Journeying Through the Playoffs with the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals
An Investment of the Heart
Investing in a sports team as a spectator can be stupid and painful. When you do so, you’re investing your happiness in something over which you have no control, giving the reins to your heart over to something that, even statistically (in most sports), will 29 times out of 30 invariably let you down.
The flip side is sports’ seemingly randomly and often miraculous ability to transform a ho-hum period of your life into a remarkable memory of fleeting good times and give you heartwarming feelings you’ll carry with you the rest of your life. For my dad that came in 1968, when in each case suddenly and without notice his childhood Detroit Tigers and collegiate Ohio State Buckeyes won the World Series and national championship within three months of each other. For me, the 2002 Buckeyes turned a childhood’s worth of sports frustration into a magical journey of skin-of-your-teeth elation, forever carried on in my die-hard belief that solid defense and a powerful running game are fundamentally superior to the gimmicky offenses of Chip Kelly or Urban Meyer. That said, Meyer’s 2014 Buckeyes turned my last two months as a young professional in Chicago – the period when I met my still-girlfriend – into the warmest sub-zero December and January of my life.
From the time I became conscious as a sports fan I long hoped my childhood Reds would give me the baseball equivalent to what the Buckeyes gave me with football. After all, baseball was my favorite sport, and I attended more of their games than those of any other team I’d ever watched. Despite this, from the time I entered middle school they rarely had a winning record, never won a playoff series, and I was finishing college before they made it to the postseason, where they were promptly swept. I lived vicariously through other teams’ triumphs – the Yankee-killing 2001 Diamondbacks, the surprise 2002 Angels, and the curse-saving 2003 Marlins, among others. They were all memorable runs, but none of those were ever truly “my” team. Three decades into my life I’d never even experienced a baseball playoff game. Baseball, my greatest sporting love, had neglected to give me a championship.
The Journey to 2019
The Nationals lost 100 games the first year I decided to like them. It was the first summer I interned in Washington and, always a contrarian, I decided I liked the Nationals’ newness and their relative obscurity in the dizzying scene of Washington. It helped that their team at that time included more than its share of ex-Cincinnati Reds, though it was still a year before Stephen Strasburg’s debut and the signing of Bryce Harper. That summer when I returned to Cincinnati I even wore a Nationals jersey to a Reds’ game, hoping for autographs in seats by the visitors’ dugout.
As the team got better after 2009, my fandom slipped. The Nationals of 2012-2016 were to me a casual interest, but my fandom was fleeting. With Bryce Harper, the Nationals didn’t have a great reputation across the rest of the league, and their 2012 collapse and their 2015 faceplant seemed to affirm their reputation as inevitable losers. In 2015 I went to a Nationals vs. Reds game in Washington, where I cheered for the Reds.
The turning point came in 2017, when for reasons I still can’t recall, my girlfriend and I turned on a Nationals game that they ended up winning in extra innings. Their then “Big Four” of Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman intrigued us, particularly the “goofy” personality of Rendon – and they walked off the Braves that night 5-4 to improve to 51-35. An easy team to cheer for, we slowly fell in love with the ease of their first-place success (as well as their players’ playful personalities), suffering through their then-annual five-game divisional round playoff collapse at the hands of our old hometown Chicago Cubs. In 2018 we experienced real disappointment, as this team of ours, favored by many to win the World Series, limped to an 82-80 finish. Having lost Bryce Harper and ditched other favorites like Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzales in 2018, and stuck for 2019 with an infuriating and underperforming new manager, we had meager hopes heading into the last season. We both assumed a sub-.500 finish.
Despite my meager hopes for the Nationals in 2019, I watched more spring training in March than I ever had before. Coincidentally, the Nationals played the presumably cheating Astros that spring about a hundred times since they shared a facility in West Palm Beach. The Nationals predictably lost to the Mets on Opening Day, and they limped to an 8-2 loss in the triumphant return of Bryce Harper to the District, spoiling the chorus of boos over his return. We all dreaded Bryce was going to get the last laugh after his strikeouts at the arm of Max Scherzer gave way to a home run that day late in the game.
The first part of the year the Nationals struggled to hit .500, as their remade bullpen – full of enduring stars like Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp, and Trevor Rosenthal – routinely helped the team pull futility out of momentary success. Poor fundamentals, baserunning errors, and silly mistakes cratered the team to the now-famous 19-31. At 19-27, I wrote a blistering editorial urging the team to fire its manager, who only seemed to exacerbate the team’s unenviable attributes.
In May we went to New York together and while there the Nationals somehow squeaked out a four-game split with the Dodgers. It was the emergence around this time of Gerardo Parra, for whom the Nationals had just traded, and his use of a children’s walkup song that prior to my girlfriend’s mentioning I’d never heard of. It soon became one of those wacky baseball anthems around which an entire fan base rallies. In several years we’ll probably look back with fondness and cringe. Having started the year inexplicably chopping lettuce together in the locker room after their fleeting wins, the Nationals transformed radically and started a tradition of dancing in the dugout after home runs. They soon became one of the most fun teams in the league.
That the Nationals rebounded against an easy schedule in June and July didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the fact that they only settled down slightly when the competition got tougher in August and September. When they played the Marlins on August 31st, my girlfriend and I dressed in orange and came early in the hopes of tricking one of the Marlins’ outfielders to toss us a ball during batting practice. Curtis Granderson obligingly did. The Nationals crushed the Marlins that night, and at the end of that series surged 19 games over .500. After the game a drunk rendition of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” broke out in the Metro three times. I made a comment to her that something this year felt different. It was that same excitement I’d remembered from 2002 with the Buckeyes. Something palpable was in the air. Energy, excitement, and anticipation.
September was rough, though. A few days later, rowdy Mets fans (the most obnoxious in baseball?) ruined our time at the Ballpark as Noah Syndergard crushed Joe Ross 7-0. Over the next few weeks the Nationals’ Wild Card lead badly eroded, but never disappeared. During the second-last week of the season the Nationals lost two of three in St. Louis. Then in the last week of the season a surprise five-game sweep over Harper and the Phillies helped the Nationals salvage the home Wild Card spot, and they swept the Indians at home to eliminate Cleveland on the season’s final weekend. I attended the Friday night game of that series, and the ease with which the victory came felt odd and freeing. It was as if something about this team had changed.
