Strasburg Was Here
Saturday, September 25:
Atlanta 5, Washington 0
We have reached the last week of the season, and because Major League Baseball has instituted the “Dull Card,” not much is happening. Never mind that the Phillies and the Braves, the Rays and the Yankees might have played out historically exciting pennant races. We’d rather watch second place teams win 1-0 in November snow.Â We’re left only with a ‘race’ in the NL West, between two teams who couldn’t hit the side of a barn, and the minor drama of whether or not Bobby Cox’s lastÂ version of the Altlanta Â Braves can interfere.
I wrap up the journey I started in April with a visit to Stephen Strasburg’s eventual major league home, Nationals’ Stadium in Washington, D.C. As for the man himself, he won’t be there. He’s ‘by a sea,’ all right, but the sea is the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Gone home to San Diego for three months of rest following his Tommy John surgery in Arizona, you would think the media had never heard of him. “I might have to send him smoke signals,” National’s pitching coach Steve McCatty recently told the Sporting News, “he doesn’t answer his phone, and I don’t know how to text.”
As I meet my cousin and Metro into the District, the Padres are up half a game for theÂ Wild Card, Â but behind one in the schedule. My cousin and his wife rose early this Saturday morning and ran six miles. Now next to me on the train he half nods off as we ride in. (This is the epitome of health: run six miles in the morning and sleep well the rest of the day.) Braves fans are out in force. The shirts read,Â ‘McyCann, Jones, Heyward.’ There are evenÂ ‘Smoltz’-es and ‘Murphy’s. We emerge from the long tunnel of the Navy Yard stop and are funneled down a street lined with barriers andÂ souvenir hawkers towards the stadium ahead of us. This carefully erected corridor is designed to separate us from the surrounding neighborhood. It leads to aÂ gate which is positioned more inÂ left field although it is called theÂ ‘center-field gate.’ Once inside the bowl of the stadium the only view outside is back down this corridor and towards the center of the town.Â I went to college in this city, and Anacostia may deserve its reputation, Â but the severance of the stadium from its surroundings leaves a bad taste in the mouth. We are at another tourist attraction or a monument, not at a baseball park.
Once we find our seats, this sense is reinforced by the depth of the bowl. The long ground tier gives way to a first set of suites sandwiched below two more tiers. Above these a double ring of suites from first to third base bears the weight of another tier around, and even a last shorter tier on either side of the press box. It’s rather as if construction crews hollowed out the underground levels of the Pentagon and plopped a baseball field in the middle of them. The outfield seating does not arc gracefully with the fence itself, but describes a straight diagonal beyond it. This design lends the idea that Nationals’ Park,Â is a sort of Ebbet’s Field bandbox, but at 377 feet down the right field line and over four hundred to dead center, it is not. I must fight off the impression that I could fungo three or four balls out of here myself.
By the time we make our seats in the second tier in left field, Omar Infante isÂ already accepting Â pitches from Yunesky Maya, the Nat’s Cuban emigre who I saw in Syracuse a month ago. Maya’s casual two-step of a delivery has now improved to a windup with a fully bent knee. Infante makes sharp contact and the crowd stirs, but Nat’s center fielder Nyjer Morgan needs only backpedal one or two steps to take in the line drive. Rookie sensation Jayson Heyward strikes out with an extra foul to his credit. Third baseman Martin Prado, near the lead league in batting average, grounds out to short, 2-2.
It’s an atrociously hot day for late September. Matt and I take advantage of the loose crowd and step upÂ one row out of seats the sun has turned into saunas. The large scoreboard in center, which will do an excellent job allowing me to follow the lineups all day long, now urges me to visit ‘any’ of the nine team stores in Nationals’ Park.
Nyjer Morgan leads off for the Nats. Seven years ago he hit .343 for the Williamsport, Pa. Â entry in the New York-Penn league and starred in the best live game I ever have seen in my life, a playoff win over the Auburn Doubledays. Now a good glove and a light hitter in the pros, he has one or two more years here before a trade is likely to land him in a platoon role. But he comes through for me–he scorches an offering from Derek Lowe into left field. The ball is hit so hard there might be a play at second, but in the field Melky Cabrera doesn’t seem aware of the chance. He scoops the ball and throws to short. There Alex Gonzalez turns in surprise as Cabrera’s relay hits him in the side and Morgan slides into second.Â The Nats can’t take advantage: Cabrera’s counterpart Roger Bernadina strikes out 0-2; Ian Desmond follows suit. Adam Dunn comes to bat and the noise quiets as the crowd anticipates a home run. Lowe pitches carefully around the slugger and gets a simple slap fly to center off of right fielder Michael Morse.
