On the bus to Washington, D.C. Sunday morning, a Nationals game the next stop on #TBRTOAL, I couldn't help but think of the deceased Montreal Expos. On September 29, 2004, Les Expos played their final baseball game in the beautiful city of Montreal, a 9-1 defeat at Olympic Stadium. On October 4, they were no more. History. All that remained was an empty ballpark, memories, and an orphaned Youppi. And only Youppi's story would have a happy ending: the Montreal Canadiens so graciously adopting him.
Staring out the window, watching America go by, I tried to wear the shoes of the rabid Expos fan. The one who loved his team when most of his city, it seemed, didn't, and who to this day harbours tremendous bitterness over the happenings of 1994 and 2004. And try as I might, I realized I'll never know what it feels like to have my baseball team taken away from me. It's something I can't relate to unless or, God forbid, until I go through it.
But that didn't stop my mind from racing. I imagined Major League Baseball taking control of the Toronto Blue Jays; Bud Selig now running the team. Kansas City, Missouri would be their new home. What's that? Kansas City has a baseball team? In the Majors?
Wow; who knew? Fine: Charlotte, North Carolina would be the Blue Jays' new home. And I had a few months to say goodbye. I wondered how I'd react, and what I'd do. Organize protests, and go door-to-door with a petition? Or silently accept my fate; take up my favourite seat behind home plate in section 524 of the Rogers Centre, and watch my team slip away, knowing that I was helpless against MLB's suits. The answer: other than to make every drink a double, I'm not sure what I would do. And I hope to never find out.
After I'd finally finished weeping, having convinced myself the Blue Jays were not actually moving to Charlotte, and as the bus pulled up to its stop in downtown D.C., one final thought crossed my mind: Toronto can't let Montreal's death have been in vain. Rest in peace, Les Expos.
Having arrived in D.C. a bit later than scheduled, I hopped into a cab. "To Nationals Park!" I didn't actually say that, but I was certainly thinking it. From the downtown area -- our bus stop was a parking lot near the Washington Convention Center -- a cab will run you about $10, depending on your tipping etiquette.
Nationals Park sits southeast from the National Mall and Capitol Building, just off I-395, in an area currently still being developed. Navy Yard is your nearest subway station, and new condos have just come up, with others on their way. Before the game, "The Bullpen," an outdoor bar on an abandoned construction site across from the main centre field gate at Nationals Park, is really your only eating and/or drinking option. Monopoly! Available is your standard fare -- beer and hot dogs -- and you can partake in some bean bag toss, or try your luck on the pitching radar. I hit 66 MPH on the gun, making it official: my dream of a Major League pitching career is, like the Montreal Expos, dead.
Depressed, I staggered to the box office, where a pleasant Nationals employee brightened my mood with an offer of a seat in the right field grandstands for only $5; the game-day special. Bless you, Washington Nationals.
The ballpark is your standard, new open-air stadium. It doesn't stand out; I wouldn't say there's anything absolutely super or special about it, but it more than does the job. Great sightlines, a restaurant/bar, "Red Porch Food and Spirits," with lovely patio seating in left-centre field, a massive scoreboard in right field, a family picnic area in the main concourse, and everything you could ever desire to eat at a baseball game. Including ribs and rotisserie chicken. But, really, who the hell is eating ribs and rotisserie chicken at a baseball game?
I know what you're thinking: how much does the beer cost? And I'm going to tell you: $8, draft and bottle, and $8.75 for a premium can. Your microbrews on tap are Old Dominion Ale, an American pale ale, and Home Run Ale, a red ale I learned comes from Leinenkugel's 10th Street Brewery in Milwaukee. Trust me, Home Run's the one you want.
What is different about the Nationals Park experience is seeing mascots depicting former U.S. Presidents running around the stadium. I don't know what meeting he was late for, but I caught George Washington in a dead sprint during the 7th inning, and came face-to-face with none other than Abraham Lincoln.
