I left my heart in … Washington?
It is 9.00 pm on Saturday 8 October. I have MLBTV loaded up and ready to go. I am wearing my red Nats shirt because Nats fans have been instructed to wear red (possibly only relevant to those fans in attendance but still…). I have my two rally towels (purchased from eBay after the last two post-season appearances which cost me a small fortune in import taxes). I have my framed photo of Nats Park on the wall and my signed baseballs on display. I am ready for post season baseball.
The problem is that there is no post-season baseball tonight due to ‘inclement weather’ and I am gutted. Post-season baseball for the Nationals is a rare and beautiful thing, post-season baseball happening at a compatible UK time is even rarer. But no baseball for me tonight, which got me reflecting on how I ended up with this obsession with an East Coast baseball team, when six years ago I had never even heard of the sport.
Six years ago, my boyfriend (henceforth referred to as the Mariners Fan) and I decided to visit Washington DC. Whilst there, the Mariners Fan thought it would be cool to see a baseball game. I was open to the idea and we purchased tickets. Three tiers up, just behind the catcher. Decent seats and good value (there was not a huge demand for Nats tickets at the time).
I went with low expectations. The locals had warned us about how truly awful the Nationals were, and they were playing the Phillies, who had beaten them in the first two games of the series and were looking for a sweep. I didn’t entirely understand what was going on – like many Brits I had gone with the misplaced notion that it would be like watching rounders. ,It wasn’t. ,It was better. ,And they were better. More than that, they won. The Nationals beat the Phillies and a man named Ryan Zimmerman become my sporting hero.
I loved every second of that game, every catch, pitch, every hit. And I turned to the Mariners fan and said, “I wish I had known I would like baseball, can we go to another game?”
In that moment, an unhealthy addiction to flying to America for the purpose of watching baseball began. In the summer we holidayed to Los Angeles where the Dodgers were playing the Nats in a three-game series (Coincidence, I hear you ask? Genuinely, on this occasion, yes). They were true to form, lost two won one, but a pitcher named John Lannan won my heart for the way he just pitched his heart out.
This was the beginning of a series of road trips that involved flying to the States and then driving around as many places as possible watching the Nats and the Mariners. In 2011 we returned to Nationals Park with my sister and nephew and I saw Rick Ankiel hit a grand slam and waited out my first rain delay. In 2012 we returned to Washington and took a short road trip to New York to watch the Yankees play the Mariners. In 2013, a holiday to Chicago to see Cubs/Brewers and White Sox/Mariners ended up with a road trip to Cincinnati where we watched one game of baseball in which the Nats lost by 15 runs. That was tough but the Reds fans were kind, we got a free firework show after the game, and we stayed in the same hotel as the team (I shared an elevator with Kurt Suzuki and said good morning to Stephen Strasburg).
In 2014 we just kind of drove between Boston, DC, Baltimore and Philly watching 12 games in 13 days and actually needing a rest after the holiday. This year? Toronto v Mariners in July, then a short break to Washington in August to see a few games. Even as I type this, I know this is not sensible but I love it. I love baseball, I love the Presidents Race and the seventh-inning stretch. I love paying my respect to the military personnel and taking my cap off for the national anthem. I love God Bless America and flyovers. I love dollar dog night and proper lemonade and curly W-shaped pretzels. I love that moment when I come out of the metro and Nats Park is just ahead. I love my expanding collection of bobbleheads. I love everything about the atmosphere at Nats Parks and I love following them on the road.
It's not all snacks and happy endings though. Being a Nats fan is tough (see 15-0 loss to the Reds above). We have qualified for the post-season twice since I have been a fan – in 2012 we lost 3-1 to the Cards and in 2014 we lost 3-1 to the Giants. Please be reassured, I have not raised my expectations…. Quite the opposite: I expect us to lose 3-1 in the NLDS every other year and we are on track based on Friday night.
I don’t follow the Nats for the glory (fortunately). I follow them for the passion (have you seen Bryce Harper?), I follow them for the team spirit, I follow them for the effort and for the pure joy that seeing them play inspires in me. I follow them because Ryan Zimmerman is still my sporting hero. I follow them for the difference they make to the community and because of the way they respect and honour loss (I thought they showed great compassion to the Marlins following the loss of Jose Fernandez). I follow them for the characters – for the great pitching of Max and Gio and Stras and Tanner Roark (and Koda Glover and Oliver Perez in relief) – for the Wilsons and the Bryces and the Treas and the Michaels and Jaysons). The simple fact of the matter is that I have lost my heart to this team and that's why #IbacktheNats.
The only real issue I have is that it costs me flights plus entry to go a game. And that is why I am so grateful for British baseball. I only discovered that we played baseball over here a couple of years ago, but we do. We have an entire league system of baseball teams and I have had the privilege of following them for the last two years and telling their story via reports on the BBF website. When I think about my baseball-related hopes and dreams, it sometimes surprises me that I don’t dream of a World Series win for my Nats (although God love them, it would be nice).
My actual proper baseball dream? That baseball will take off over here like the NFL has and that I might one day get to watch the Nats play over here. I would love for the British public to experience the sport as I have and lose their heart to a team like I have. I don’t know if MLB will ever make it over here but until they do, we have some pretty cool baseball going on around the country – so turn up or try out. Watch, learn and embrace the sport because it's kind of awesome.