2007 was a strange limbo for the Washington Nationals. The novelty of baseball in Washington had worn off, as attendance had slipped from 11th in 2005 down to 25th. The charming cesspool that was RFK Stadium was waiting to be mercifully replaced by a new park in 2008. Alfonso Soriano had left town for Chicago. Frank Robinson was out. Manny Acta was in. The team was bad, but not yet the 100+ loss kind of bad that would yield the elite prospects seen in the coming years. Those were the type of prospects desperately needed to rebuild Baseball America's 30th ranked minor league system. A system that today looks even worse, considering its highest rated prospect was "Esmailyn Goznalez".
So, in every way imaginable, the 2007 Washington Nationals were in the middle of a baseball fog, with little in the way of expectations and even less in the sense of direction.
Even in an unspectacular season such as 2007, there were still plenty of indelible moments. I remember sitting in Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue watching Barry Bonds hit home run 756 off Mike Bacsik. I remember sitting in right field watching the "Short Still Stinks" banner being unfurled at the last home game.
But more than anything, I remember Saturday, May 12, 2007.
Six weeks into the season, the Nationals were already 13 games out of first place, losing 11 of their last 12 games. A strong outing from Shawn Hill the night before against the visiting Florida Marlins had snapped an eight game losing streak.
I had just finished my second year of law school and was ready for a summer revolving around baseball. My friend, Rich Campbell, had been assigned a story on the first mixed martial arts event in the District for The Washington Post. “The Revolution”, as it was called, was being held at the D.C. Armory. I asked him if I could tag along in the hopes that I might look enough like a media member to wander through the press gate unchecked. My fallback was walking down the road to RFK where Matt Chico and Ricky Nolasco were scheduled to start at 7:05.
As luck and indifferent security would have it, I walked right through the press gate. The event was unremarkable. I mostly recall novice refereeing and the oddity of the fights being conducted in a boxing ring because the customary octagon was not permitted in D.C.
After the card finished, I paced around the Armory, waiting for Rich to file his story. We had previously discussed making a run to Bob & Edith's Diner on the other side of the River. Sometime around 11:00, just as Rich was preparing to close his laptop, he mentioned that the Nationals had endured a three hour rain delay, and were just now finishing the 6th inning. We agreed that it was worth a drop-in.
We drove the tenth of a mile from the D.C. Armory media parking lot to the RFK media parking lot with no idea as to how we would enter without a ticket. Surveying the scene, we decided the direct approach would be the best one and ran straight through the entrance, ignoring the lone security guard’s half-hearted pleas to stop.
We emerged from the RFK concourse to a rain-soaked scene. Maybe 2,000 fans watched the Marlins’ Renyel Pinto, holding a 3-2 lead, work a 1-2-3 7th inning in which he retired Tony Batista, Felipe López, and Cristian Guzmán.
As the thrill of illicit baseball waned, it quickly became just another poorly attended game between mediocre teams. The next inning and one-half offered up nothing noteworthy. With the Nationals still trailing 3-2 going into the bottom of the 9th, the sky opened up again. The crowd stood huddled beneath the overhang in the covered 300 section of the stadium, watching the tarp rolling out amidst a downpour.
Maybe 10 minutes later, an usher informed us that the game had been called. The last half-inning would be played before the start of the next game. Rich and I dashed through the rain back to his car and resumed our original plan to cap the night at Bob & Edith’s.
While on the 14th Street Bridge, beneath our conversation, we heard somebody announce on 1500 AM that they were pulling the tarp and going to finish the game. With little discussion apart from, “Well, we got to do this,” Rich turned the car around in Virginia and we headed back.
We returned to RFK shortly after 1:00 AM. This time, we found no security guard to run past. Inside, the stadium was eerie and surreal. I counted about 75 fans spread throughout the lower bowl of the stadium. I recounted that figure several times, mostly because when there are only about 75 fans, it takes very little time to count them all.
Rich and I settled a few rows above the visiting first base dugout. We were the only people to the right of home plate, the remaining crowd preferring to populate mostly along the third base dugout.
Above us, the cleaning crew was working through the 400 and 500 sections as the game picked back up. They seemed to outnumber the spectators below. Foul balls bounded unpursued through the aisles. Every sound in the park was amplified by the absence of the crowd. The lack of the usual murmurs, movements, and conversations created a stark void replaced only by glove pops and muffled dugout chatter.
And then something crazy happened: The Nationals came back.
Brian Schneider started the inning with a walk putting the tying run was on base. Dmitri Young pinch hit and singled. Jesús Flores pinch hit and walked to load the bases. A one out Felipe López single to right scored pinch runner Nook Logan and tied the game at 3, keeping the bases loaded.
After Cristian Guzmán struck out, the Marlins opted to bring in Jorge Julio to face Ryan Zimmerman.
At about 1:45 AM, almost seven hours after the game had begun, Zim walked it off with a grand slam to LF.
The Nationals won 7-3. 75 people lost their minds.
I ran up and down the empty row of seats frantically waving my arms above my head and shouting. I pulled out my cell phone and woke up anyone I could think to call. Rich and I euphorically sauntered back to his car and resumed our original plan to cap the night at Bob & Edith’s Diner.
I had French toast.