The win queued up a Wild Card showdown with the ever-pesky Milwaukee Brewers, who had overtaken the Cubs when they collapsed down the stretch. Given the Nationals’ past playoff futility, we all expected them to lose, and they nearly did. Even so, given my history with the Reds, I jumped at the opportunity to secure a $65 ticket to see the first official playoff game of my baseball life.
My Playoff Game #1: Wild Card Game (win 4-3)
October 1st, night of the Wild Card game, was a pleasantly cool night in Washington with a markedly different kind of vibe from those preceding. Knowing I was going, I’d skipped the Nationals’ regular season finale (a victory) against the Indians, both in an effort to save costs and to store up on rest that I assumed for sure would be needed if I were going to help the Nationals have any chance of a victory in the Wild Card game. My hopes were modest, but my excitement for my first playoff game high. Win or lose, this was a bucket list item I’d now check off my list.
Preparing for the game, I knew it would eclipse the regular season in intensity and excitement. I left work early and rested for a bit before heading to the park shortly after it opened. Having jinxed the team previously by wearing blue to a game, I was sure this time to wear all red, a Nationals t-shirt over a long-sleeve red-T, and a red cap. Walking in, I relished in receipt of my first-ever postseason rally towel, and found my seats in the second-to-top row of the highest and furthest section of the stadium, deep down the right field line. A smattering of Brewers fans in this area muddied the scene, and despite the “big game” environment not all of the seats were full.
The whole production felt like it bad been a rush to put it together. Surveying the field, this felt a strange limbo that was neither the regular season nor the postseason. Unlike the later games, there were no special on-field markings, no formal player introductions, and the in-game promotions on the stadium scoreboard were neither those of the regular season nor the postseason. Without sponsorships for between-inning gimmicks, it seemed as if the Nationals’ corporate leadership were scrounging at anything they could get, from short trivia contests to generic fan cams, many of which generated less than fervent enthusiasm as the Nationals dug themselves a quick 3-0 hole.
With Max Scherzer on the mound, I had hoped that the Nationals might at least salvage some hope and excitement early in the game. My hopes were dashed when the Brewers carved open a lead before the Nationals got the first out, and by the end of the second inning the Nationals’ deficit confirmed my fears that their postseason would be short-lived. Inning after inning, the score held, and the Brewers fans a few rows down high-fived. At some point Trea Turner smacked a short solo home run right down the line where I was sitting, but that was as close as the Nationals got for most of the game.
As the innings waned, so did Max Scherzer, still losing. While we’d hoped an easy victory might help save Strasburg for game 1 of a potential NLCS, nothing much mattered if we didn’t win this one, so it sure felt like desperation time when Dave Martinez pulled out his second Ferrari heading into the seventh inning. The sight of Strasburg coming in was refreshing to those of us who’d hoped he’d start the game. All concerns about our now-depleted corps of aces would have to be put on hold since we still trailed 3-1. It felt like such an over-use of luxury items to exhaust both of our supercars on this one measly Wild Card Game, but the logic made sense: if we lost now, there would be no tomorrow. And it was becoming abundantly clear that Dave Martinez, like most of us fans, did not even remotely trust the Bullpen. Could he get through an entire playoffs without using any relief pitchers?
In an effort to will the Nationals to some improvement, I wandered the concourse of the upper deck looking for a better view. I didn’t buy any food at this game, though I later became more comfortable with the notion of eating during the intensity of the postseason. Eventually I went back to my seat, slowly plotting my exit in a bid to beat the traffic, assuming the score would hold. I assumed if magic were to happen it’d have to do so by the 7th inning. A tie can be broken in a walk-off, but a 3-1 deficit starts to feel like a mountain if you pull it into the later innings. In this case, seven innings down, still no movement, so at the end of the 7th I wandered down to the lower level, where it would be easy to make an escape once the Nationals made their final out.
That the Nationals gained life in the bottom of the 8th was the surprise of all surprises. As my girlfriend floated off to sleep, our collective hopes dashed, the Nationals slowly loaded the bases with two outs. I paced back and forth, not expecting much but still nervous. Suddenly Juan Soto singled. My first reaction was disappointment. After all the Nationals needed two runs, and a single would barely cut into that, with the “good” part of the order now passed. For a moment I just knew somebody would get thrown out at the plate. How many runs would score? Maybe one? As the second run crossed I quickly ran through the implications of a tie – would the Brewers then win it in the 9th? And then the confusion as the right fielder bobbled the ball. Stretching their luck, the Nationals sent the runner, and a third run came in. And he was safe! “Oh my god!,” I yelled. Momentary elation, but then more confusion. “Oh sh*t”, we all yelled it collectively. Soto had been thrown out at second and we all momentarily feared that the magic of the moment, like a hard-hit line drive, was a dash of an excitement all for naught, that stupid baserunning, long an Achilles heel for the team, had doomed them once again. But no, it turned out. While Soto’s poor baserunning had ended the inning, the runs still counted and the Nationals still led. 4-3. It was one of those things that you rationally would have understood, but in the moment I eternally feared the worst, and it took me nearly a minute to catch my breath and realize we were actually ahead and nobody was going to take it away.
I caught the play only halfway on the field. The rest of it I watched on the giant jumbotron in left field, since I was now standing behind about 15 rows of onlookers also hoping to beat the traffic. Amid the confusion, I caught my breath, suddenly realizing that after hours of doom and gloom the Nationals now led! And only three outs to go! They’d waited so long for their rally that the game was now nearly over and it was difficult to process this sudden turn in mentality. Almost too stunned to feel pressure, I barely comprehended as Daniel Hudson threw three quick outs in the top of the ninth. This was exactly the situation the Nationals would have blown all year long, but in this instance the outs came quickly, and suddenly, a third popup. On the third out, the stadium went nuts. With a broken outward camera on my phone, I tried to film the scene using the selfie side. It was pandemonium in DC. Seeing college kids hugging each other – all for a Wild Card victory – was surreal. High fives all around.
