There are a lot of great things about having your birthday fall the day after Valentine’s Day. One of the best is that February 15, more often than not, is the date pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Ostensibly, it is the first day of that year’s baseball season. Every team, in theory, has a shot at making the playoffs. There is always a host of players trying to make comebacks, rookie phenoms fighting for a roster spot and prove themselves, and big-ticket free agent signings, hopefully, looking to justify their new contracts.
For me, it means spring and summer is right around the corner. Growing up in Brooklyn in the early 90’s, New York baseball was in at an in-between point. The Mets were trying to replicate their success from the previous decade. The Yankees were a few years from their dynastic run. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint any particular reason I became a baseball fan. Neither of my parents were that interested in baseball. There is even less explanation for why I was a Mets fan as a young child. Maybe I liked the orange and blue or maybe I thought Mr. Met was neat.
The earliest point of reference to my baseball fandom is a photo of me as a four-year old with a clearly too large Mets t-shirt and hat, sitting on the stoop of our Park Slope Brownstone. It would be a few more years until I actually saw my first major league game. As a First Communion gift, my parents got tickets to the Mets-Marlins game. It was Florida’s inaugural season and their first series at Shea Stadium. In the fog of time and with Shea nothing more than the site of Citi Field’s parking lot now, I can’t remember the section we were in, though I do recall it was in the orange seats that hugged the field. We were probably a dozen rows behind the first base dugout.
Riding the 7 out to Shea, I recall the anticipation of a young child seeing his favorite team for the first time. Inhaling the smell of professionally cut grass, the watered infield dirt, and the sites and sounds of batting practice and pre-game hub-bub. If only the game could have matched the thrill of the pre-game. I only remember a few things from the game. The first player I ever booed was Dave Magadan. The Mets played flat, except for Howard Johnson, and they had a shot at winning the game in the bottom of the ninth, except Bobby Bonilla came up empty. I’m sure I’m not the only Mets fan whose first game was marred by such ineptitude and carelessness, but that ride on the 7, away from Shea was the end of the Mets for me. Ask anyone who knows me, I’m a sucker for an underdog. But a team who is disinterested and mentally checked out, even as an eight year old, held no interest me.
I wasn’t a free agent for long. In May of 1993, I started following the Yankees in the
AL East Standings. From my recollection, they moved from fourth to third to second in the matter of a week or two. This was not a powerhouse team. We are talking about a roster comprised of excellent players like Don Mattingly, Jimmy Key, and Wade Boggs, but also featuring Pat Kelly, Spike Owen, and Melido Perez. Before long, a poster of Don Mattingly was up in my bedroom. It seemed as if it was meant to be. My first game at Yankee Stadium included a Mattingly three-run homerun against Oakland’s Tom Welch and a New York victory.
And then we moved to Vermont. New England. Red Sox Country. One of the biggest changes was the presence of cable television, including the New England sports channel, NESN. As a pre-teen and young teenager, a Yankee post-season victory would leave me exuberant, while October defeats were devastating. I was so invested in them that I had to turn off the televsion a few innings prior to Jim Leyritz’s memorable homerun against Mark Wohlers in the 1996 World Series. This was done in exasperation, following Kenny Rogers’ abysmal performance on the mound. Besides 1997 and 2002, being a Yankees fan was great.
And then in 2003, something changed. After graduating high school, I treated myself to a July 4th game between the Yankees and Red Sox in the Bronx. With seats in the left field box seats, I felt like an adult. While David Wells punctuated his ineffective start by throwing his cap and glove into the stands, I felt nothing. The Yankees got shellacked and I didn’t feel any disappointment. I wasn’t happy or anything, I just wasn’t feeling like much of a fan. Maybe it was the distance from New York. More likely was that in the early 2000s, the Yankees were a team of superstars and aging stars purchased in the hopes of ensuring victory ever year. They were no more a team than a business. I realize that baseball is a business, but I want a team that is built from the bottom-up. A team built on a limitless payroll inspires nothing more than awe at their financial abilities, not loyalty to a team.
Around the same time, the Expos, the perpetual doormat of the NL East were making some noise. They had been running away with the division in 1994, but the strike made it all for naught. Forced to trade away their best players as they got closer to free agency since the team couldn’t afford to resign them, they were middling at best. The prospects from those trades, along with international prospects and those picked up in the draft had left the Expos with a crop of talented young players. The year before they had made some noise, trading for Bartolo Colon as well as Cliff Floyd, before fading down the stretch.
As I prepared to start at Seton Hall for my first year of college, my mom and I went up
to Montreal for the August 17th game against the Giants. Sidney Ponson, for the Giants, and Tomo Okha squared off in a pitchers duel. Leading 2-1 going into the ninth, Ponson went out looking for the complete game win. After only recording one out and loading the bases, he was replaced by Tim Worrell. Worrell struck out Wil Cordero. The final hope for the Expos, looking to go four games over .500 at 64-60, was rookie Brad Wilkerson. With a 3-2 count, Wilkerson slammed a walk-off grand slam to deep center. All 16,000 people, in England and French, went crazy!
