How a delay became a dream to remember at Nationals Park

Speeding south on I-395 as the clock ticked towards 2 a.m., the only regret setting in was the regret for future Steve, who had to wake up in less than six hours in his bed still 50 miles away. But I knew after a solitary rest-deprived Friday I would never regret the Thursday night-turned-Friday morning that Paul and I spontaneously extended at what will likely become one of the most infamous games of Washington Nationals history.

The day started like my average summer ’17 day when I began a trek up I-95 from Fredericksburg to Springfield—a perpetually-congested pill that I mindlessly swallow because it’s the only way to frequently get together with my podcast co-host and the only person who would convince me to leave home for a baseball game as everyone else east of the Mississippi tucked into bed.

Paul and I planned to head into D.C. to interview Dan Steinberg at the Washington Post’s offices.

img_2928Dan created the D.C. Sports Bog (no, not blog), and is one of the more fun personalities of sports media in the Capital. The power of social media, the illusion that Paul and I actually know what we’re doing with our podcast, and the fact that people with 64,000 Twitter followers are humans too allowed for the interview appointment. But the heavens opening up in a saturated torrent rivaling the Book of Genesis delayed my ride to northern Virginia and thus our arrival in the city. Dan understood though because, remember, we’re all just people.

As we walked into the office, Steinberg’s colleague Scott Allen looked up from his computer at our lanky figures that un-ironically blended seamlessly into the fabric of a sports journalism office (save the checkered button-downs that everyone actually getting paid to be there was wearing).

“Paul?!” Scott asked with confused glee.

Scott had exposed Paul’s baseball geek-dom to the world on a hot August day in 2014 when he contacted Paul, then a rising high school senior, for a Post article about the Jayson Werth garden gnome craze. Paul had shown up to the gates of Nationals Park five hours before first pitch, and led the stampede of doll-seekers and hell-raisers (some of whom turned around and sold their ceramic figurines in eBay for triple digits).

He was happy to see us as he had stayed in touch with Paul through Twitter and a couple random meetings at Nationals Park in the previous years. And when Dan informed us he actually had a radio interview to do before he could chat for our podcast, Scott became a bonus guest since a journalist never refuses fun disguised as work.

After about an hour of nonsense with Scott and Dan, Paul and I departed for Southeast, where we’d pick up Paul’s dad from his office and agonize over the fact that batting practice at nearby Nationals Park was almost certainly drizzled out.

“You know, if it were sunny and we could see that batting practice was happening,” Paul said as we sat inside Potbelly just two blocks from the center field gates, “I would totally buy a $5 standing room only ticket, watch batting practice, and leave.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to Nationals Park on a game night with no intention of going,” I said, seeing a young family in a nearby booth clearly eating a pre-game meal, oddly feeling no remorse that I would not be sharing in their baseball-viewing pleasure of the ensuing evening.img_2929

We got back to Paul’s house around 5 p.m. and recorded some chit chat for a podcast to be put out the next day. In that show, I interviewed my friend Lewis, a Brit, while he watched his first ever game of baseball. I was, at that point, most looking forward to that episode coming out.

“Are you staying for dinner, Steve?” Paul’s dad asked.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind! I’ll leave later tonight after the traffic dies down.”

I don’t know if I can name another instance where I’ve been so thankful for the relentless pattern of congestion on northern Virginia’s main thoroughfare. It was only by the fact that I stayed late that I got to be a part of the best-attended Nationals game people never saw.

After a phenomenal steak dinner, Paul and I returned to our audio editing and prepared to wrap things up around 9:30.

“Ha, the Nats game is still delayed,” I said. “Good thing we didn’t go.”

I merely assumed the rain in the city was worse than the drizzle in Springfield, through which Paul and I had played catch and reminisced about our high school playing days after dinner.

“The Nats just tweeted the game is gonna start at 10:10,” Paul said as his visage transformed from matter-of-fact to lit up with scheming excitement. “Let’s go!”

“Nah,” I said wholeheartedly, completely closing off my mind to the possibility. “I have to take Charlie to the YMCA at eight in the morning.”

Paul normally doesn’t sleep until at least 3 a.m., so the convincing was all his to do to me.

I don’t know what was in that steak, but it only took about 30 seconds for me to be convinced. And as Dave Jageler read the starting lineups, Paul and I pulled out of the neighborhood for Southeast, which we thought we had departed for the day six hours prior.

We parked for free in an unmanned lot marked “$40.00” and purchased the same $5 tickets Paul had joked about during lunch. Walking in, an oddly-loud buzz came over the crowd as Wilmer Difo knocked in Anthony Rendon for the game’s first run. A group of maybe 5,000 now-best friends came to life as the rest of the city slept on a weeknight.

“Sit anywhere you’d like except for the clubs” was our instruction. And it became my challenge to find the best non-club level foul ball spot in the park.

Paul and I entered the third base concourse only to be met by a swarm of running children and many adults destined on a Nats Dogs concession stand. What was happening?

