Ask any longtime sports fan to call to mind a game that begged to raise the question, “Why watch?” and he or she can likely reach into the not-too-distant depths of their memory to a game that tested their patience or frustrated them to no avail.
Growing up a Yankees fan in a family that had a rather strong hatred for sports, I’ll never forget how heartbroken I was following Game 7 of the 2001 World Series - and how frustrating it was to receive zero empathy when I begged my parents to let me skip school the next day.
Nevertheless, I've found, over time, that it’s not just the crushing losses that challenge us to explain why we keep coming back to baseball. Anyone who has ever stuck it out in the upper deck on a 95-degree day to watch an out-of-town rival shellac their beloved team for nine innings, or any fan who’s prevailed through two stretches in a single game only to witness a one-run extra-innings loss might find it difficult in the moment to use concrete facts or reasoning to tackle the all-too-familiar question yielded by baseball critics: “What do you get out of this sport?”
Yet, when I look back to find a Washington Nationals game that demonstrated for me how this beloved sport can mean so much more than wins and losses or power rankings, one stands out among the rest with no question: game two of the Nationals' doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 17, 2013.
For faraway Nationals fans, that date might not hold much significance on first thought. But, for anyone living within city limits - particularly the Southeast quadrant just beyond Nationals Park - it’s all too easy to remember how much we yearned for a quick return to normality following events that occurred a day earlier.
The tragedy at Navy Yard cost a dozen men and women their lives and caused injury to three others, while countless other District residents were shaken to their core. Major League Baseball made the appropriate decision to postpone the Nationals game scheduled that evening, both for logistical reasons and out of respect for the lives directly impacted.
The next day, a campaign to encourage Nationals fans to sport the navy’s colors swept across social media. The Nats themselves scrambled to show their support for the men and women in navy and gold by arranging to wear Navy caps during warm-ups. Unfortunately for me, Work commitments prevented me from attending game one of the doubleheader, which culminated in an unlikely Nats walk-off, thanks in part to Denard Span.
Like a few others who sat in Blogger’s Row in the Nationals’ press box that evening, I made an extra effort to come out to the game, as if doing so supported an act solidarity out of love for a city I’ve learned to call home.
Rookie Tanner Roark got the nod for the nightcap. Before he had even taken the mound, however, one of the other bloggers and I picked up right where we had left off on an earlier debate about whether or not Roark was the “real deal.”
On this night, Roark went on to support our verdict. He allowed just two hits to the Braves and retired the final 13 batters he faced in order. After the game, manager Davey Johnson commented that Roark asked not to be pulled, despite the fact he had thrown more than 20 pitches over his prior single-game total.
To help Roark get there, Steve Lombardozzi put the Nats up in the second inning with an RBI single off Freddy Garcia.
But, it was Ryan Zimmerman who brought Washington fans to their feet as he padded the Nats' lead with a homer in the eighth. Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche each notched an RBI that same inning to help Washington to a 4-0 win.
Putting aside the emotions many carried that night to Nationals Park, the contest turned out to be one of those games that left even borderline-pessimistic fans asking, “Could the Nationals really still have a shot at the playoffs?”
It was a far-fetched idea. The Nats entered game two of the doubleheader 4 ½ games behind the Cincinnati Reds, who held possession of the second National League wild-card slot. With just 11 regular-season games remaining, the odds were stacked against the Nationals, despite the fact they had just won 10 of their last 11. They were not yet statistically eliminated, but it seemed highly unlikely they would repeat their 10-of-11 streak - and doing so wouldn’t have guaranteed a berth, anyway.
But, on a night in which so many longed for a return to the familiar comforts baseball provides, the act of believing the Nats could defy the odds seemed to hold more significance than in days passed. For one night in an otherwise insignificant September, the Nats reminded many why, on some nights, box scores and stat lines cannot capture the real game story.