A Day At The Ballpark

by Alan J. Claffie

It had been thirteen years since I'd been to a real serious baseball game. I'd gone to Fenway a couple times in 1993 to see the Sox and remember absolutely nothing except one was a Thursday or Friday night series opener with the Yankees and the Sox shut them out. I think Dante Bichette hit a homer, and I only remember that because "Dante" is a pretty cool name.

I've always been a baseball fan, and count among life's few simple pleasures catching a broadcast of a MLB game on the radio. I had a stretch when I'd fairly regularly take a walk to a little league game and have been to a couple minor league games as well. There's a very nice park for the double-A Orioles affiliate about a half-hour north of here and they're talking about putting up a stadium for an independent league team right in town here, though I'm not enough of a baseball fan to rally around the idea of county and state taxpayer money going to fund this little project.

But I digress.

When the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals I was happy to see another team relatively close to home, especially a National League team. Don't ask me why I hadn't yet ventured an hour north to see the Orioles in what I'm told is a very nice Camden Yards, but now I didn't have to worry about going there as there was major league baseball even closer to home, with the bonus of not having to drive into the city, taking advantage of the Metro trains to get me to the park and back.

But, in a year and a half of the Nats being here, I hadn't managed to get to a game yet.

We fixed that on a dreary Saturday afternoon after a tropical depression took care of the original plan to do a Friday night at the ballpark.

And I'm afraid I might be hooked.

Now I'll admit that I got spoiled this time around. Because of the lifestyle to which I've become accustomed I couldn't just go and be a regular customer. No, I had to do the whole press pass thing so I didn't have to be a regular person who pays for stuff and sits with other regular people. I got to get a free lunch, go down on the field before the game, and play photographer during the game, watching and shooting the game from the photographer's well right next to the visitors dugout on the first base line.

The game itself was about as good as baseball games go. The Diamondbacks got to a 6-1 lead and things were not looking good for the Nationals, which hadn't exactly been playing winning ball much this season. But then they got a three-run homer in the seventh, and Alfonso Soriano (he of the short pants and significant sock-showing) got a two-run dinger in the eighth to tie it up, and I was impressed that 4,000 people could make so much noise. I even found myself standing and cheering at this point rather than shooting pictures or otherwise acting like an impartial member of the media.

One thing to note, what with this being a game with plenty of good seats available, the sounds of the game were quite evident. You could hear the beer guy even when he was way over in the opposite stands. The bat-on-ball sound was just as good as I remembered, too. And late in the game I thought I was hearing gunshots - we were in D.C., after all - but then I figured out it was the sound of relief pitchers' warm-up throws hitting the catcher mitts in the bullpens. I don't know if you can catch that stuff in Fenway when it's full of 35,000 Sox fans.

Anyway, the Nats loaded up the bases with one out in the bottom of the eleventh and I was poised with camera in hand to capture the base hit or expertly-placed sacrifice fly that would bring the winning run home. The count on catcher and rising star Ryan Zimmerman went to 3-2 and you knew it was coming, the pitcher had to throw a strike, there wasn't anywhere to put him. Camera ready, check.

And the pitcher threw ball four. The game ended on a pretty wimpy note but a win is a win ("Put a curly 'W' in the books" says Charlie Slowes on the Nats radio play-by-play) and everyone went home happy.

I came home with 380 pictures to sift through and wanting to go to another game or two before the year's out. The balance of the weekend series was one come-from-behind win after another. It's meaningless baseball, but it's still fun baseball. Why did I wait to rediscover it with just a month left in the season?

There's no nice way to put this next part without it sounding like a swipe against the Nats, but here goes. I feel kinda bad for those who root for Sox and Yankees. Doing a quick check on ticket availability for a late-season Wednesday night game for either team, there's very little available and that which is, isn't a cheap ticket. Up that way, there's no cheap night out at the ballgame. But with the Nationals, you can catch a game for five bucks - five bucks! And while RFK Stadium isn't exactly a showplace among MLB stadiums, it is still a night at the game with real grass and major league talent on the field. Maybe those on vacation to the nation's capital might want to mix a Nats game into their agenda.

I know I will, and I'll even pay my own way next time.

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