I waited around as long as I could, but quickly made a running sprint out of the stadium to the Metro. I knew it would be pandemonium there, and I managed to make it onto the first train available, a quick jaunt back up to Archives Metro. The Nationals, who had never won a Playoff series, had – kind of – just won one. It was only the Wild Card game, but the Nationals were now headed to the playoffs.
Series record: Nationals win Wild Card 1 games to 0
My playoff record: 1-0
The Nationals opened the NLDS against the heavily favored, 106-win Dodgers in Los Angeles. The Wild Card had been a triumph, but all assumed that it was our memory for the season. An all-time moment for DC baseball, to be followed by a quick and painless death at the hands of the vastly superior Dodgers. Watching game 1 on TV on a Thursday night confirmed our suspicions. Behind Patrick Corbin on the mound, the Nationals were silenced easily. Their bats fell silent, just as you’d expect, and Corbin was shelled. After the game Trea Turner offered the necessary clichés about trying too hard, that the Nationals needed to relax, and that they still felt confident. I’m glad they did, because the rest of us were reconciled to our impending defeat. Trea’s words felt like the words of a team about to get swept. I’ve watched the playoffs for years, and I’ve seen this story before.
As Game 2 started, both my girlfriend and I were too nervous to watch it. Even though Stephen Strasburg was starting, he had thrown 34 pitches in the Wild Card game and was likely tired. A second loss in Los Angeles and the series would be all but over. But it never came. Quickly the Nationals got ahead 2-0, and later 3-0, and though the deficit closed to 3-2, the Nationals held on. Following the game remotely from a bar, we instead watched on the TV screens as Cincinnati upset UCF in college football. But the NLDS had turned: once looking at certain defeat, the Nationals has salvaved a tie in Los Angeles, sending the series back to Washington.
Expecting we’d lose, I hardly felt bad about the fact I had business trips all week and that I couldn’t attend either home game of the NLDS. When Juan Soto homered to put the Nationals up 2-0 in Game 3 at home, there was a faint moment that posited a glimmer of hope. If the Nationals won in Game 3, might they actually have a chance to win the series? We were punished for our optimistic thinking, as the Dodgers subsequently shelled Anibal Sanchez and re-took control of the series with a commanding win. One more loss, and the Nationals would be done.
That Max Scherzer mind-willed the Nationals to a win in Game 4 was surprising, though it didn’t really change my suspicions that the Nationals would lose the series. I watched the game from a remote hotel in Cumberland, Maryland, suddenly re-appreciating the fact I’d now changed my travel schedule to put me back in DC the night of Game 5.
Home for only a few hours between trips, I watched Game 5 on TV with my girlfriend in Washington. As expected, the Nationals quickly got behind 3-0. Though reliable Strasburg was on the mound, the shelling came as expected. A 1-0 or 2-0 deficit might have seemed manageable, but 3-0 was a deep enough hole that we held little hope. It was still an accomplishment to have taken the Dodgers to five games, and that in itself was a win, we told ourselves. Talk about rationalizing. Our disappointment held as the Nationals came back to make it 3-1, our spirits only buoyed after the magical back-to-back Rendon and Soto home runs that followed off Kershaw in the later innings. A 3-3 tie, we all assumed the Dodgers were now primed for a walkoff. As the Nationals put runners on in extra innings, though, the thought of a single that could put the Nationals ahead slowly brimmed excitement in my head. Rather than a single, though, Howie Kendrick surprised us with a homer. At 7-3, the Nationals had stunned the world. After the game the media shelled Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager. I didn’t think it was fair he was getting blasted for putting Clayton Kershaw, future Hall of Famer, in the game to pitch to Rendon and Soto. But hindsight is always 20/20, and Dodger fans were upset.
The same day that the Nationals beat the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS, the Cardinals reeled off 13 runs in the first inning to stun the Braves out of their own ballpark in their own Game 5. It was probably a good thing that the Cardinals won their NLDS, as the Braves would likely have posed a much more difficult matchup for the Nationals. As it was, the Nationals headed to St. Louis for the start of their 7-game NLCS, having dispatched the Dodgers in five games.
Nervous to the hilt, I followed only the ends of Washington’s two near-no hitters in St. Louis to open the series. While Abibal Sanchez’ no-hitter that put them up 1 game to 0 seemed a bit of a fluke, Scherzer’s nearly equal performance in Game 2 transformed the series. I went out sketching during the second game, following only loosely on my phone. As the innings ticked down, I followed the final few outs and practically skipped across the National Mall on my way home listening to the postgame coverage on the Nationals’ radio broadcast. I knew I had tickets for Game 3, and now with the Nationals ahead in the series 2-0 I knew the crowd would be as excited and excitable as any I’d ever seen at a baseball game. I’d entered the series not particularly excited, but now suddenly things were looking not just good, but great!
My Playoff Game #2: NLCS Game 3 (win 8-1)
Game 3 against the Cardinals in the NLCS was the most stress-free and pleasant postseason baseball game I’ve ever attended. With Strasburg on the mound, the Nationals slowly and steadily pounded the Cardinals. In hindsight I remember few specifics from the game itself.
My second playoff game, I’d learned from the first one when I needed to leave work, when I needed to get there, and how much rest I needed in advance to survive the sledgehammering of emotions in the cold that playoff baseball represented. I got there early, picked up my rally towel, got a beer in the right field pavilion (they’re discounted before games), and waited around while the Cardinals finished batting practice. While they sell both Bud and Bud Light, I’d long learned that blue was an unlucky color to be associated with for the games, while red was luckier. So I got the regular Bud (red can) throughout the playoffs. I wore the exact same thing I had to the Wild Card game, and my seats were nearly in the same place. This time I’d selected an aisle seat, though.
While the seats were terrible they offered a unique aerial vantage point. As the Nationals racked up runs comfortably, I reveled in just how much nicer it is to watch base hits fall into the field in person as opposed to on TV. There is a geometry and a spatial condition to baseball that really is satisfying, and I’ve rarely enjoyed watching a ballgame in person so much.
