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Patrick Hruby

The Waiting Was the Hardest Part

Even in a loss, Washington was just happy to see playoff baseball

Sports on Earth
WASHINGTON -- The stadium announcer proudly introduced “today’s great plays.” The stadium scoreboard promptly flashed a ground ball to shortstop.

For the Washington Nationals, it was that kind of afternoon.

Granted, the game wasn't over before it started. It only seemed that way. The St. Louis Cardinals pummeled the Nationals in Game 3 of their National League Division Series on Wednesday, shelling Washington starter Edwin Jackson early and the club’s relievers late, earning an 8-0 road victory that sent much of the largest crowd in Nationals Park history heading for the nearby Metro station by the middle of the eighth inning, their red rally towels as unessential as the “Resident Evil” film pentalogy.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume this was New York. Or Philadelphia. Maybe Detroit. The kind of city where baseball fans are accustomed to postseason games, and sometimes seeing the home team get raked in said games, and subsequently heading home in an early, desultory huff, the better to vent and wail on sports talk radio.

Thing is, nobody here seemed particularly perturbed. Not in the overstuffed silver subway cars. Not in the upper-deck seats above left field, where Nationals fans Hank Thomas and Mike Grieb sat directly behind the Plexiglas safety shield, watching the on-field shellacking and off-site exodus with a mix of mild denial and rapid acceptance, long-jumping from stage one to stage five on the Kubler-Ross scale of grief.

“Tomorrow is another day,” Thomas said with a shrug.

Again: If you didn’t know better, you’d assume Thomas fit the transient, carpetbagging bill of a stereotypical inside-the-Beltway sports fan, the sort of sunshine patriot recently lambasted by television personality and former Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon. Fact is, nothing could be farther from the truth. A 66-year-old semi-retired sports memorabilia dealer, Thomas is the grandson of original Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, a Hall of Famer and the finest baseball player this area has ever seen.

Thomas was born in the District, on Bolling Air Force Base. He was raised in the northwest corner of the city, played third base for Woodrow Wilson High School. As a child, he used to take the streetcar to old Griffith Stadium, where Sunday doubleheader bleacher tickets were 75 cents, hot dogs cost a quarter and the opportunity to watch the perpetually downtrodden Senators lose to New York and Boston was priceless. Thomas has waited his entire life to see a major-league Washington team in a home playoff game. His 89-year-old mother, Carolyn, has been waiting even longer, all the way back to 1933. And in a way, everyone else here has been waiting, too.

This explains much.

Consider Jim Hartley. He’s the head of the Washington Historical Baseball Society. A man who has written three books about District baseball. The kind of guy who carries around a Society for American Baseball Research national convention tote bag with pride. Hartley is 63 years old. As an adult, he always has slept soundly. Until last night.

“I woke up at 4 a.m.,” Hartley said. “I woke up again at 4:20, and every 20 minutes after that. I was like a kid before Christmas.”

So was Thomas. Only he slept just fine.

“I took a pill,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t like taking them. But they do knock you out. Otherwise, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. I’ve never had this experience before. This tension. I’ve never been in a pennant race with the hometown connection. I’ve followed other teams, but it’s not the same. That’s true for me and 40,000 other people here.”

Truth is, Washington is not Philadelphia. Definitely not New York. Nor is it Detroit. It’s not even Chicago’s Wrigleyville, where woe-is-us Cubs fans have thrown a decades-long World Series pity party despite a) actually seeing their team play in the postseason once in a while and, b) actually seeing their team play, period, because they have an actual freaking team.

For Nationals fans, all of this is novel. The flyover by a quartet of F-16 fighters. The red carpets and velvet ropes leading up from both dugouts during pregame player introductions. The red, white and blue bunting decorating the ballpark. It’s exciting, too. But mostly new.

Imagine you haven’t been on a date in a while. And by a while, I mean seven decades. Now imagine you finally go out with this really great girl, and at the end of the night, there’s no passionate kiss. No invitation to come upstairs. Just a quick peck on the cheek.

Remember, the last time you had a chance at romantic companionship, there were no iPhones. No cordless phones. There was no Internet and no email. Text messaging meant sending a telegram. Would you be disappointed in your night? Or would you feel … kind of elated?

Before the game, Hall of Famer and former Nationals manager Frank Robinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Not from the mound. From a red, circular mat placed well in front of the mound. Softball territory. Nobody cared. The ball went into shortstop Ian Desmond’s glove. The 77-year-old received a thunderous ovation.

“You gotta get it there,” Thomas said from the stands. “That is all that counts.”