In the row below us a woman holds up a sign, “Happy Birthday, Preston!” It is too small and will never be caught by the cameras. On her feet,Â a three-year old girl in a tiny, dark Adam Dunn jersey sports one pink and one purple croc. The Geico Gecko looms over the left field wall. The Braves make noise with two out in the top of the second. Center fielder Andrew McClouth punks a ball which Alberto Ganzalez at third will never get to in time. Alex Gonzalez then draws a walk, but Melky Cabrera routes a high pop to Adam Kennedy waiting near second base. In the bottom of the frame Alberto Gonzalez punks an even shorter hit down the third base line, but behind him the pitcher Maya looks unpracticed at the plate as he strikes out.
A sure sign that something is about to happen, my cousin leaves in search of eats. All glory and honor to the food gopher; it’s good to have one for once. This way I don’t miss itÂ when Â Derek Lowe smashes a double into left field. Infante then grounds to third, freezing the runner. Jayson HeywardÂ sends shorstop Ian Desmond off and running at a deep angle. There will be no chance at first base, but neither can Lowe advance. It looks like the Nats are out of deep water when Martin Prado fouls out to Dunn 2-2. It looks even better as Desmond goes to his knees on the grass to flag a Brian McCann grounder, but he rushes the throw across and the ball curves past Dunn towards the home bench. Lowe scrambles home on the error. Behind him, unaccountably, Heyward rounds third base. It’s an easy pickup for Dunn to catcher Wilson Ramos, who has time to brace himself as Heyward comes bearing down. But the large rookie lets up and is tagged out standing to end the inning. Bernadina singles before my cousin returns with the dogs, but Adam Dunn hits into a lefty shift to set the Nats down in the third.
This is it, what they all strive for, the players I have watched this year at breezier stadiums in Harrisburg and Syracuse. It’s bigger and fancier, (there’s even a gluten-free refreshment stand), and I know that you can put together a mean All-Time Born-in-Manhattan baseball team, but I’ll be darned if I can shake the impression that this sport just wasn’t meant to be played in a city. Surrounded by warehouses and towers, under the weight of so many eyes, the game shrinks into itself and becomes too important, an outlet for too many other frustrations. Like a golden retriever told to fetch, the game was meant to chase, to flow, and to return, but not particularly to intersect.
At last freed from Chicago, Derek Lee draws a walk to lead off the fourth for the Braves, but is easily doubled off when McClouth lines to Adam Kennedy. Alex Gonzalez pops to second. Not meant to intersect? Baseball? My cousin, born and raised in Boston, would probably like to know what I’m talking about. The Racing Presidents break out down the right field line. The giant caricature ofÂ George Washington edges out Abe Lincoln at the finish line. It’s probably the top hat, Abe, although George’s powdered wig ought to be just as awkward. Baseball–not intersect? Wilson Ramos and Alberto Gonzalez fashion back to back two out singles, but Maya taps to the mound. In the fifth Cabrera singles to lead off and Lowe sacrifices, but Infante flies to left.Â Heyward loops a ball foul down third and Alberto Gonzalez hustles after it, just missing on a dive.Â Heyward flies to right, 2-2, ending the inning. The Â Braves having already scored, the gameÂ grinds to a death march, as if it was already over. Morgan chops to the mound. Bernadina grounds to the right side of the diamond, but Lowe covers nicely to take a throw at first from Lee. To compensate for looking good, Lee then combines muffing an Ian Desmond grounder with letting it go between his legs.
Adam Dunn comes to the plate and again everyone stops talking. There are signs proclaiming, “Four more for 44!” but if the young players are to develop and believe in themselves, the reliance on Dunn must end quickly.Â His at bats today are the only time the Nats and their fans expect to score. Now a low line drive sinks in front of McClouth and off the heel of his glove. Desmond rounds to third. But Michael Morse can only ground to Alex Gonzalez, who flips to Infante for the force out.
Baseball, not intersect? Just fade on the line, perhaps, into Kevin Costner’s corny cornfield? Moonlight Graham, where did the actor who played you ever go? Instead, the scoreboard shows a hilarious clip of the Nats’ eagle mascot enduring a tandem skydive. If his head isn’t going to come off when they pull the cord and get jerked back into the sky,Â the EagleÂ must hold it on tightly with both wings over his eyes.Â On the landingÂ the instructor gets crushed, pulled forward by the weight ofÂ his charge’s costume.