Memorable from this game were the formal player intros, red carpet and all. It was the first playoff game where I’d seen this in person. As they announced the Nationals, they gave a shoutout to pretty much every person, it seemed, in the Nationals’ front office. They also named the names of pretty much every player who’d played on the team, and it struck me just how deep the Nationals team really was. There was a lot of legitimate, if not elite, talent in this organization. Suddenly it made sense to me why they were hear, and why they were ahead in the series.
Some guy named DC Washington kept singing the National Anthem at these games. It was a cute name. They had different people doing the introductions before the games, and I think it was this one where the guy who commentates boxing on TV got to say “play ball” to kick things off.
In the playoffs they continued several Nationals traditions for the season, including a nice montage video of the monuments with ceremonial music to kick things off before the game, as well as a brief rendition of “Rise Up” that always seemed to inspire some excitement. As somebody commented on one of my videos once, when you heard that song, “you just had to know”. This team was special.
I wandered the stadium’s upper deck concourse during a portion of the game. They had sold so many standing room only tickets that it was tough to get a view from the concourses, but I’m the type who tends to pace when I’m nervous. I need to walk around. I commented to my girlfriend that someone had dropped an entire hot dog in the urinal in the men’s room, and the guy outside the restrooms, which in the playoffs always had long lines between innings, was inventing creative cheers to try to sell beers to folks on the way out of the restroom. “Drop one off on your way in, pick one up on the way out”.
The best way to describe the game was “pleasant”. The Nationals cruised. The fans celebrated after the win, and I dashed to the Metro, having learned how to time it exactly to get home in time.
On the escalators as I moved from the upper deck to the lower deck late in the game, the fans were chanting. “We want the Yankees”. It seemed like the most poetic, sexy World Series possible. Washington vs. New York.
Series record: Nationals 3, Cardinals 0
My playoff record: 2-0
My Playoff Game #3: NLCS Game 4 (win 7-4)
I hadn’t expected the Nationals to be ahead of the Cardinals 3 games to 0. I’d bought tickets for Game 3 and Game 5, but here they were on the brink of clinching in four. The way the baseball playoffs work, the games come every day, fast and furious given how much of an emotional toll they take on you as a fan to attend them. By the time you rest up it’s time for the next game, and it’s collectively exhausting.
I deliberated all day whether to get a ticket for game 4 or not. If they lost I’d have seen a loss, plus I’d be out the cash for both Game 4 and Game 5. But if I didn’t go, I’d save cash on both games, but I’d miss the chance to see my team advance to the World Series. Who knew if that would ever happen again. At the last minute I snagged a standing room only ticket, still relatively cheap, especially given the exorbitant costs to come in the World Series.
I was nervous entering Game 4. I had nightmare visions of a series collapse. But the Cardinals had used their best pitcher in Game 3. The Nationals were running Corbin out for Game 4. My girlfriend was running late for Game 4, so I snagged a standing room only spot at the base of the upper deck and waited for her arrival. I took in much of the first inning solo, as the Nationals right out of the gate jumped all over the Cardinals. 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 5-0. The Nationals built a bigger and bigger lead. Marcel Ozuna flubbed a ball in left field, and suddenly the Nationals were building a nearly insurmountable lead. 7-0. Of all the things I thought might happen in this game, this was most certainly not it. The first inning was tremendously fun, and suddenly the pressure was lifted. The crowd was loud, the towels were flying, and the place was going crazy.
Being the Nationals, they managed to re-create some tension later. As Corbin floundered the Nationals squandered their lead. Suddenly it was 7-4, and the Cardinals had innings to go and more people on base. I blamed myself, as I’d switched from the first base side to the third base side, which was clearly bad luck. As the Nationals blew their lead, my girlfriend disappeared. I called her phone about 10 times before she finally responded. It was a distraction from the fact the Nationals were blowing their lead.
Just as the Nationals were on the verge of blowing it, the section atop which I was standing got selected for some Coca-Cola promotion, and as such a bunch of Coca-Cola-themed people showed up to hand out soft drinks to the section. I didn’t have a ticket there, but I was there, and they gave me a coke anyway. It was one of those Cokes with a name on it: I got “Andrew”, which isn’t my name. It’s still sitting in my refrigerator, unopened. A memento of sorts.
I’d established a routine for these games of purchasing a collectible soda cup, a bag of peanuts, and a hot dog. All year long they’d had collectible soda cups dressed up for particular players. Over the course of the year I got about three Anthony Rendon cups, a Trea Turner cup, and others, but here in the postseason all they had left were cups for underperforming Ryan Zimmerman. I got about half a dozen of them over the Nationals’ playoff games. They weren’t cheap, but you could get free refills, so each game I’d try to stock back up near the end of the game.
Despite Corbin’s scare, the Nationals found a way to muster a few innings of the bullpen and entered the 9th closing in on a victory. Daniel Hudson came in as I watched from the ground-level concourse down the third-base line. The excitement was tremendous. Fans stood atop planter boxes shaking the trees. I barely saw what was happening on the field. I just needed to listen to the crowd and the ongoings were obvious. The impending excitement and expectation of that final inning I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The Nationals had been in this situation in seasons past and blown similar leads, even late in the 9th inning. But Hudson had become reliable.
When that final popup floated into the glove of center fielder Victor Robles, just as the final pitch had in the Wild Card game, the place went nuts. I got doused in beer, which people were tossing down from the upper deck. Beers were flying all over the right field stands. People hugged, and they shot off fireworks that in the regular season they had not been allowed to have. The players jumped and huddled on the field, and none of the fans left. Knowing they were sure to lose the World Series, this was their moment to celebrate, and how often do you clinch to go to the World Series? For Washington baseball it hadn’t happened since 1933. And how often could that happen at home? What an experience.
On the way out they were handing out free Cinnamon Cokes. It looked disgusting, but I figured it was another memento. I now had a Zimmerman cup full of soda, a Coca Cola 20-ounce in my sweatshirt pocket, and a can of Cinnamon Coke. I was jiggling with all of this carbonate liquid all the way to the Metro.
Series record: Nationals beat Cardinals 4-0
My playoff record: 3-0
After the Nationals beat the Cardinals, there was seemingly endless time before the World Series, since the Nationals had swept and the ALCS, already on a later schedule, was running long. It turned in the Astros’ favor and they eventually beat the Yankees in six games.
