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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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.