One of the first questions I asked the few Nationals fans I spoke to was: "Do you feel bad for Montreal's baseball fans?" They all unflinchingly responded "No." And they're right; why should they feel bad? Watching professional sports, and rooting for your favourite team, is all done guilt free. That's the beauty of fandom. Montreal, and what happened to its baseball team, isn't the concern of the average Nationals fan. And it shouldn't be; it wouldn't be mine.
One of the more interesting comments I received was from a man who said: "The media makes [Washington, D.C.]a football town, but there's a huge baseball following. It's great for baseball to be back. That's why you see so many L.A. Dodgers jerseys [at the park]today. And there's a ton of Yankees and Red Sox fans in the city, too."
I shook his hand and offered my condolences in regards to his last sentence.
That same gentlemen was at the ballpark with his 12-year-old son, a self-proclaimed die-hard baseball fan. The little guy told me how excited he was by the Washington's "great start." I guess when you're a Nationals fan, and the team is .500 with a 10-10 record, the team has indeed come flying out the gates. He proceeded to tell me how excited he was about uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg, and that "when he comes up, this place is going to be sold out!" I don't doubt it. Because I've never seen so many people wearing T-shirts with a prospect's name on the back. No pressure, Strasburg.
My conversation ended with the youngster asking me whom the best player on the Toronto Blue Jays was. Before I could answer, he did it himself: "Wait, it's Vernon Wells, right?"
I could have hugged him.
History is celebrated at Nationals Park. Just not that of the Montreal Expos. On my travels through the ballpark I ventured into one of the many team stores, hoping against logic to perhaps find an Expos T-shirt, or even an Expos magnet, for sale. No dice. The only Expos logos I saw were on two caps worn by Nationals fans.
Instead, it's the history of the Washington Senators that is on display. Ironically enough, Washington too buried its baseball team, way back in 1971. Just inside the main gate in centre field are status of Senators greats Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson, and Frank Howard. And in murals dedicated to the Senators on the walls of the main concourse I found the following fantastic quote:
"Those who were savouring this last, fond look at the Senators let it be known by their cheers that they absolved the athletes of all blame in the messy machinations that rooked the city of its Major League status. Even the .190 hitters heard the hearty farewells, and in the case of big Frank Howard it was thunderous when he came to the plate."
- Shirley Povich, Washington Post columnist, Oct. 1, 1971
Reading on, I learned that on September 30, 1971, the Senators lost their final baseball game in Washington. They were forced to forfeit the contest, 7-5, after their fans stormed the field. It was at that moment that it came to me; that I knew what I'd do if the Toronto Blue Jays were to ever leave town for good: storm the field. And I hope you'll join me.
On October 4, 2004, one city lost its baseball team. And another got its team back.
I had one of those corny "appreciate where you are at this very moment in the universe" moments after Sunday afternoon's game. (Which the Nationals won 1-0, by the way.) With more than three hours until my bus ride back to New York City, I figured I'd walk through Washington's National Mall towards the Washington Monument, and then through downtown Washington. You know, get my tourist on.
Upon arriving on 3rd St., the Capitol Building to my right, I headed west towards the Washington Monument. The area was busy, but not unusually so, or so I thought. As I made my way through East Seaton Park I could see that something was indeed going on. In the distance: lines of portable toilets, a sea of people, and an erected stage.
I had no idea, but I had stumbled upon Earth Day Network's 2010 Climate Rally, and performing on stage were Black Thought and The Roots, the concert's headlining act. Imagine my luck. Imagine my surprise. So I did what anybody else would have done: I found a spot on the grass, took a seat, and enjoyed the show. The Roots, Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, Joss Stone, and Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, to name a few. Followed by a videotaped message from President Barack Obama, and an inspired plea from James Cameron on stage.
It was while sitting on the grass that I realized how lucky I was to stumble on to a free concert by The Roots, a group I've always wanted to see perform live. And how lucky I am to be on this journey.
Yes, I thought to myself, this truly is the baseball road trip of a lifetime. Thanks for coming with me.