The D.C. stadium atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Every seat was filled 30 minutes before game time. Fans didn’t just watch every pitch; they studied them, forsaking trips to the bathroom and concessions.
By Chris Umpierre
WASHINGTON, D.C. –– Thousands of red cotton towels are whipping in a frenzy as the din inside Nationals Park reaches an ear-splitting crescendo.
The charismatic bearded usher, the Splendid Splinters jersey-wearing kid, the Nationals obsessed grandma and well, everybody, is on their feet.
“Your brother is better,” a Washington Nationals fan yells.
Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, the man in the batter’s box, is undaunted.
Then it happens. Thwack! Ball meets wood and ball is sent high into the gunmetal sky. The centerfielder drops back, looking like he has a bead on the ball. No way. The ball has other plans. It keeps traveling, traveling and traveling.
The ball flies over the 402-foot centerfield wall and crashes violently against a green restraining wall. It’s a massive 429-foot home run. That loud, energetic crowd has turned eerily silent.
Two Los Angeles fans, seated in a sea of red in the outfield pavilion, are not. These Burbank boys in blue are celebrating like schoolboys. They slap hands with friends. They jump up and down. They rejoice as if THEY had just clubbed the homer.
Seager’s stunning Game 1 NLDS home run — on the first pitch he saw, nonetheless — highlighted a whirlwind weekend for my brother and me as we watched our favorite team play in an electric environment.
The D.C. stadium atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Every seat was filled 30 minutes before game time. Fans didn’t just watch every pitch; they studied them, forsaking trips to the bathroom and concessions. They stood up and cheered for every little development, no matter the significance.
I’ve been to dozens of Dodger home games (albeit none in the postseason) — and I have never seen fans stand for such long stretches.
The D.C. crowd started cheering early. When Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer walks out to his team’s bullpen 40 minutes before game time and the home team gives him a standing ovation, you know the crowd is ready.
D.C. has always been known as a football town, but things are changing. With the Redskins on decline, D.C. fans are gravitating to baseball and the home team’s young, star-studded lineup. D.C.’s love for baseball was on full display.With the Redskins on decline, D.C. fans are gravitating to baseball and the home team’s young,… Click To Tweet
Green Line to the Ballpark
The D.C. baseball atmosphere doesn’t begin at the stadium; it begins on the Metro. Almost every Nats fan takes the Metro to games. It’s a pilgrimage that increases the bond amongst fans and adds to the experience.
Nats fans jump on the Green line and ride it to the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metrorail station, which leaves you 100 yards away from the ballpark.
The Metro is so packed with No. 34 Bryce Harpers, No. 31 Max Scherzers and No. 37 Stephen Strasburgs that train drivers are forced to make this announcement: “There are 18 doors on this train. Please use them all!”
When you arrive at the Navy Yard stop and walk onto Half Street — the small road that leads you to Nationals Park — you wade into a river of red. Everything is red. Red hats, red sweaters, red pants, red jerseys, red everything.
A marching band drums outside the stadium. Fans stand around, dance and snap cellphone pictures. Nearby, an impromptu rock band — featuring a shaggy-looking dude on a guitar and another guy on drums — is jamming.
You can’t help but nod your head and groove.
Then you see him. All 9 feet of him.
A Nationals stilt walker, on 3-foot stilts and dressed in disturbing red-and-white-striped pants, is engaging the crowd. The Stiltsman has the biggest smile on his face. Perhaps it’s because he is 9 feet tall or perhaps it’s because he has the greatest job; whatever the reason this dude is happy.
The Stiltsman sees my Dodger garb and points at me. I snap a photo of him.
As we are walking past him, the Stiltsman leans down and nearly grabs my brother’s No. 66 Yasiel Puig Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.
“I’ll pray for you,” Stiltsman tells my brother.
We laugh. Stiltsman laughs. These stilt walkers encapsulate the D.C. fan. They are a friendly, amicable bunch.
Normally, wearing the opposing team’s colors is cause for an obscenity or two from the home fans (Probably more than two in Los Angeles). Not here. At Nationals Park, fans walk up to you with an ugly bug on their hand and jokingly say, “I caught this bug for you since you’re a Dodger fan.” (FYI: This really happened).
Another D.C. fan told us before game time: “You’re here already?” That was a hilarious reference to the true stereotype of Dodger fans arriving late to games.
