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Friday, April 25, 2008

Second-baseman's Slam Silences "Shea Stadium South"

There is still too much to recap for the month so far, but last night's game against the New York Mets was special for me several reasons and I just have to blog about this.

Number one - the Nats won! 10-5 against the division-rival New York Mets, who had already beaten them 4 straight games this young season, and they did it in such dramatic fashion, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game 3-3 before...

Number two - the Felipe Lopez GRAND SLAM! There it was, the score tied 3-3 with 2 out in the 6th inning and Felipe Lopez ("FLop", to us hard-core fans), who had just recently won back the starting 2B job from the struggling Ronnie Belliard, launched a 3-2 change-up from Aaron Heilman several rows into the right center field seats. It was a thing of true beauty - not a rocket, not a "frozen rope", just a nice parabola, which "settled" into the seats, as they say. My God, it was almost lazy how that ball arced over right-fielder Ryan Church's head and out of the field.

I was so relieved that the Nats were able to get that little bit of ballpark history out of the way. It was bad enough that the hated Larry "Chipper" Jones of the division-rival Atlanta Braves hit the first regular-season home run in the new ballpark on Opening Day (why couldn't it have been a National? D'oh! Eh, at least we had Zimm's walk-off homer) but I dearly hoped that several Nationals Park "firsts" would belong to our own players, and now we have another one, and a juicy one at that: the first Grand Slam hit in our park was by our very own Felipe Lopez and it was the game winner, the RBI's which put the Nats over the top. Mark your calendars, Nats fans, this is the answer to an excellent trivia question someday.

For four seasons now, I've had to suffer through the Mets visits to R.F.K. and now Nationals Park, and each time, the stands are FILLED with Mets fans. It is so ridiculous, the imbalance of fans, that our ballparks have become temporarily "Shea Stadium South". The cheers for the Mets are louder than for the Nats, and I feel bad for our players, who deserve better support in their own home ballpark. The only good part is, when the Nats actually BEAT the Mets at home, and the Mets fans fall silent. My God, that is a wonderful moment. When Lopez hit that Grand Slam, it just sucker-punched the Mets fans into silence - except for the fans yelling, "Heilman, you're a bum!" that is. It might not happen again this season, but for one warm spring night, the Nats came from behind and roared ahead of the Mets to deliver the hometown fans a sweet victory which was most overdue. And for "FLop", the baseball gods showered him with redemption, after a season where he seemed to be malaise and ennui personified.

It was also very nice to see pitcher Mike O'Connor back after missing all of 2007 due to surgery and recovery. Remember him? He's the Ellicott City, Maryland youngster who went to George Washington University and played well for them. He's a future starter and played well-enough in the minors for the Nats that they called him up and sent down Ray King (actually, offered him an option to AAA Columbus) but for now, O'Connor is out of the bullpen, and he acquitted himself very well last night in his inaugural appearance this season.

I arrived at the ballpark towards the end of the 3rd inning and after saying hello to Rico, back selling programs after being sick during the last homestand, I went up to section 240 to try my luck with the Five Guys stand. I've never had Five Guys burgers before, but I've heard about them for years, and I was happy to see that either the Nationals or concessioner Centerplate made a deal to get them into the ballpark because they originated here in our area, so they are "local" even if they are franchised now. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with raw onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato, mustard, ketchup and relish, and also an order of fries.

I'll say here and now that this was the greatest fast-food burger I've ever had in my entire life. Seriously. No joke, no exaggeration. Five Guys lives up to their vaunted reputation and hype. The only better burgers I've ever had have been at top restaurants here in D.C. such as Michel Richard's Central and also at Circle Bistro. On top of how fantastic the burger was, I LOVE how they served me. You ordered, you paid, then you waited for your number to be called. And the burger was wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in its own paper bag, and the fries were placed in a cup and in their own paper bag. BRILLIANT! These were easy to carry (MUCH easier than a cardboard tray) and kept me from having to worry about dropping or spilling any of them.

I haven't tried every single food offering yet, and I haven't actually been to the Ben's Chili Bowl stand itself (though I've really enjoyed the Ben's half-smoke "all the way", that's a great meal), but I'll say for the record that, if asked, my vote for the best Nationals Park food goes to Five Guys first (both due to quality and service) and Hard Times a close second, with Ben's in third place but not by much. We have some pretty darned good stadium food to be proud of, I think.

So this was a nice evening of firsts for Nationals fans in general and for me in particular, one of those special nights that reminds me of why I go to such great lengths to attend Nationals baseball games in the first place. Nothing beats the thrills that a baseball game can give to you.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rumors of this blog's demise are premature, and yet...

Those of you who might have read this blog in 2007 might have noticed that it has barely changed since September of last year. For reasons too numerous to list, that has, indeed, been the case. Suffice it to say that real life has taken precedence over online writings and ramblings. This blog is a hobby, not my job. My actual life has demanded far more of my time than I have been able to find, and this blog became a regrettable casualty of that.