I needed the time to recharge. The NLCS had been exhausting. When you’re invested, playoff baseball games every day are a lot. They require about the same amount of intensity as college football games, and there you have a week to recover and still get exhausted by the end of the year.
After the Cardinals series, I shifted my attention to whether to invest in the World Series. The Nationals were expected to lose, but how many times again in my life would my favorite team end up playing in the World Series? Unlike the playoffs so far, where it had been pretty easy to snag standing room tickets for anywhere from $60 to about $130, the initial secondhand market for World Series tickets was off the charts – nearly $1,000 for a single standing-room ticket for any of the three games scheduled for Washington.
Tickets through the team were only being sold to season ticket holders. The Nationals’ policy for season ticketholder postseason tickets was generous, and it left very few tickets that were available separately. To season ticketholders the Nationals were selling “strips” of tickets, in which they could buy up to four tickets to all three of the World Series games. Since nearly everybody took them up on that, the stock for all three games was nearly depleted. The Nationals stoked the hopes of regular fans with promises of an online ticket lottery and an online portal for single-game ticket sales that would open at 10am one day between the two series’. Having heard it was likely futile, I still signed up for the ticket lottery using ten different email addresses. None of them won. The online portal was a joke, too, as the system was crashed from the beginning and I’m not sure there was even a single report of a fan being able to successfully purchase tickets through that system. It was likely a marketing ploy to appease fans who had purchased NLCS tickets, who the Nationals promised would have priority ability to purchase World Series tickets. They couldn’t fulfill that promise as they’d already given the seats to season ticket-holders.
The desperation option was to purchase season tickets for the following season. If you purchased a season plan for 2020, the Nationals were holding some World Series tickets at face value that you could get access to as part of your purchase. I did the math and negotiated extensively with one of the team’s ticket brokers. You could get a season ticket plan for 2020 for $840 a seat, and with that plan could purchase up to two World Series tickets of the stock they had available. Since the face value on those tickets was only around $300, the total would come to around $1400 for a season ticket plus two World Series tickets, cheaper than the cost of purchasing two $1000 tickets on the secondhand market. As I talked to them, though, the supply dwindled and more and more caveats about how much you had to buy ruined the math. I contemplated spending as much as $2600 on tickets through the team, with the intent of reselling some of them to a profit. I was glad I didn’t.
As it turned out one of my acquaintances came through and I got two World Series tickets to Game 5 for a still exorbitant price, but less than had I purchased them through the above methods. They were standing room only, but that was alright. It was still worth it.
My Playoff Game #4: World Series Game 1 (Nationals 5, Astros 4)
Just prior to the start of the World Series I found out that the Nationals would be hosting watch parties at the stadium for fans who wanted to watch the game in a game-like atmosphere. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but decided I’d try it, again in the spirit of it being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This time, unlike the “real” games, I didn’t show up two hours ahead of time. In fact, by the time I showed up I was late, and the Nationals were already down, 2-0. We all figured the Nationals were about to get crushed in this series, so the fact that they were down wasn’t surprising. That it had happened so quickly was, and it was a bummer that by the time I arrived the vibe was already a bit defeatist.
The first watch party wasn’t heavily attended – around 14,000 fans or so, apparently. I got a rally towel and basically had free reign of the first base side of the infield, as few people were sitting there. It was raining and cold, and so I’d had to adjust my wardrobe to include one additional layer of Nationals’ red. I was still sticking with the same basic attire as the previous games, though. After all, the Nationals had been winning. Like me, the Nationals had done the same, and were now onto their sixth straight game of wearing their all-blue uniforms. Team in blue, fans in red. That was apparently the magic formula.
I grabbed a seat down near the dugout. It was exciting being so close to the field, and fun to see the stadium this up close and personal. There were fans sitting in the field-level seats that have their own TVs and I was a row behind that. The Delta diamond seats, or whatever they were called, were reserved for season ticketholders. The concession stands were open like normal, but the outfield seats were roped off, while they played the TV broadcast of the game on the big screen at the stadium. For a time they tried playing players’ walk up music over the TV broadcast, but it just created a muddled mess. Eventually they stopped that.
Ryan Zimmerman hit a home run in the second inning that gave the Nationals life. By the fourth they were tied and by the fifth they were ahead. Whoa. Suddenly it was apparent the Nationals could compete with the Astros, at least for today. Zimmerman’s home run in particular set a tone for the series. Whenever David stuns Goliath, some grizzled veteran like that has to throw the first stone, and it clearly surprised the Astros when he did.
Over the course of the series I became increasingly tense game after game. In game 1 I wasn’t nervous, and actually I wasn’t really in Game 6 either after they were put on the doorstep to elimination, but in Games 2 and 7 I was seriously on edge. I became irritable, and when the Nationals weren’t doing well I yelled at them. I cursed them, shouting out my frustration – acceptable in the stadium environment, though even there the more optimistic fans must have thought me a bit of a lunatic.
The Nationals almost blew Game 1, but they didn’t. They hung on and saved the game, and I chalked the whole thing up to a fun experience. I assumed the Astros would come back and dominate the series. After all, they’d lost Game 1 at home against the Yankees, too. I can’t recall if I stayed to the end of Game 1 or if I left early. By the later games Metro had adjusted its schedule, as it had for the other postseason games, to accommodate fans going home on public transit even after it would have usually shut down. It’s possible I watched the end of Game 1 at home. Either way, the Nationals won, and I was stunned. I was a bag of peanuts richer with another Ryan Zimmerman cup in tow, however. It wasn’t a real game in the sense that we were watching it on TV on the big screen, but it was held at the stadium and it felt like a real game, and in my mind I don’t draw much of a distinction.
Series record: Nationals lead Astros 1-0
My playoff record: 4-0
My Playoff Game #5: World Series Game 2 (Nationals 12, Astros 3)
After my positive experience at Game 1, I was flustered at the larger crowd for Game 2. The weather was better and it now looked like the Nationals had a chance. I’d left work early, gone home and eaten, and arrived early but not early enough. It was the one game in the posteason where I got shut out from getting a rally towel. Luckily I snagged two at Game 7 to keep my towel total equal to my games total. The towels each had a different Nationals’ logo on them, and I came to realize that the “curly W” towels were better luck than the “block DC” towels.
