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.

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Playing hooky for home openers

I watched the Nationals lose a winnable baseball game Thursday. I’ve done that a lot since 2005, but this 8-2 defeat wasn’t just any home game. It was the Nats’ home opener–as far as I can figure out, the 13th that I’ve seen in person, starting with our team’s debut at RFK in 2005.

(The exception was 2007. According to an e-mail I sent to my wife, I listened to the game on the radio from home.)

That also makes this spring pastime one of the few consistent examples of me taking advantage of the flexible scheduling that I should theoretically enjoy as a work-from-home freelancer.

As in: When I wandered into this lifestyle, I had delusions of being able to devote the occasional morning or afternoon to a movie or a museum. Nope!

The reality has been one of compressed chores. My schedule affords enough idle time to let me get in some gardening or expedite a Costco run, but tearing myself away from other obligations for a few hours in a row seems impossible… except for this one rite of spring. I should not complain about that, even when the game in question has us getting lit up by the Mets.

I finally remembered to ski

Taking a weekday off to go skiing is one of the more underrated perks of working a flexible schedule around D.C. So I enjoyed it Tuesday for the first time since 2015.

When I started freelancing, that was not the plan. Even at the Post, I was able to carve out a personal day a year for the short drive to one of the two closest ski areas, Ski Liberty (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Whitetail (roughly an hour and 40).

But parenthood, not getting paid unless I write something and the mid-Atlantic’s increasingly chaotic winters confined my skiing in 2016 and 2017 to my neighborhood–courtesy of snow storms that left just enough accumulation for me to break out my already-trashed cross-country skis.

This season’s scant snowfall has lent no hope of even that. But last weekend, I saw that the forecast called for temperatures in the 30s Tuesday–an appointment-free day. I worked for a couple of hours that morning, grabbed my skis, boots and poles, enjoyed the unlikely driving pleasure of a traffic-free Beltway and I-270, and was on the chairlift at Liberty by noon.

Yes, the only snow in sight had been shot out of machines, and 620 feet of vertical goes by quickly. But with no lift lines in sight either, I could easily get get in seven runs an hour. It felt fantastic to realize that the years off hadn’t left me too rusty, test myself on the most difficult runs, then catch a little air coming off bumps. For a day when I would have been happy merely to avoid injuring myself or others, that was pretty great.

After three hours and change with only brief pauses to check my e-mail (of course), I headed back and once again felt spoiled by my commute. Even after sitting in some Beltway congestion, I pulled into our driveway by 5:10, leaving plenty of time to savor the pleasant soreness of this overdue workout. And to wonder what had gone wrong with my priorities the last two winters.

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 pay for tickets 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 2006, when Ryan Zimmerman belted a walk-off home run over the outfield wall 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!

4/15/2018: I finally spotted an error or three and fixed them.

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.