What that means is, for me to be able to write a Nationals blog with any relevancy, I need to re-tool it a bit. Whereas last season, it was a daily blog (more or less), it will now likely become a weekly roundup. I'll try to write more often as time allows, though.

There will be other changes as well. With the regrettable departure of one of my very favorite Washington Nationals, the erstwhile New York Met Ryan Church, all of the fun has gone out of the idea of my "Ryan report". Sure, we still have Zimmerman and Austin Ryan Kearns, and Joel Ryan Hanrahan, but the gimmick is played out. You need at least four to make it any fun at all, and with Ryan Wagner on the D/L and Langerhans nowhere to be found, it's just not going to work this season, unless Jim Bowden makes some highly coincidental moves (Ryan Braun from the Brewers, anyone?)

Another thing that has changed the fun of blogging for me has been the new ballpark.
Oh, it's beautiful, it's positively gorgeous. I love it! I finally feel that the Nats are being treated like a major league team, and I will no longer have to listen to visiting Phillies fans, or Orioles fans, or any number of other teams fans, decry the terrible old conditions of R.F.K. Stadium. Now, I can puff out my chest with some sense of pride, we have the newest and best baseball park in the country. Okay, sure, it isn't in the top ten, but the Post's Thomas Boswell put it very nicely in his recent online chat:

"As I've written, the park is a beauty. No, not in the top seven, which are almost untouchable __Fenway, Wrigley, Yanks, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates, O's. But right in the battle with the next seven really wonderful parks in (no order) Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis, Colorado, Cleveland and Philadelphia. If the Nats get the parking right and the neighborhood gets built up and the waterfront is developed, there's a chance for Washington to get into the Top 10 in a few years. Certainly the top dozen. That's high praise in an era when (within three years) there will be 22 new parks opened since '91, plus Fenway, Wrigley, Dodgers Stadium and the still-elegant Royals Stadium. The Golden Age of Ballparks. And Washington is now right in the middle of it." (Thomas Boswell, Washington Post online chat, April 18, 2008)

I love the layout in terms of accessibility, the wide concourses, the extensive food options, the big new Team Store, that gorgeous scoreboard..As Dmitri Young said, "What's not to love?"
So what about the new ballpark has changed the experience for me? It isolates me a lot more from the folks who bring us baseball 81 times per season: the front-office personnel, the broadcasters, some of the ushers and other stadium workers. Everyone is spread out now, and compartmentalized. Remember Ellie? She's still there, but for me to see her, I have to wait for an elevator and take it up several floors. Susan, one of my favorite ushers, is now in either the Diamond Club or the President's Club, I can't just stroll by her section before the game and say hello. Also, the design of the seating area precludes quick visits to other sections. Unlike R.F.K., there is no horizontal movement between sections in the lower seating area except through the seats, so this greatly hampers moving around the lower seating area quickly and easily. It is, therefore, more difficult to visit friends in other sections.

Also, because most of us fans appear to be taking Metro to the ballpark, I haven't been running into so many friends that I used to see while coming or going from R.F.K.'s Lot #8. It's tough to just "hang out" around there after a game. I'm learning and experiencing for myself that Metro-fans don't fool around either before or after the games, there seems to be a real purposefulness and focus to getting to and from the ballpark. No one seems to want to linger around outside yet. Perhaps due to the cold weather, no one has so far, and there isn't as much development to distract fans on foot, no restaurants or bars. Hopefully, this will change for the better.

The upshot of all of that is, I don't have as many interesting encounters with other people as I'd grown accustomed to having at old R.F.K. over the past 3 seasons. Sure, it's early still, but I'm not optimistic.

Most unexpectedly, and the part that I hate to mention because of the terrible reflection upon my own character as a fan, the final thing that has kept me from blogging sooner is..... this terrible losing streak. For a while there, I thought that the 2008 Nats were going to challenge the 1988 (was it?) Orioles, who began their season 0-22 (correct me if I'm wrong about that, I just don't feel like researching it.) It was a long time ago, but I still remember the Sports Illustrated cover with Oriole Billy Ripken with his forehead resting on the butt of a bat, looking as dejected as any athlete ever has after losing. As of tonight, the 2008 Nats have a worse record than the 2007 Nats who were widely projected before the season began to have an historically bad season, challenging the inaugural season of the New York Mets for 120+ losses.
This 2008 squad was supposed to be better than last year's. Maybe not NL East champions, but right in the thick of things, with a solid chance at .500 or better. Our alleged hot-bats are stone cold, and there are sloppy mistakes being made.

I'm not turning on the team in any way, shape or form, far from it. It's still early, and for me, even bad baseball is better than no baseball at all. But things are very different now, mostly for the better, but some definitely for the worse. I need to find a way to express what it is to be a Nats fan in 2008 in our spanking-new ballpark. I just hope I find a way to do it that you, my readers, will find compelling.

Song of the moment - Celebrating the longest homestand of the season

Survey of the Moment