We had seats a few rows from the field and it felt like home. All batters were introduced in French and then in English. This was my team. I listened to Expos radio whenever possible. I learned all there was to learn about the Expos farm system. I finally deciphered their cap logo.
We decided to go back again later the next week for a game against the Phillies on $1 Hot Dog Night. With the Expos in the thick of the Wild Card fight, Randy Wolf faced off against Montreal’s Livan Hernandez. The Expos absolutely crushed the Phillies, 12-1, with Hernandez striking out nine and going the distance. At some point during the early days of September, the team was in the Wild Card lead, but with Major League baseball owning the team, the 29 other owners prohibited the Expos from expanding their roster in the lat month. As the Expos dropped in the standing, a window was definitely closing. Vladimir Guerrero, an all-around threat, whose nickname was Vlad the Impaler, was a free agent and unlikely to return to Montreal.
With the looming reality of leaving Montreal, for Washington, D.C., and playing some of their home games in San Jose, Puerto Rico, the team finished 28 games under .500 in 2004. Guerrero had left for the Angels. I was so disgusted at how all of this went down, my freshmen year persuasion speech for College Forensics was about the need to change baseball’s anti-trust rules, with numerous references to the Expos. The lone bright spot in the move, announced after the 2004 season, was that the Expos/Nationals were now just a few hours away from New Jersey.
When the Nationals opened up in Washington, I desperately wanted to go to the first
game in DC. It was a curmudgeonly old econ professor who scheduled an exam the day of the game and said there would be no make-up tests that prevented this from happening. In the end, my friend Mike and I caught the second and third Nationals home game in history. Facing the Diamondbacks, the Nationals won both. Before our first game, we walked around RFK to get a sense of the layout and see how the ball played during batting practice. After our second game, a Sunday day game, all the fans at the park saw the birth of Screech, the Nationals mascot. Literally, an oversized egg was rolled into the outfield and Screech busted out. Lame, but kind of endearing. After this birth, I purchased my first t-shirt jersey. Thanks, Jose Guillen!
That year, the Nationals took off. In the first half, Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Jose Vidro, and Livan Hernandez were on fire. The team entered the All-Star break in first place. By game 162, the team was at .500 and nowhere near the playoffs. No hope at getting to the playoffs was the story in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Even the opening of National Park in 2008, couldn’t change that story. But unlike the Mets of the early 1990’s, even when the guys were struggling or just not that good, I believed in the team. I made it to two games in 2008 as the Rangers beat the Nationals in both games.
Things changed last year. Forever. In 2009, the Nationals drafted pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg. By the spring of 2010, there was eager anticipation of when he would be called up to the majors. I guessed he would make his first start against the Reds in early June. Foiled! Instead, I got Livan Hernandez and a Reds win as the Nats bullpen imploded. Strasburg started a few days later against the Pirates. He struck out 13 and looked phenomenal. Nats blogs lit up with complaints at all the new fans leaving once Strasburg was pulled from his starts. All the Nationals t-shirt jerseys I saw in public were Strasburg. For the first time in my life, I could scoff at bandwagon Nationals fan. After a year where Strasburg blew out his arm, the Nats replaced Adam Dunn with Jayson Werth in the off season, and the team drafted Bryce Harper, I eagerly await 2011. We have the beginning of a foundation, along with third basemen Ryan Zimmerman, for a successful future.
February is just around the corner. Pitchers and catchers will report shortly thereafter. Before you know it, spring training games will be filling up the March afternoons. In no time, the games will be for real. I hold out hope, every spring that this is the year the Nationals can put it all together and play some meaningful baseball in September as they push to make it into the playoffs. I’ve looked for signs to point to this being that year. In 2007, I thought the Nationals ability to respond to a long losing streak with an equally as long winning streak boded well for the team. In 2008, it was Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the first game of the season, the first game at Nationals Park. Last year, the fact that we were playing .500 ball in late May, before Strasburg was called up.
Maybe this March, it will be stories of Jordan Zimmermann stepping up to be the pitching staff leader or the dynamic double-play duo of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, or maybe, how free agent signees Adam LaRoche and Werth will be difference makers in the line-up and in the field. Floating above all of this will be stories of Harper’s timetable to get to the majors and Strasburg’s impending return from Tommy John surgery. I will read everyone of these stories, believing earnestly, that each are part of the puzzle that it takes to make the Nationals contenders. There is a saying in baseball that goes, every team will win 60 games and lose 60 games, it is what they do with the other 40 that determines their fate. Thank God we only play the Phillies 18 or 19 times.
One last thing: Youppi, the Expos mascot, would destroy Screech in a fight. Je me souviens.