“That,” my brother says, “is the nastiest D.C. fans get.”
Well, maybe not. The pre-game festivities included the Nationals’ hilarious mascots: The Presidents. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover greeted us at the entrance.
Mr. Washington, at first, declined to take a picture with us. America’s first president finally acquiesced but only before taking my brother’s Dodger hat, rubbing it on his armpits and throwing it on the floor. Ha!
We settle into our seats alongside my brother’s wife, Rachael, and buddy, Scott. Dodger fans are sitting behind us and we end up slapping mitts with them. We devour heavenly mini-donuts, delicious chili-cheese veggie fries and ice-cold beer. We drink in the scenery as our Dodgers pour on the offense.
The Dodgers win 4-3 in a classic game that features a five-out save by the incomparable Kenley Jansen.
A Chance Encounter
Rain on Saturday forces the postponement of Game 2, a decision made an hour before game time and after we had already arrived to the stadium. But our trip to the ballpark wasn’t fruitless.
As we are leaving the stadium, Michael sees a former client. Davon, a tall young skinny black man, is peddling black Washington Nationals 2016 Playoff hats.
“Hey Davon,” Michael says, “Do you remember me?”
He doesn’t. But eventually it clicks for Davon. Mike was the one who saved his life.
Michael represented Davon when he worked as trial attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Michael, who is now a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, helped get Davon acquitted of first-degree murder charges six years ago. Davon didn’t do the crime.
Michael introduces me to Davon and Davon immediately pulls me to the side. “Let me tell you something,” Davon begins. “I’ll never forget what Michael and (lead counsel) Janet did for me. Never.”
Davon flashes a big grin. You can tell he’s doing well. Davon and Mike slap hands one last time and go their separate ways when Davon suddenly stops.
“If my mom could see you now,” Davon tells Michael, “she would cry.”
Goosebumps crawl up my arms. Mike has left an indelible mark on this man’s life. He’s so grateful to be free and not locked up. Davon faced a 25-30 year sentence and Michael saved his life. How many people can say that?
As we are boarding the Metro, I tell Mike the Davon exchange is exactly why he’s entered his line of work.
“Absolutely,” Michael says. “In that case, it’s the difference in his life.”
Back to the Ballpark
After a cool visit to the D.C. monuments, we return to Nationals Park on Sunday.
The ballpark isn’t as alive as it was on Friday. The Game 2 postponement and the Nats’ Game 1 loss sucked energy out of the stadium.
We move to our seats and find a gaggle of Dodger fans trying to get autographs from players. Dodgers utility player Charlie Culberson, who blasted the iconic walk-off home run to win the National League West a couple weeks ago in Vin Scully’s final home game, visits the group.
One fan tells Culberson that Scully will never forget his epic home run. Culberson looks up from signing an autograph and flashes a toothy grin.
“Me, too,” Culberson says.
First pitch is almost here when Dodgers rookie pitcher Julio Urias spots us in Section 115 (OK, so I turned around and jumped up and down so he could see my No. 7 Julio Urias jersey). Julio sees the jersey, pounds his chest and flashes a thumbs up.
We are ready.
The game starts with — what else? –– a Seager bomb. I was lucky to capture Seager’s picturesque home run swing (see pictures).
Then things got even better for us. Dodgers third base coach Chris Woodward locks eyes with me as he is exiting the dugout. He tosses a baseball into our direction. No one else sees it. Mike jumps to his left and snares the ball.
We celebrate like schoolboys. Again.
It’s just a batting practice baseball but to us, at that time, it felt like gold from heaven.
We couldn’t believe our fortune. The Dodgers were winning, we were owners of an official MLB baseball, the beer was colder than ice and we were in incredible seats. Does it get better than that?
Our excitement didn’t last. Out of nowhere, Nationals backup catcher and eighth-place hitter Jose Lobaton wallops a massive three-run home run and the game is forever changed.
The Nats win 5-2.
We leave the ballpark with a bad taste in our mouth, but we soon reflect on what we had seen, felt and heard.
We saw our favorite team play in an energetic, loud and fun playoff atmosphere. We felt the essence of playoff baseball. We felt the hope of victory and the disaster of defeat. We joked with one of the friendliest fan bases you will ever meet.
And most importantly, we spent time together. You can’t hang a price tag on that.