Yunesky Maya reaches his limit quickly in the sixth. Prado draws a walk, only one of the pitches near the plate. McCann pops a flare towards the right field line. Adam Kennedy hasÂ his sightsÂ on it, and now he slides and gloves the ball over his shoulder as it comes up short and he adjusts. It’s the play of the game, but it cannot rescue Maya. He unleashes a wild pitch, and Derek Lee, motivated withÂ a runner in scoring position, drills a full count to the wall in left field. Both Lee and now McClouth are swinging so hard they lose the grip on their bats and send them into the stands. McClouth’s infield hit to Desmond cannot advance Lee, but Alex Gonzalez is not so tense. He has already picked his pitch while on deck, and his pick is the first pitch he sees. Others know it is gone before I do. The ball rises, and rises, looms as it near us, and then, like the jerkedÂ line drive it really is, Â plunks down heavily in the rows over the left field wall. It’s only the sixth homer all season for the plucky shortstop.
Oh, all right, baseball intersects. Compared to the linearity of the goal sports, it’s even supposed to. Kennedy walks to lead off the last of the sixth, but Wilson Ramos behind him hits sharply to Prado at third. It’s an easy around-the -horn double play.Â Alberto Gonzalez strikes out having seen one ball.
But you know what I mean. Right? Is the green a field, or is it a cage? ShortÂ of a steal of home plate, (which my cousin witnessed here this summer when Jayson Heyward pulled it off), the most exciting play in the game is perhaps a triple, when the fleet afoot turn on the turbo rounding second. The triple covers ground,Â Â and baseball at its best covers this ground and returns where it started from.
Perhaps I am evoking this because their will be no more scoring in the game. On for the Braves, pitching an inning apiece, will come Pete Moylan, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Billy Wagner. Only Wagner will surrender a hit, a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth to pinch hitter Justin Maxwell.Â Craig Stammen comes on for the Nats after Gonzalez’s home run and pitch one and a third. He’ll be followed by Joe Bisenius and Colin Balester. Bisenius and Balester both strike out the side and walk two batters in their respective innings. But it’s junk ball. The wider the home plate ump pushes the strike zone, trying to move things along, the more the pitchers miss it. Below us, his head of dreadlocks drooping over his seat, a man has been asleep for most of three innings. His wife lets him rest. The girl with crocs two different colors now plays with a ‘Teddy’ Bear– a furry brown doll with the face of the Â Roughrider himself in empty bifocal frames.Â One-line scoreboards over each bullpen inform usÂ who’s warming up–a nice touch.
The Nats have a large baseball heritage to claim, and they are exploiting every niche they can. A column in the main walkway features Sandy Koufax–simply because he was bornÂ in D.C. Â The ring of names below the open-air press box begins with Expos Andre Dawson and Gary Carter, continues with Washington Generals Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jimmie Wilson, and a ‘Posey’ Matt and IÂ don’t know. Then to Senators Joe Cronin, Rick Ferrell, Goose Goslin, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, Walter Johnson, Sam Rice and Heine Manush. (To this day a fast-pitch softball bat owned by grandfather and signed in mass production by Manush sits in the corner of my room.) The ring of fame then wraps up withÂ Harmon Killibrew and Early Wynn.
As I’ve already revealed, pinch hitter Justin Maxwell takes the first pitch he sees in the bottom of the ninth over the head of Melky Cabrera for a double. Nyjer Morgan jumps on an early Billy Wagner offering and flies it to center. Pinch-hitting for the pitcher, Kevin Mench grounds to second 0-1. Mench is hitting .137 and will be lucky to catch on somewhere next year. My Strasburg project Â started in April, when Michael Martinez led off for the Harrisburg Senators in a game in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The project has had many false endings, but it ends for good when Ian Desmond, down 0-2, takes a half swing and is rung up by the man in blue.
Or maybe it ends when we look for and can’t find the grave of Walter Johnson in Rockville Cemetery the next day. Or maybe it ends when I drive home in pouring rain and refuse to stop and look for the grave of Christy Mathewson in Lewisburg. Or maybe it just doesn’t end. As I sit here writing this tonight, a new article tells me that Strasbug has just had his cast off, and the rehab for 2012, and for a career by an opposite ocean, is on schedule and underway.