awesome as somebody’s walk-up anthem), but, man, this is a great song. Harper seems to think so too.

“House of Cards Main Title Theme,” Jeff Beal: This would have to be the exclusive property of an aging pitcher who puts batters away with deception and guile. If Drew Storen could jog to the mound with Johnny Cash’s foreboding version of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” booming across Nats Park, this can and will work too.

The NFL is so hard to like these days

There’s a football game happening tomorrow night, and like many of you I plan to watch it mainly for the commercials.

Part of that is my scant emotional investment in either team (that said, I’m unquestionably more tired of reading about the Patriots). But the real reason is that the National Football League has become such a difficult corporate entity to support.

I’m not talking about the sport of football overall. It’s a fun game to watch on TV, and I’ve enjoyed the few games I’ve seen in person–some here, courtesy of tickets the Post would occasionally hand out, a few in Charlottesville on pre-parenthood trips with my wife to her alma mater.

NFL ball and ticketBut the NFL itself, that’s another thing. Even by the standards of pro sports in America, there’s so much not to like.

It would be easy to start with the league’s lax responses to the domestic violence committed by some players. Or I could lead off with the player concussions and the league’s decades-long denial of that problem; the more I mull over that, the more I start wondering if (as Tim Carmody wrote persuasively on Friday) football might be the new boxing and on the same path out of the mainstream.

I could begin with the hapless local franchise and everything wrong there: the name, the crummy stadium, the losing records, the abysmal personnel decisions, the deepening despair among a beaten-down fan base, the owner who seems convinced that his own actions bear no relation to all these problems… but that would be too easy.

The NFL’s vaingloriousness also irritates me. We’ll get no end of it tomorrow, but I also see this inflated sense of self-worth on display in things like security-theater rules about what you can bring into an NFL stadium that are to ballpark-access rules what TSA airport security is to boarding Amtrak.

But what really sticks in my craw is how the NFL is the gift that keeps on taking.

Its teams play in enormous stadiums funded at colossal taxpayer expense–$4.7 billion on the 20 new facilities opened since 1997–that usually sit empty except when these largely car-centric properties create massive traffic jams on game day.

On those days, it’s to the NFL’s credit that you can watch on free broadcast TV. But then the league insists on blackout rules that keep games off the air if the team doesn’t sell enough of what are on average the most expensive tickets in pro sports. And it wants the government to back up this business model. A decade ago, the NFL wanted veto power over a new TiVo sharing feature to protect its blackouts, and it only recently lost the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of them.

The runup to the Super Bowl has once again shown the effectiveness of the NFL’s control-freak trademark enforcement. Even though it’s legal for advertisers to refer to the Super Bowl in an ad in the same way they might name-check the local franchise, they all call it the “Big Game” lest the NFL’s lawyers send a nastygram. Good thing the NFL gave on trying to trademark the term “Big Game”!

And as the NFL continues to print money, it benefits from non-profit status and the modest tax breaks that entails–something MLB gave up in 2007 and the NBA has never claimed.

So, sure, I’ll watch tomorrow night if for no other reason than maintaining my cultural literacy. But I’ll also be thinking that 18 days later, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.