The Nationals quickly went up 2-0, but gave the score back in the bottom of the first, as the Astros tied it 2-2, which was where the score stayed for much of the game. I again spent much of the game down the first base line, though this time with worse seats than I’d had before. There were just more people here this time. While in Game 1 I’d been able to wander the sections, even exploring so much as to get a security guard to yell at me for entering forbidden (but not roped off) sections of the ballpark, in Game 2 I had fewer options. Again, however, I stocked up on peanuts and a Zimmerman cup, and settled down for a bulk of the game that was frustrating, as the Nationals failed to capitalize on opportunities.
Even while I cursed them, in the seventh inning the Nationals broke open the game, scoring six runs. I watched from the top of sections, where they were prepping for the upcoming home games, already installing temporary boxes for standing-room tickets and additional camera placements. As the Nationals’ runs mounted I shouted for joy.
In order to catch the Metro I left early once the lead felt safe and ended up watching the final outs from home. It was a hugely triumphant second win, as few people expected the Nationals to lead the series 2-0. Stealing the first game was one thing, but dominating the Astros so thoroughly again put the city of DC on notice. Some in the city over-excitedly prepared for a sweep.
Series record: Nationals lead Astros 2-0
My playoff record: 5-0
After the two wins at home even I let my attitude shift. I’m normally disciplined about such things, but I started now viewing the Nationals as favorites, failing to account for the dominance of the Astros. In preparation for Game 3 the Nationals, too, let cockiness get the best of them. Consistent with their blue uniforms, they added to the stadium a series of banners celebrating their past division championships – why this was the time for that, I don’t know. They also changed their slogan, in place since early in the season, from the Rocky-esque “Stay in the Fight”, which seemed to fit this team of scrappy old veterans to a tee – to “Finish the Fight”. Still two games from a championship, the slogan started looking like a miss as they butchered the next three games and fell behind in the series. Did finishing the fight mean choking the World Series away? It was certainly one way to finish the season.
My girlfriend and I didn’t have tickets for Game 3. It felt frustrating and foreign now for the Nationals to have a home game and not to be attending. Thanks to the watch parties, I was now even attending their road games. We went down to our favorite local sports bar near my place – Penn Quarter Sports Tavern – but it was packed to the gills. Realizing we were unlikely to find a place easily, we walked up Seventh Street and eventually saw an Irish bar that looked like it had tables. It was uncomfortably loud in there, but it did the trick. We got dinner and watched the game. Early on the Nationals made a couple nice plays and people in the bar cheered loudly. It was cool seeing sports-fueled spirit in DC, as the city usually didn’t have much. This is a city where most bars play CNN on the TVs before they’ll play the Nationals game.
The game quickly turned south and the Nationals ended up losing 4-1. It was frustrating, as it struck at the Nationals’ air of destiny and invincibility. They hadn’t lost a game since the Dodgers’ series, and it didn’t feel good, particularly the way it ended with a whimper. The combination of poor performance and the loud background noise of the bar made us tired, and we left in the middle innings to go home and recoup our losses. On the way back I frustratedly got my girlfriend to take off her hat, a cheap blue hat we’d purchased before the game against the Mets earlier in the year. They had lost that game 7-0, and I had now decided the hat was bad luck. It was blue after all, and all my playoff success thus far had come wearing red. We both agreed not to wear that hat from now on.
My girlfriend was asleep by the time the game ended with a whimper. It was a shame. We had tickets the next night, and my faint hopes of a sweep had been paired with visions of this magical moment that we’d get to watch the Nationals clinch the World Series championship at home. Instead we’d be watching a series in which the Nationals led 2 games to 1, and which was trending south. It was a long way from a series victory.
My Playoff Game #6: World Series Game 4 (Astros 8, Nationals 1)
We rested up during the day and went to the park super early for Game 4. As intense as the playoffs were, I knew the crowds would be larger, would arrive earlier, and the whole ordeal would be a bigger hassle now for the real deal. Plus I wanted to make the most of our expensive tickets by arriving early. It was exciting to see people all dressed up, and in the playoffs people get up regardless of what happened the night before. So the crowd was still “up”. On our way out of the Metro we were handed a couple of cardstock signs to hold up, which mostly were inconvenient things to carry around. We waited in line, went through security, grabbed our rally towels, and went up to the right field pavilion, where, per tradition, we grabbed our beers. We waited in the outfield seats, but grew nervous of getting kicked out since our tickets were standing room only.
Since they only do the formal introductions before the first home game of each playoff series, introductions were shorter this time, but still exciting. My girlfriend grabbed a hot dog for me and chicken tenders for herself, but the lines were enormous and she almost missed the formal pregame activities. She went by herself because we’d staked out a spot in the upper deck standing area with a standing table and I didn’t want to lose the spot. The view wasn’t great, but it was a view, and the stadium was packed. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to see if we tried to move anywhere else. From there we watched the first part of the game.
The introductions were exciting, and it was worth the cost of admission just to “be” at the World Series. Right off the bat, however, my worst fears were realized. The Astros jumped on the Nationals for two runs in the first inning, which quieted the stadium. Thus began a slow, methodical, and frustrating beatdown. The Nationals’ one big scoring opportunity in the 6th they managed to mostly squander, getting only one run on a sacrifice. The kinds of big, game-breaking moments that were so commonplace in the Cardinals’ series and so easy in Houston seemed impossible at home. Each time they got close they’d hit a lame popout or groundout, and the rally would be extinguished. Meanwhile the Astros ran the bases like a merry-go-round, and despite being few in number the small corners of the stadium that had been bought up by Astros fans became annoyingly loud.
My girlfriend got cold, as our seats had a harsh October wind tunnel blowing directly over us. For a while I tried to warm her, but eventually we decided to switch viewing areas. We tried elsewhere in the upper deck and eventually decided to experiment with the field-level deck. From there we found some nice viewing angles, though they were crowded standing areas, dark, and without a table. At one point I had a clear view and an older gentleman and his wife showed up and pushed me out of the way and stepped in front of me. They insisted that since they had been standing there earlier in the game they had a right to that spot. They didn’t know how standing room only seating worked. It was uncomfortable. Later in the game my girlfriend got chili cheese fries. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but they were warm and they distracted a bit from how disastrous the game was going.
