“DAZED AND CONFUSED” rings from the speakers scattered throughout Nationals Park as Jayson Werth steps into the batter’s box. It’s the section of the song that for whatever reason, when I was a kid and my older brother and sister were fairly obsessed with Zeppelin, I equated with a smoking biplane spiraling down toward the Earth and its fiery, final demise there. In tone and evocation, it is perhaps the most appropriate choice of walk-up song in all of baseball, perfectly suited to hirsute Werth who, with his steel-boring eyes and lanky frame, looks something like a Manson devotee or, as I attempt to tie these stalling metaphors together, a man who could bring down your Sopwith Camel with his mind.
It’s the fifth inning, already 3-0 Nationals. A fat moon hangs over Washington and the air is still and heavy. Werth, a man afire since returning from a broken wrist and being inserted into the leadoff spot, violently yanks St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia’s first pitch over the right field wall. The crowd gathered in the lounge area below and behind the enormous RF scoreboard whoop and holler while managing to avoid spilling their chili dogs, tacos, and microbrews. The Nationals are rolling. The next evening, that fat moon will officially be full for the second time in the month of August, making for a fairly apt metaphor: once in a blue moon, Washington fields a winning team. They’ll be five-and-a-half up on Atlanta once this game wraps up: unfamiliar territory.
And as I stand in that inky air, my kids lost in the labyrinthine bowels of a play structure out on the concourse, a Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy sweating in my hand, and a brand new Nationals cap atop my head, it suddenly occurs to me that nowhere in Nationals Park is there one mention of the Montreal Expos.
THE LONG HISTORY of baseball in Washington is largely one of frustration and failure, save for the Senators’ lone championship in 1924. It’s a storied past just the same, flecked with names like Walter Johnson, Goose Goslin, and Joe Cronin. Griffith Stadium was one of the first steel and concrete parks built; a young Duke Ellington sold hot dogs there.
Washington has lost its team twice now, but the game keeps coming back because everyone just sort of assumes that there’ll be baseball in the American capital. It just seems right. In ‘61 the Senators became the Minnesota Twins, and a decade later the expansion club installed to replace them flew south and became the Texas Rangers. Then, in 2005, fortune reversed as the sickly Expos, without an owner since ‘02, moved to the capital and were rechristened the Nationals. This new ballpark went up, the cherry trees were planted, and high draft picks rolled in. And all traces of the Expos were quietly, completely erased.
Resentment was natural. The demise of the Expos was a lengthy and undignified one. The vultures circled and then descended before the ink on the death certificate was dry. Expos fans, both casual and fervent, Canadians, Quebecers, and plain old lovers of baseball were mad. The bad people of Washington, the narrative held, had stolen Nos Amours.
The truth is messier, of course, and defies simple good/evil characterization. The Expos had been saddled, in Jeffrey Loria, with a lousy owner who, it seems likely, had always wanted to pull up stakes. But there’s no doubting that, in the wake of the disastrous strike of ‘94, snuffing what promised to be the team’s best season, the fanbase had turned its back on the team. By the ugly end only the diehards were showing up at the Big O, and diehards alone can’t sustain a Major League Baseball team. When it became clear that MLB wouldn’t contract the franchise but rather shop it around, a number of cities formed a queue; Washington was the best fit. Arrangements were made, the team moved, a new identity created, and a city restored to big league status. As Canadian baseball fans it’s not so hard to remember our circa-2005 resentment and our vows to never support the Nationals. It was plain to see: Washington had stolen the ‘Spos. Greed had carried the day, another Goliath had trampled a deserving David, and the world had lost another underdog.
But now ask yourself if, as a baseball fan in the DC area, you would have hoped for anything different. And ask yourself if, baseball being primarily a business, it was more logical for there to be a team in Montreal, where the fans weren’t, than in Washington, where both more money and more fans lay waiting to be plucked.
Sentiment aside, it made sense. Which does not alleviate the pain, I grant you, but sitting high in the stands at Nationals Park at the tail end of a day characterized by its blast furnace heat, watching the first place Nats play before an appreciative crowd in this clean, polished and, frankly, lovely ballpark, I couldn’t help but feel that the scene before me was about as far from the concrete and plastic cavern of the Big O as I am capable of imagining. I realize this sentiment approaches blasphemy for many who, like me, find themselves fairly in love with the city of Montreal — Montreal tends to grab those who’ve been there by the gut and the groin as well as by the head — but Washington, I’m sorry to say, has given the Expos what Montreal could not.
A LATE SUMMER SWOON in the form of a five game slide had many lining up to call the Nats’ early 2012 success a fluke. Regression to the mean, they readied their lips to say. But then 19 year-old Bryce Harper went buck wild on Miami, launching two balls high into the salty South Florida air (before being ejected for throwing his helmet in the ninth, on a play that didn’t matter, thus reminding us all that he is, after all, still just 19), and that jolt knocked the Washington offence back into its groove. He hits another this night, with Werth on first, before we’ve even found our seats. Words like “phenom” and “torrid” and “clinch” are heard to float up into the District of Columbia night, dissipating in the heat but heard nonetheless.
There are a number of stories elbowing for prominence in this Nationals’ season. Aside from Harper’s hitting — streaky but, when good, quite good, and enough to distract from his almost total lack of defensive skill in centre — there is the Strasburg conundrum. The question of if and when to shut down the game’s most promising young arm has hogged headlines and airtime, but the simple fact is that, no matter how well he has recovered from 2011 shoulder surgery, Strasburg threw fewer than 50 innings last year, including his rehab stint, and asking him to ramp that up to 200 or more is a bad idea. He has certainly helped the Nats get to where they are, but they look capable of absorbing his loss heading into the stretch. It would be more stress-inducing if the rest of the staff weren’t performing they way they have. With ERAs hovering around three, they’re getting the job done. On my night in Washington, Edwin Jackson is dominant, allowing one unearned run and fanning ten (for a total of 29 over his last three starts). The next night Gio Gonzalez will go the distance for the win — his 17th — striking out eight on his way to a shutout, 10-0 Nats. This against the Cardinals, who have weathered the loss of Albert Pujols to maintain a fearsome offense, pacing the NL with 651 runs as of this writing.
The fact is that, no matter your chosen angle of approach, this Washington team bears up under scrutiny. They are for real. The pitching, even minus Strasburg, is solid. The offense is on a tear, led by Werth and Harper. They play good defense. Their record, in other words, accurately reflects their abilities.
And here in Washington, they are being embraced. The curly ‘W’ is everywhere, inside the Beltway and out. At the Air and Space Museum a guard tells me “Nice hat.” At the zoo, the t-shirts and caps and one Strasburg jersey bear it out: the Nats are home.
The absence of Expos’ imagery at Nationals Park is noticeable only if, like me, you’re looking for it. It’s proof of the team’s desire to sever itself from the history of that team and affix it to DC civic history, the story of a city that has had a baseball team more than it hasn’t for the last century or so. However acquired, the team is here now, settled in and accepted. The fans don’t give much thought to how they got here, just that they’re here now, and winning. Perhaps on their way to something big. It’s not an ignorant point of view, exactly, just a prosaic one. Celebrate your team’s victories as your own, is the thinking. Given the same set of circumstances, you can bet I’d be doing precisely the same thing.