Baseball in The District

Washington will be a great big-league city, and it won’t be long.

It’s just not quite there yet.

At roughly 7:06 p.m. on April 14, 2005, the first pitch in the first official Major League Baseball game in 34 years was thrown by Livan Hernandez of the new Washington Nationals. Leadoff hitter Craig Counsell of the Arizona Diamondbacks took the pitch, a called strike down the middle that brought a roar from the crowd.

Only the crowd was on its collective asses. The fans stood and cheered for pregame introductions, for the ceremonial first pitch by the ass of a president, and as the team took the field. And yet, the majority of the 45,000 in attendance settled into their seats as Hernandez toed the rubber and Counsell stepped into the batter’s box. “The first pitch in 34 years, and they’re sitting down?” I asked Matt, one of whose two season tickets I used to come to the game. I’ve been to the last six Mets home openers, and not once have the 55,000 fans at Shea sat down for the first pitch of a new season, even last Monday when the team and its $119 million center fielder came home from the opening road trip 1-5. The Nationals were in first place, and their fans were sitting.

After the game, Brad, who was sitting a level below us, out of sight, said that his section stood, but from what I could see, that wasn’t the case in about 90 percent of the sections around RFK Stadium. I suppose Matt and I were at fault, in part, sitting down in our front-row seats of the upper deck. But I was a visitor, so I didn’t see it as my place to tell the fans of Washington how to start their first season in three decades. (Clearly, I have no problem doing so after the fact.) I was also filming the one pitch with my digital camera (I have the express, written consent from Major League Baseball around here somewhere), and I wasn’t in a position to have to debate sitting vs. standing with the fans behind me. To our credit, however, we were the last people to sit down. I stood long enough to make sure everyone behind me really thought about what they were doing and whether or not is was how they truly wanted to welcome baseball back to the District.

That was really my only criticism of Washington’s fans, however. They were loud and enthusiastic. Quaint, almost, in the way they booed any mention of opposing players. Certainly, they’re happy to have baseball back in town, but they’ll have to endure three seasons of an aging, no-frills stadium until they get a new one a few blocks away. I wonder how they’ll respond to a one-run deficit in the ninth in August, when they’re 15 games out of first place. They jumped and rocked the place — literally, we could feel the upper deck shaking after Vinny Castilla’s home run — when the Nats scored, but will they be the kind of crowd that cheers to fire up the team when its backs are against the wall?

They know when pitchers are throwing at hitters, though. When Castilla came up in the eighth needing just a single for the cycle, Lance Cormier drilled him with the first pitch. The umpire gave both teams a warning as Castilla walked to first, and the crowd responded with a chorus of boos generally reserved for Alex Rodriguez in Boston. The boos continued after the inning ended and Cormier walked to the dugout and again after the game as the losing pitcher was announced (see? quaint). This last one, though, begged the question, which I posed to Matt: Why boo the losing pitcher? He sucked enough to let your team win — doesn’t he get some cheers? Even the Boston fans are smart enough to realize that, what with Mariano Rivera’s effectiveness against the Sox recently.

After the game, Matt, Brad and I walked back from the stadium all the way to Union Station as part of a horde of red-clad Nationals fans. The first few blocks were spent debating what action should have been taken against Cormier for his intentional beaning. Brad said he should’ve been tossed immediately, and I disagreed. Part of me would like to see the old style of baseball when pitchers pitched inside and used brushback pitches to reclaim the outside half of the plate and beanballs were returned when the offending pitcher — or at least the other team’s best hitter — came up to bat. Bob Gibson would have a 4.80 ERA — or worse — if he had to pitch today, where one inside pitch can get you a warning from the umpire. I think, in general, baseball is too soft. Granted, Arizona manager Bob Melvin’s intentions were clear when Castilla came to bat, but there have been games where the first HBP brings a warning from the ump, who then tosses the next pitcher to nip a batter with a curve ball. Despite what most fans believe, a warning does not mean an automatic ejection for the next pitcher to hit a batter. The umpire still has discretion as to whether or not he felt the pitcher was intentionally throwing at the batter. Yet sometimes, they’ll still toss a hurler for grazing a guy with a curve or losing his grip on a changeup that sails up and in.

Still, I think baseball will thrive in Washington, and I expect to return for numerous games these next few summers. I should try to get there for some Mets games, at least, since Brad proposed a bet before the season began. For each Nationals win against the Mets, I pay him $3; for each Mets win, he gives me $2. At the end of the season, we expect one of us to be buying the other a beer.

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