Night Terrors and Day Drinking: The Self inflicted Trauma of Being a DC Sports Fan Part 4
In typical 2005 Nationals fashion the only runs were scored on a Nick Johnson homerun and Livan Hernandez gave way to the Washington bullpen for Chad Cordero to close it out. I would go to a couple more games that season, the Nats would lose both, and watch many more on TV. I still curse the name of Khalil Green and wonder what would’ve happened if Nick Johnson didn’t bruise his heel against the Toronto Blue Jays. Still 81-81 in their first season in town, and exciting first half, and a ten game winning streak. I had a baseball team and at the age of 24 I felt like my sports fandom was complete.
2006 was a fascinating year. If the excitement of the Nationals ten game win streak and winning first half of 2005 had got baseball’s hooks into me the 2006 season was going to finish the job. Not because the Nationals were any good as a team but they had things going for them. I had decided to buy a 20 game plan and spent many nights at RFK in meditative silence enjoying baseball. We knew early on the Nationals weren’t going anywhere and it was fun to just relax and watch baseball for the sake of baseball. It was also the summer of Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman’s rookie year, but in true DC sports fashion it was also the season that Austin Kearns broke Nick Johnson’s leg in one of the most sickening collisions I’ve ever witnessed on a baseball field.
If it wasn’t for the triumphs the heartbreak wouldn’t be as bad, and 2006 provided me with one of the best and one of the worst sports moments I’ve witnessed in person. We’ll start on June 23, Chien-Ming Wang cruising towards a complete game against the Washington Nationals, and then the young rookie Ryan Zimmerman comes to the plate down by one with one runner on in the bottom of the ninth. I’m sure by now you’ve heard this story and know how momentous this moment was, but this was really when there was no turning back for me as a Washington Nationals fan. As I watched that ball sail over the fence the sense of joy and elution is something I haven’t felt since. Being a sports fan isn’t that much different than being a heroin addict. We want that high and we will endure constant executions of the soul to get it.
One month before that I’d endured one of the worst moments of my life as a sports fan. The Wizards were good. Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antwan Jamison had them chugging and they were competitive against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now you know how this story ends and at this time we weren’t so jaded. It was just fun to see one of our teams in the playoffs. Consider during the 90’s we didn’t have a baseball team, the Redskins were a consistent disaster, the Wizards couldn’t get out of their own way, and the Capitals had ’98 but were already cementing their legacy of early playoff exits. A new baseball team in town, the Wizards in the playoffs, and the promise of Alexander Ovechkin made 2006 feel like a new beginning. That May the first crack appeared.
What I remember from that game is watching Arenas make two 30 foot three pointers to force overtime and then with the Wizards leading by one he stepped to the free throw line with a chance to seal the win and force a game seven. LeBron James casual walked over to him, put his hand on his shoulder, and whispered something in his ear. He told Arenas if he missed the game was over. That is all it took and Arenas missed both free throws and on the other end of the court Damon Jones sunk a jumper to give the Cavaliers a one point win. The sense of sadness at what might have been is really what a DC sports fan is about. The never ending feeling of what if. All the failed opportunities replay themselves in our mind and all the what ifs are our phantom limbs.
There was a lot that happened for me in 2006. I was informed with a month left on our lease that my roommate would not be renewing so he could move in with his brother. That left me in a rush to find a new place and I ended up buying a 500 square foot condo in Fairfax. I remember when we were driving to the closing my father telling me, “This place is perfect for you, but don’t you go meeting a girl now or anything.” I moved in on August 12 and had my first date with the woman who would become my wife on August 13. But back to the day we closed. It happened to be July 31 at 2:30 PM with the trade deadline at that time at 3:00 PM, and the Nationals were 100% going to move Alfonso Soriano. I don’t remember how I felt when they didn’t, but I can remember how I felt when he lifted up that base after getting his 40th steal. That was just another great moment in a season for the Nationals that had more than it deserved.
There is something about a 70 win team that is comforting. They are bad enough that you know they have no chance of contending but good enough to be entertaining. That was the 2006 Washington Nationals. 2007 was a much different season. We were told the Nationals would be lucky to win 40 games and that 120 loses wasn’t out of question. They brought in a new manager in Manny Acta and held an impressive tryout of cast off pitchers in Spring Training. It was absurdity at its best and everyone was right to believe that team would go nowhere fast, but then they didn’t. They hovered around mediocre and that collection of riff raff, flotsam, and jetsam ended up not losing 100 games, and that made I feel like a winning season.
There is something about defying the odds that is special and makes what otherwise would’ve been a mediocre season magical. But then a real magical season happened later that year and into 2008, and it all started with a firing and an unlikely coach. That’s right 2007 was the year the Capitals got back to relevance. Olaf Kolzig was 37 years old and the last of the old Capitals. Chris Simon, Peter Bondra, and Adam Oates were long gone and the Capitals weren’t expected to do much and they weren’t. With a record of 6-14-1 coach Glen Hanlon was fired and Bruce Boudreau was brought in mid-season. Not much was expect other than he’d be an interim coach and then they Capitals would conduct a normal coaching search in the off-season, but then something funny happened and the Capitals started winning and they kept winning. Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 goals and a 20 year old Nicklas Backstrom netted 55 assists, and the Capitals won the Southeast Division. That wasn’t supposed to happen so even though they had home ice advantage against the Philadelphia Flyers it felt like they were an underdog, and when the season came to an end in overtime of game seven everyone was still riding the high of an unexpected division title.
Let’s stop and take stock of the four DC franchises at this point as we leave 2007 and head into 2008. The Wizards had the big three and while they were routinely getting ousted from the playoffs by LeBron James that was the expected outcome and no one minded, Gilbert Arenas and company were fun and exciting to watch, and everyone knew LeBron was going to win the east. The Washington Nationals had defied expectation by not losing 120 games in 2007 and were about to open a new stadium for the 2008 season where Ryan Zimmerman would hit a storybook walk-off homerun against the Braves on Opening Night. As someone said when we were leaving that night, “You couldn’t script this if you wanted to.” That Washington Capitals were coming off of an unexpected playoff run and looked to be at the beginning of a bright, bright future with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin leading the way. Then there were the Redskins. Let’s rewind to the year 1999 at this point and discuss the full and complete takeover by Dan Snyder.