We stuck around to the very end. It had started to rain so we sought cover as much as possible, but we did snag a photo together near center field, just to prove we had been to the World Series. Meanwhile the ushers whose job it was to keep people out of the aisles did so extremely vigorously. The game ended with a whimper, though we both appreciated that we should stay to the end, just for our own satisfaction of some sort. The line and the ride back on Metro was crowded but uneventful. The next day my girlfriend had a cold, presumably from the stress and the cold of the game.
It was the first blemish on my in-person playoff resume. It now looked like the Nationals were destined to lose the series, and they’d squandered any chance of winning it at home.
Series record: Nationals and Astros tied 2-2
My playoff record: 5-1
The next day they played again and for a third straight night the Nationals lost at home in non-competitive fashion. In three games they’d scored three runs, while giving up thousands. Their bats, which had been alive in Houston, were silent at home. We couldn’t wait to get them out of Nationals Park.
Game 5 was the game that Trump attended (he not surprisingly got boo’d by the fans from liberal Washington). It was also the game that Max Scherzer was scheduled to start, but couldn’t because he said the pain was so bad. After Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin, we’d been counting on Scherzer to be our savior. Instead we got Joe Ross, who could not will himself on the back of a standing ovation to stem the tide of the Astros, who won the game 7-1. Having blown their opportunity – all three games at home – the Nationals were pushed to the brink of elimination. My girlfriend and I pretty much gave up.
My Playoff Game #7: World Series Game 6 (Nationals 7, Astros 2)
There was no way I was going to miss the Game 6 watch party, even if the Nationals lost, which is pretty much what we expected to happen. Attendance was surprisingly good, even though the Nationals were coming off of the three straight home losses. And while they jumped on the Astros early, the spotted the ‘Stros two runs in the bottom of the first. With Stephen Strasburg pitching, I have to assume the Astros were stealing his signs, because after that first half inning he was lights out the rest of the way.
As the first few innings drifted on and the Nationals still trailed, the season felt on the brink of ending. In the fifth inning the Nationals jumped on the Astros however, and the Nationals took a tenuous 3-2 lead late into the game. I grew restless once they led and moved from my typical spot down the first base line to a spot along the concourse near third base. It was there that I watched the infamous Trea Turner play, in which Trea ran to first base and was inexplicably called out for running along the baseline. While Trea was livid on the field, I and the other Nationals fans were livid in the stands.
It’s funny how perfect strangers become the closest of friends when you have a shared enemy. We railed against the crooked umpires, who must have been paid off by the Houston legions. In hindsight making jokes about Houston having paid off the umpires makes them seem less crooked than they actually were, but we didn’t know about their sign-stealing cheating then. Luckily, the emotionless home run bat of Anthony Rendon saved us. I was satisfied when Dave Martinez was ejected, but it still seemed odd to be without our manager when the Nationals were on the brink of elimination should they blow the game.
Luckily there were no critical pitching decisions to make down the stretch. Strasburg carried the Nationals into the ninth and they eventually won the game. Suddenly from the depths of sure defeat the Nationals had created a glimmer of hope.
Series record: Nationals tied with Astros 3-3
My playoff record: 6-1
My Playoff Game #8: World Series Game 7 (Nationals 6, Astros 2)
In hindsight it’s amazing how lopsided the scores look from the games the Nationals played in Houston. Each was a tension-filled game, and I’m fairly certain the Nationals came from behind in each. Going into Game 7, the only thing I was hoping for was a tension-free evening. After days and days of heart-wrenching games, I needed a calm one to close out the series. I wasn’t optimistic that they’d win, however. I figured the Astros would fairly easily pull away and hold a lead for the bulk of the game. That’s almost how the game happened.
It was raining in Washington at the outset of Game 7. They’d easily sold out all 36,000 seats for the watch party, and the stadium was abuzz even well before the game. I got there early to be sure to get my towel, and followed the masses to the undercover area of the second deck, which was already filled to the brim with people. I only lasted a while there, however, and eventually concluded I didn’t like the crowds. I headed back down to the first deck, which is where I stood under cover watching the majority of the game.
Max Scherzer started Game 7, and now in hindsight it felt like a good thing he’d missed Game 5. Things felt in surer hands with him, but it didn’t surprise me he struggled early. I tried to save my emotions. I figured I’d need them later. Early inning after early inning he battled and battled. He was losing the pitch count war to Greinke, and by the fifth inning he was behind 2-0. In some ways it was a miracle, as each inning the Astros seemed to pile on the baserunners. The game wasn’t out of reach, but 2-0 felt like a mountain-sized hole. I remembered 2017, when the Astros waltzed to an early lead against the Dodgers in Game 7 and cruised to victory. I fully expected the same thing this night.
I was standing most of the game under cover in the concourse because it was raining in the seats. This was highly uncomfortable. I moved places a number of times, sometimes watching only the monitors near the concession stands. Sometimes I tried to get away from the TVs entirely. At times watching these games felt like masochistic torture. Was this actually fun, or was it painful?
As the game marched on it started to feel hopeless. I headed back to the third base side depressed. All of this effort, all of this thinking we were a team of destiny, and it was all going to end in a whimpering Game 7 loss and I’d have to go home and avoid reading the news for days so as to miss all of the stories about the Astros’ triumph. It was sad.
As the rain picked up I explored briefly going out to the seats, just for the experience. It was too wet. I climbed back under cover near the TV screens deep along the third base line in the concourse. A ton of fans were gathered there, and the spirit was both impatient and glum. Suddenly in the 7th Anthony Rendon rocked a homer. I was excited, but also sad. We’d blown our big slugger moment and were still behind. It was a solo shot and was there energy left to do anything more?
