Today I will tell you about the day I was re-born a baseball fan.
I am not a lifelong baseball fan. That’s not all too uncommon here in Washington D.C., given the relative (Baltimore not withstanding) baseball vacuum from the 1970s to 2005. I grew up in the cold, snowy, North: We had hockey and football. I did see Cal Ripken Jr. play as a minor leaguer (Well, I remember someone telling me I saw him play more than I remember that exactly).
The point is, the inaugural 2005 Nationals season marked the creation of something that didn’t exist before. Behold, the embryonic organism “Baseball Fan” in its earliest stages of development.
Like many fetal entities, the new baseball fan is incapable of really comprehending its environment. It is simply there, having some vague sense of self, and requires a lot of help to thrive. If you’re a human child, your baseball fandom development likely hinges on years of hot dogs and sodas and trinkets to keep you coming back to the game. The young fan goes through years of this, sprinkled with a guiding adult explaining the game little by little to it, until one day it realizes it cares about what is happening in the game.
The amniotic fluid of an adult becoming a baseball fan includes less cotton candy and more beer (note: don’t drink while you’re actually pregnant), but the ritual is much the same. In the earliest stages of development, we are barely aware that a game exists (and that’s okay).
Expecting mothers recall the first sonogram, the first time they hear a heart beat, the first baby kick. So too does the fetal baseball fan have a variety of first memories, not fully formed. For me, these are all at RFK. The stone behemoth and its big ridiculous ramps you’d walk up, followed by the insanely steep incline in the 500 sections. The time Barry Bonds hit a HR that would have landed in Maryland if the concrete wall hadn’t stopped it. The time Ken Griffey Jr. hit a foul ball that might have cut the Washington Monument in half. Livo throwing his glove into the stands, then wanting his glove back. The cheers that went up when Alfonso Soriano stole his 40th base, becoming the first member of the 40-40-40 club*.
I couldn’t tell you anything about these games other than those moments.
The day I think I became a full-on baseball fan is the first game I can honestly say I recall most of. September 4, 2006. The eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals were in town to play our beleaguered Washington Nationals at RFK. There was no reason this game should have been anything but another butt-kicking under the sun for DC. I honestly am not sure if I could have told you who Ramon Ortiz was before the game, but I’ll never forget his name now. Ortiz was a nothing-special pitcher on one of the worst rotations in baseball. He finished 11-16 with a 5.57 ERA. I mean, why would anyone know who Ortiz was, right?
He was facing future National Jason Marquis (I am sure I made some lame “Marquis De Sade” joke) and Albert Pujols (who’d finish with 49 HRs that year). Poor little old Ramon Ortiz getting up on the mound on Labor Day for a 1pm start. I had the day off and nothing to do but drink beer outside.
The game is memorable because I blinked and it was the 6th inning- and wasn’t blind drink, so that’s not why. No, this game was moving fast (It’d finish in 2 hours and 10 minutes). After double checking the scoreboard to confirm our suspicions, the crowd sort of murmured to itself. Albert Pujols grounded out to third and we realized: This game is going fast because the Cards don’t have any hits.
In fact, no one scored until the 7th. Good ol’ Austin Kearns took Marquis deep following a Nick “Walking is What I Do” Johnson walk.
Three more Cards up, three more Cards down. For the first time I experience the concept of “people sitting on their hands.” Here I am, barely cognizant of baseball, how it works, what a big deal this might be-and I’m fully on board. Somehow, I get it. This is special.
Somewhere in these innings, I am born a baseball fan.
What blew the roof off the place was the Bottom of the 8th when Ramon Ortiz helped his own cause, sending one over the wall in left center. Are you kidding me? First career home run in the middle of throwing a no-hitter? This was too good to be true! It had Lifetime movie written all over it.
Anyone who’s heard of Jordan Zimmermann knows that Ramon Ortiz did not throw a no-hitter that day. The first batter of the 9th got a single, and after a collective groan, we fans quickly offered the pitcher applause, the first truly appreciative effort I had I ever given a baseball player. The next batter lined into a double play before Albert Pujols finally got his hit- a moon shot that could have caught a green line train going south. Ortiz was pulled to a standing ovation and the yells of CHIEEEEF as Chad Cordero came into close us out.
It was one game in a fifth place season. A guy almost but didn’t throw a no hitter. So what. It’s almost commonplace, right? But for this team, this terrible terrible team, to do it-that woke something up in me, I suppose. I realized I really cared. Good things can happen in bad years. I wanted more.
It was games like this one that set me on the path to learn everything I could about baseball, and eventually start writing about it. It’s the day I remember becoming a fan.
*Okay, so technically Soriano’s 40-40-40 came after Ramon Ortiz’s game, but I was struggling to remember things about RFK other than the time I ordered a $4 hot chocolate and the lady handed me hot water and a packet of Swiss Miss dry powder. Forgive me.
For more from Frank check out his blog Nationals 101.