Washington DC baseball has always been in my blood. When my dad was a kid, he would get pulled out of school for Opening Day every year, hopping on the bus and meeting my granddad at his work before heading to Griffith or DC Stadium. He was 16 when the second Senators left for Texas, and I bet his biggest regret in life is not punching Bob Short in the nose when he shared an elevator with the devil at the 1977 NCAA Baseball Tournament Mideast Regional in Minnesota.
I was raised to root for players instead of teams, but loved Harry Caray, Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and the Cubs in my youth. I was extremely excited, of course, to see the Expos move to DC in 2005, but wasn’t quite sure how to handle my Cubs fanhood. On Friday May 13, 2005, I witnessed my first Nats-Cubs game, and really found out where my loyalties would lie for the rest of my life.
The Glendon Rusch-Esteban Loaiza matchup wasn’t all that exciting on paper, but the game was still exciting. Nats backup catcher Gary Bennett started the scoring in the second with what seems like his only RBI from the 2005 season, knocking in Vinny Castilla from third on a single. Loaiza got into trouble in the fourth, allowing four baserunners and two runs and letting the Cubs take a 2-1 lead on back-to-back RBI singles by Michael Barrett and Jason Dubois.
The Nats tied it up in the bottom of the sixth, as Ryan Church pinch hit for Jeffrey Hammonds and lined a single to RF off of LaTroy Hawkins, scoring Jose Guillen and moving Vinny Castilla to third with no outs. After a Nick Johnson pop-out, the Nats loaded the bases with one out after Gary Bennett walked (again, I’m pretty sure this was Bennett’s best game ever, as he went 2 for 3 with a run, an RBI, and a walk), but Carlos Baerga pinch hit for Henry Mateo and grounded into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.
In 2005, the Nats’ bullpen was extremely effective on most nights, but sadly this was not one of those nights, as Luis Ayala allowed a homer to Aramis Ramirez followed by a Jeromy Burnitz double, Michael Barrett sac bunt, and Jason Dubois HBP before being pulled for the closer, Chad Cordero. Cordero got Jerry Hairston Jr. to whiff on a squeeze play attempt, but Burnitz scored after the resulting rundown because Bennett decided that since he had done so many positive things in the game without doing anything stupid, he needed to make a fielding error so the Nats wouldn’t actually expect him to be good for a whole game. Cordero had an errant throw later in the inning, allowing Dubois to score and the Cubs to push the lead to 6-2. While both runs were unearned, they were the first inherited runners that Cordero allowed to score in his young career.
After Michael Wuertz handled Guillen, Castilla, and Church for 1-2-3 bottom of the 8th and Zach Day made things interesting but eventually got three outs in the top of the 9th, Cubs lefty Mike Remlinger came on for the bottom of the 9th with the Bad News Bears up 6-2. In the entire game, I was happy for the Cubs when they scored but mad at the same time that the Nats were making mistakes. It was quite the dilemma – should I root for the team that I’ve spent over half of my life pulling for, or the team that my dad waited 34 years to see come back.
The moral dilemma was not helped by Nick Johnson and Cristian Guzman bookending outs around Gary Bennett’s double (I’m convinced that Bennett is the original “Who? Wil Nieves!”). Tony Blanco, the Rule 5 pick that the Nats inexplicably carried for the entire season without regard to his inability to play baseball effectively, knocked in Bennett with a double of his own. Back-to-back walks to Brad Wilkerson and Jamey Carroll loaded the bases, and young Cubs fireballer Todd Wellemeyer was brought in to face Jose Guillen with two outs and three runners on.
I was still conflicted. I didn’t want either team to lose, but I still really didn’t know who I really wanted to win. The Nats weren’t supposed to be all that great in 2005 (they were fine), whereas the Cubs were expected to contend for the NL Central crown (they didn’t). Wellemeyer missed with his first two pitches, and I was still conflicted. On the third pitch, Guillen made hard contact, driving the ball to deep RF. I stood from my seat in LF and yelled “GET OUT!” GET OUT!” At that point, I knew where my loyalties lied – with the Nats. Guillen’s long drive to RF made the decision for me. I didn’t care anymore that the Cubs were supposed to be the better team in 2005, or that I could probably morally root for both since they weren’t in the same division. I wasn’t going to hedge my fandom, and knew then that the Nats were the team for me (had I known about the 2006-2011 Nats, maybe I should have changed my mind).
Guillen’s long drive might have been a walk-off grand slam in any other ball-park, but in RFK Stadium it was the loudest of outs, as Cubs RF Jeromy Burnitz caught it at the wall to end the game. The Nats fell to 18-17 while the Cubs rose to 16-18, both on their way to average seasons and watching the playoffs from the couch in October. In the grand scheme of things, this game did not matter one bit to either team, but it did to a 16 year old who thought that his fandom was a decision he could make in his mind. He found out that fandom is something that can only be decided by the heart.