After Soto got on base Howie Kendrick came to bat and ripped a gentle foul down the right field line. Except it didn’t go foul. For a second we weren’t sure, and then we realized it had touched the pole. Howie Kendrick had put us ahead. “Howie!!!”. In a split second, the reinflation of a thousand balloons. I shouted the warning, but neither of us could believe it until we both saw it. Were we really ahead? Could we be? We’d now spent hours letting the loss settle in, but now we were ahead. We really, really were. Ahead. With three innings to go. Three long, long innings. Three innings in which I was sure we would blow it. How could we not? We’d blown this situation all year. Max was gone. Scherzer was gone. How on earth were we going to ride this. On the back of Patrick Corbin, who had stunk it up all through the playoffs? Seriously? Seriously.
The Nationals rode Corbin to three strong innings. The hero of Game 7 was going to be this squirrely pitcher with no romantic story whatsoever. Patrick Corbin. In the stands, though, there was no time to think about that. Just excitement. And tension. And the fear we’d blow it. And a buzz and an excitement and a brewing hope that perhaps the Nationals, our Nationals, underdog of underdogs might really just maybe, if we all stayed disciplined, maybe pull this thing out.
I finally said screw it and ventured into the rain. I didn’t care anymore. If I got wet I got wet, I tucked my headphones under my sweatshirt and ventured down to about the 7th row of seats down the third base line. In front of me, a group of six to eight college students, drunk as could be. Behind me high schoolers trying not to look too invested. But they were. On my right a guy with dreadlocks bouncing around in the kind of universal excitement that only moments like this can draw forth. He was best friends with everybody in that stadium. And to his right a guy dressed up as a Navy captain with a sign that read “This is the back of my sign”. Or at least that’s the part I saw. And all around me other excited people. The stands seemed to fill up over those final innings. I slapped more fist bumps and high fives with the drunk college kids than I ever really expected. Again, in these moments, everybody is your best friend.
As the outs ticked down the breaks between innings and pitchers became longer, more stressful, and more fun. They played “Baby Shark”, and the stadium went nuts. Between innings we let loose, and then during the action the tension came back. It was too much to think about the prospects of blowing this 100%. Whenever we got the chance the place went wild to whatever random pop song blared throughout the stadium. Nobody cared that it was pouring rain. These were the die-hards who came out in the rain to watch a broadcast on the scoreboard. Not even an actual game in front of them. Just the same feed we could have all had on our TVs. But it was so much better this way amongst friends.
The Nationals dragged out the affair by scoring additional runs in both the eighth and the ninth. It was nice insurance, but it also felt like the end of the game would never come. I tried to relish every second of it in the moment, knowing this would be a moment I’d remember for the rest of my life. But with our bullpen I also know that any moment that the game was not officially over was a moment in which nothing was safe.
After Corbin pitched like solid rock, Daniel Hudson nailed down the ninth inning. The final outs came quickly, just as they had in the NLCS. A bit prematurely my girlfriend, clearly not believing it herself, asked me: “Is this really happening?” In some ways it felt too soon. I worried that as a relatively new fan she hadn’t experienced enough misery and heartbreak to appreciate this moment. I’d built up a whole lifetime’s worth of waiting. How could I communicate adequately to her what this really will mean to her 20 years from now?
But it was coming just the same. A championship barreled down the pike, now an unstoppable force. World Series champions. Of all the Nationals teams, this one? The one we never even remotely considered a thread to beat even the Dodgers, much less the World Series. But yet it was now rolling down the hill right toward us. We were going to win the World Series!
When Daniel Hudson threw the final strike all I could do was yell. Just loud, loud yelling. There aren’t a lot of moments in life when you can just scream at the top of your lungs for 60 seconds and nobody thinks it’s strange. But this was one of those moments. I remember the face of the guy next to me, dancing around wildly with the kind of elation in his face that I’ve only seen from those moments when something happens to make nothing else matter. I saw random pairs of women hugging each other. How is it that so many people invest so much into something like this. A lot of these people probably weren’t even regular baseball fans. For the city of Washington this was pretty magical. But as a Nationals die-hard it was truly special.
As the team rushed the field in Houston the stands rocked with celebration in Washington. Eventually they got around to playing the team’s winning anthem “You Make My Dreams Come True!”. Finally, for the first time, the scoreboard showed “Fight Finished”. Clearly they’d been waiting for that.
It was a bit of pandemonium. People weren’t sure whether to stay in the stadium or to slowly roll out. After all the real celebration outside the stadium was just beginning. The streets outside Nationals Park were filling with people, with cameras, with vendors selling pre-prepared t-shirts, and commemorative newspapers that said nothing but the fact that the Nationals had won it. At the time I’m not even sure I knew the score of this game. It certainly hadn’t felt as lopsided as 6-2.
Series record: Nationals win the World Series 4-3
My playoff record: 7-1
I relished every second of that championship experience. In hindsight every moment of it resonates with special memories. The MLB Network jingle that would cue the start of its repeating 30-minute segment after each game is seared into my memory. Each night after we got home and digested the game together I’d turn on the broadcast coverage, later switching over the MLB Network when it ended, and let its show roll on loop all the way through the night.
Luckily the memories will always be there. Although it felt like an eternity at the time those days of October moved so quickly. So much changed, and so much happened. It was a special time. We were so naïve that first night of the month when the Nationals took on the Brewers. We had no idea what was forthcoming, that so many big moments were about to follow. Any one of those could have derailed that train. And yet the didn’t. Lost in the moment, I’ll always wonder if I could have done more to relish it. I guess that’s the nature of it, though: no matter how much you appreciate it in time, those moments are fleeting and they don’t come often. It was an October that I’ll never forget.
It’s also strange the impact that the efforts of this team of perfect strangers can have on the general public. I did nothing help the Nationals win, except wear red, and yet somehow I feel a sense of ownership over their title. In that respect it’s a weird thing. But it’s best not to over-analyze. We invest our hearts in this stuff whether it makes sense or not and at the end of the day it yields these feelings and experiences. And pain and all it’s totally worth it. If we didn’t invest it wouldn’t be the same. Just as in life, if you really want the triumphs you have to put your heart on the line, place it softly into the hands of multimillionaire athletes, and trust that they’ll take care of it. This one summer of my life one team, an adopted team for me, finally did that and then some.
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