“Maybe they just opened it,” said Paul as all of the surrounding stands were gated shut, employees having gone home during the more than three-hour rain delay. We learned seconds later that the Nationals were giving out free soda, water, and ice cream to the fans who had stuck out the ordeal.

Since it was nearly 11 p.m., there was a higher chance that this was a literal baseball game of my dreams and that I’d only wake up disappointed that I was not actually given free reign of Nationals Park in real life. But it was very real.

We agreed that the first base line, right above the Nats dugout, was as good a spot as any to watch the game. Paul slipped away into the loo as I staked out a spot at the top of section 129, in front of the second deck overhang, in an empty row with easy access to the staircase.

As Paul pointed out on the drive in, it would be more disappointing if we did not come away with a foul ball than exciting if we did.

Paul only missed a few pitches while he was evacuating the 42 ounces of soda he had sucked in earlier that evening. He walked down and sat in the seat to my right.

“There have already been two foul balls right over there,” I said, pointing to the Diamond Club seats to our left as Mike Foltynewicz stood in against Gio Gonzalez.

Folty slapped a foul ball right over the protective netting and I knew I could catch it.img_2930

I darted across the empty row to my left and it smacked into my glove, but so did something else.

A man sitting in the row behind had reached in front to make a play on the ball just as I was arriving. But gloves win 99% of the time and I wrestled possession away with my 13 inches of leather. I celebrated, high-fived Paul, and thankfully had the conscious thought to look at the guy I had just beaten for a souvenir. He was flanked by two small children, one a boy with a glove, so I walked back and handed the ball to the kid. That was an easier decision than even coming to the game in the first place.

Minutes later, Paul scrolled through Twitter and saw an odd picture from Dan Steinberg of a Spongebob ice cream pop. “Hey it was free,” the tweet read.

“Yo! Dan is at the game!” Paul exclaimed. I told Paul to text him, and he did.

“I wonder where he is,” Paul said, outstretching his neck and scanning the meager late night crowd. “Is that him right there?” He gestured toward the family I had just robbed of, and then rewarded with, a foul ball. It was Dan.

The dad then motioned toward me while talking to Dan. I couldn’t hear exactly what was said next, but it was something like: “That’s the guy who caught that ball?”

“Steve? Paul?”

Neither Dan nor we had planned on being at this game. In fact, we had chatted about how terrible the Nats were at handling rain delays in our earlier meeting. But here we were, a few empty seats away from each other, yucking in the most ridiculous and fantastic experiences ever at Nationals Park.

The family soon left, and Dan came over to check in with us. He had a notepad and was scribbling things down for a story about the random baseball lovers remaining at Nats Park for a game with little implication that would certainly end in the wee hours of a Friday morning. We told him where we were when we decided to attend, and how our butts had barely gotten wet by the seats un-dried by the ushers who had gone home for the night by the time a foul ball came our way. So many little things had to go right for that interaction to occur. And they did.

We weren’t done. Paul later snagged a cap during a cap toss, knocked a t-shirt out of my hands (and then grabbed it) during the t-shirt toss. He guzzled 20 more ounces of soda, and I feasted on a free soft-serve.

I felt really good about our chances of catching another foul ball, so I started recording during an Anthony Rendon at-bat later in the game. Sure enough, he popped one right towards us. I slipped into the aisle and moved down a row where I thought the ball would land. But it was heading directly for Paul, who at literally every game we attend together tells me how he’s never been so close to a foul ball before.

Paul called for it the way he should have for a fly ball in the right-center field gap of a certain April 2014 high school baseball game. I backed off and said “take it” like I should have in that same game instead of selling out on the parched field only to come up 10 feet short.

This time, it was the ball that came up short. It landed three rows in front of Paul and bounced up past him, ricocheted around the seats and unfortunately ended up being scooped by a family of Braves fans sitting a section over.

“Paul! What happened?” Dan yelled from his seat a dozen rows in front of ours.

The laugh we got out of that instance of poor anticipation and over-communication was worth more than a five-ounce souvenir…even if I could have easily caught it had Paul not called me off.

Overshadowed by all the extracurriculars, the Nats lost. And we later learned that there hadn’t actually been rain during the rain delay. The Nationals expected a storm to come through at 9 p.m. and for some asinine reason didn’t start the game at 7 because of it. The most likely theory? They feared losing their starting pitcher to a rain delay and handing over a game to their untrustworthy bullpen.

So at the expense of immense frustration from the 22,724 announced fans came refined baseball bliss for about 5,000, who got to watch their favorite sport in the most intimate of atmospheres, in a sleeping city, with their best friends they’d never met, with just one thing in their minds.

It really hadn’t sunk in as we approached Springfield on I-395. And it really never did sink in at all because I had to return to Fredericksburg and resume my life without even a full night’s sleep to reset my fervent soul. Yet the experience was no less real, and no less of a dream—a dream I didn’t even know I had until I was there at Nationals Park on July 6, 2017.

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