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A visit to Nationals Park: An experience that was good to the last drop

Updated on September 21, 2012

On Wednesday I enjoyed 18 innings of baseball at Nationals Park. It was my first visit to their field and I wasn't disappointed.

In the opening game I witnessed an historic moment as Washington won its 90th game of the season, 3-1 over the Dodgers. It’s the first 90-win season by a Washington team since 1933. In the nightcap, the Nats scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game, only to lose it on a blast over the centerfield fence off the bat of Matt Kemp.

A nice place to visit

The Nationals have a nice park – not quite to par with The Ballpark at Arlington or Minutemaid Park in Houston, both of which I visited last year, although certainly much better than the cement donuts many teams favored in the 1970s and '80s. The park is just, well, nice.

I had a nice view of the game from the third row of the lower upper deck, between home and third. The ticket cost a mere $24, a bargain these days in professional sports.

I found that the Nationals are an easy team to root for. The fans are nice and knowledgeable about the team. Even the older single lady sitting beside us filled us in on Jon Lannan's callup and some of his pitching woes. The players are full of energy (especially Bryce Harper) and fun to watch.

A typical National League game

Washington's win in the opener is what I have come to call a typical National League game – the teams combined for 18 hits, more than 20 baserunners, yet totaled just four runs. Through the first four innings each team’s leadoff hitter had been to the plate three times, yet the score stood at just 1-1. It was neither a well-pitched game nor a good hitting game. It seemed to hinge more on opponent failures than on any team's success.

I know there are games like this in the American League as well but it seems to happen with more regularity in the NL. I'm sure a lot of that has to do with the pitcher in the lineup and the way that puts managers in a box. It seems as if in the NL managers more often go through the motions of what they're forced to do – bunt with the pitcher here, make the double switch there – than by what they might like to do.

A difference in intensity

Despite playing for a wild card berth, I thought LA looked lethargic. While the Nationals played with enthusiasm and intensity, the Dodgers appeared to be going through the motions. Even in the second game, after taking a 6-0 lead in the third, the Dodgers seemed to sit back and be content with that. Even on the controversial sixth run in Game 2, Kemp admitted he was looking behind him instead of going full out to home and his run shouldn’t have counted.

Contrast this to the play of Bryce Harper, who apparently has no other setting than full throttle. In the first game he ran a double into a triple through sheer hustle. Probably 95 percent of MLB players would have stopped at second, content with a double on the play. (Incidentally, that triple was his 49th extra base hit of the season, a record for a teenager.)

In the second game, he nearly beat out a routine grounder to short when Hanley Ramirez took a lackadaisical approach to fielding and throwing it. Later, in the big six-run eighth, Harper beat out a slow grounder to third when Luis Cruz, aware of Harper’s hustle, hurried and skipped the throw to first. It’s amazing the pressure aggressive, hustling play puts on a defense.

That eighth inning was fun to watch, with a couple of homers, a couple of singles and an error leading to six runs by the Nationals to tie the game at 6. Manager Davey Johnson then brought in closer Tyler Clippard with Kemp leading off the top of the ninth, hoping to hold the Dodgers to give Washington a chance to clinch their first playoff berth. Instead, Kemp blasted an 0-2 fastball to dead center. Harper made a valiant leap at the fence but the ball was well beyond his reach.

Lots of fans missed the exciting finish

What amazed me is how few people got to see the dramatics of the final two innings. The attendance for the doubleheader was just short of 27,000, most of them showing up late in the first game, which started at 4. By the time the sixth inning of Game 2 rolled around, with the Nationals trailing 6-0 and hitting as if they faced Don Drysdale instead of Josh Beckett, fans began leaving in droves. Several of those around us commented that the game was over, so they might as well head home. By the time the Nationals came to bat in the bottom of the eighth, I’d guess half the fans had left.

Now, I can see that sometimes you might have to leave a game early, like if you had a burst aneurysm or the threat of nuclear attack was imminent. Other than that, I find it hard to believe that people pay as much money as they do for tickets and then decide they can’t stay for the entire event. Especially in baseball, where so much can happen in the late innings.

These same people would never think about walking out with 15 minutes remaining in a movie that they paid $10 to see. But they’ll leave seats that, according to the pricing chart, cost $50, $75 or even more because the game wasn’t going their way, or because they want to beat the rush to the parking lot.

At the mercy of other drivers

Years ago when I lived in southern California, a colleague name Jerry, who was a huge White Sox fan, recruited a number of us to attend an Angels game when Chicago came to town. Jerry even offered to drive us in his van. We had a fun time and it was a good game. After eight innings, the Angels held a one-run lead, but the White Sox had their big home run hitter, Ron Kittle, due up in the top of the ninth. If someone got on, he had a chance to put the Sox ahead with one swing. Exciting stuff.

Except that when the eighth ended, Jerry hopped up and announced we had to leave so he could beat the traffic out of the parking lot. I found this inexplicable because Jerry’s favorite team had a chance to win the game with their star slugger, and also because few parking lots I’d been in were easier to get out of than the Angels’ lot. I begged Jerry to reconsider, to at least stay until Kittle batted, but he was adamant and since he’d driven the van, all of us had to leave when he did.

The only other time I left a game early came when I was also at the mercy of another driver. Now I try to always drive myself, or go with others who are equally as adamant as I am about staying to the end (although not all of them root for extra innings the way I do).

Fun till the very end

My reason is simple: Baseball teams, unlike those in football, basketball and other sports with clocks, always have a chance to keep the game going. As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And so I stayed Wednesday night and got to see an exciting finish to the game. I couldn’t have been happier.

Overall, the experience was an enjoyable one. If you’re going to be in our nation’s capital during baseball season, I highly recommend a trip to Nationals Park to take in a game. But make sure to stay until the final out is recorded.

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    • e-five profile image

      e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      I feel like I went to the game... Having lived in DC 20+ years ago and being forced to drive to Baltimore to see a game was one of the things I disliked about DC. Although the attendance isn't what it should be for a team with the best record in the National Leauge, maybe it will get better if the Nats become a winning team on a consistent basis. And I share your incredulity at people leaving in the bottom of the 7th-- blasphemy!