Over the last half-century, the waiting has been the hardest part. For Hartley. For Thomas. For all of the Washington baseball fans who grew up with the both incarnations of the Senators -- lousy as they usually were -- and the generations who grew up with no team at all.

For Thomas’ first years as a Senators fan, 1956 to 1960, he saw the team finish last three times. The franchise then moved to Minnesota. He was heartbroken. “In the 1960s, I basically left baseball,” he said. “I don’t think I went to five games in all of the decade. They took away my team. And my ballpark.”

Thomas laughed.

“Besides,” he said, “I was getting older. There were girls. Cars. It was the ’60s. A lot was going on.”

Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner felt a similar sting when the team’s expansion replacements -- also called the Senators -- bolted for Texas in 1972. Nationals fan Mark Hornbaker felt it as well. The owner and primary contributor to a website devoted to Washington baseball history, Hornbaker was 10 when the Senators departed. He was devastated. He collected baseball cards. He kept his own statistics. He lived and died with the team. (There was a lot of dying.) He grew up in Rockville, Md., in a house next to the cemetery that contains Walter Johnson’s grave; he went to Seneca Valley High School, which is located on the same land that once housed Johnson’s dairy farm. It took Hornbaker 10 years to begin half-heartedly rooting for the nearby Baltimore Orioles -- about as long as it took for all of the players who had been on the Senators’ final roster to retire from the majors.

“When the Nationals came back, I got goosebumps just seeing them on television during spring training,” he said. “The first time I saw that curly ‘W’ on their hats, it was the greatest feeling in the world.”

Like Hornbaker, Nationals fan Mike Grieb used the Orioles to fill the void, attending World Series games in 1971, 1979 and 1983. A District native who was born in Walter Reed hospital and grew up near Catholic University, the 68-year-old Grieb once lived about 15 minutes from Griffin Stadium. He later worked there, preparing food under the main grandstand. “You didn’t even get minimum wage,” he said. “But for me, it was like being a kid in a candy store. Like working on the back lot at a Hollywood studio and seeing Clark Gable every day.”

Grieb is a diehard Democrat. This is how much he loves Washington baseball: enough to say something nice about Richard Nixon.

“In 1959 and 1960, Nixon was vice president and came to games all the time, used to come right through my area,” Grieb said. “His entire entourage consisted of two Secret Service agents. Two. He was truly a fan. I could appreciate that.”

Though Thomas left Washington baseball fandom, it never really left him. When he was 32, his mother inherited some of Walter Johnson’s memorabilia. Thirty scrapbooks, full of photos, articles and tickets from games. “It’s strange, because I never paid any attention to them as a kid, even though they were in my grandma’s house,” he said. “They just sat in the living room cabinets. I never cared.”

Thomas started taking the scrapbooks home, one at a time. He read carefully. Took notes. Began stopping by the Library of Congress to do additional research. He was 8 months old when his grandfather died. This was a way to get to know him. Besides, Thomas was amazed. Amazed by Johnson’s unparalleled career. Amazed by Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, in which Johnson rebounded from two subpar starting performances to pitch four innings of shutout relief in a 4-3 victory. In 1995, he wrote a book about his grandfather -- and later became a sports memorabilia dealer, largely because he had been collecting Senators items.

“All dealers start as collectors,” Thomas said with a laugh. “They start dealing to try to afford their collecting habit.”

Thomas was back in the game. Back to waiting, too. First for a Washington team, then for a Washington team that could win. The Nationals’ first few years in the District were painful: losing baseball, small crowds, misspelled jersey text that read “Natinals.” The club seemed like a reincarnation of its inept predecessors.

Before the 2009 season, Hornbaker spent $7,000 on full season tickets. Club seats. An indulgence. Three weeks later, he was laid off from his job. The Nationals lost 103 games, finishing last in the NL East.

“Not having a job was killing me,” he said. “And then to watch them lose all the time with 10,000 people in the stands? This year almost washes away all of the agony and pain.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Thomas was wearing a replica of an old Senators jersey, pale white, a ghost from the distant past. All around him, Nationals fans wore red: T-shirts, ballcaps, sweatshirts, scarves. The color of now, the long wait finally over. Washington winning the city’s first home baseball playoff game in 79 years would have been nice -- but for one day, at least, most people were just happy to be here.

With St. Louis leading 6-0 in the top of the eighth inning, Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran hit a ball that bounced over the wall for an automatic double, preventing teammate Jon Jay from scoring. Fans began to leave. Thomas groaned, then smiled.

“That saved us,” he said. “See? This is good. Things are turning around.”