Planting the Flag
The Washington Nationals have all but clinched their third National League East title. Their 1-0 win at Nationals Park last night over the Mets planted a flag square among the throng of New Yorkers there for the game. With a scant 16 games left to play in the 2016 season, the Nats have a 10 game lead over the Mets. In practical terms, if the Nationals only win 6 of their remaining games, the Mets would need to win them all to tie. A tie-breaker would go to the team with the best head-to-head record where Washington now leads for the year, 12-7. It’s a long uphill climb, like the trip back to New York, but Mets fans can still dream the dream
Perhaps the most emphatic flag of the evening was the one Wilson Ramos drove deep into the left field bleachers where hundreds of Mets fans had gathered to cheer on their team. They all wore matching tee-shirts for a trip that clearly had been planned long ago. But the Ramos homer soared high and majestic, the kind that batters stand and watch now. Yoenis Cespedes in left field did not give it the honor as he hardly moved a step before walking back to await the next pitch. The Ramos drive was all that was needed as the Washington bullpen completed the shutout with a tidy eighth and ninth inning, Mark Melancon getting his 42nd save.
Tanner Roark gave the Mets fans plenty to cheer about in the first inning as he loaded the bases on two singles and a walk. The “Capital Tour,” group were yelling for blood, but Roark is a gamer and he left them all standing there, including the three men aboard, as he struck out Jay Bruce and got a pop fly for the final out. It was suddenly quiet in the left field bleachers, deadly quiet. Roark won his 15th game and lowered his ERA to 2.75, fifth best in baseball this season.
In the early morning hours, with the sun barely visible in the eastern sky, I thought about those fans who had bought tickets to the last game of the season between New York and Washington to see their team clinch once again. After the success of the 2015 Mets, their wager was a wise one. The Mets pitching early on looked unequaled and they were hardly praying for a miracle. More like waiting for the inevitable.
But then the cost of Harvey throwing all those innings in the post-season after his Tommy John surgery came home to roost. And the rest of the staff, all of whom had thrown more innings than might have been wise late in the 2015 playoffs, began to wilt as well. The pieces first fell into place on May 19 with the Nationals in New York for the first three-game series of the year. It was Strasburg against Matt Harvey, a match-up that favored New York in 2015. But that day belonged completely to the Nationals. When Daniel Murphy hit a two-run home run off Harvey in the first inning, he gave Strasburg all he would need. Just for a taste of what was to come, the Nationals knocked Harvey all over the park and walked away with a 9-1 victory and a series win in New York over the reigning National League champs.
Murphy, as former Met, played Cinderella to their wicked step-sisters, all of whom were left watching as Murph’s golden coach left New York in a blaze of glory. He has continued to dance on their graves all season long, hitting a cool .413 over the nineteen games against New York with seven home runs and 21 RBI for a gaudy 1.218 OPS. MVP kind of numbers.
A small column in this morning’s Washington Post was the final flag, however, and in the life of the modern baseball fan, maybe it was the most important. Nationals fan Jen Underwood narrated her story of organizing a Nat’s group that traveled to Citi Field in Queens on September 4th. More than 100 strong her group cheered as loud as they could despite Washington coming out on the short end of a 5-1 stick. But the flag endures as documented by the article in the Post.
Personally I find the in-your-face fan spectacle of loud out-of-towners cheering for their team rude in the extreme. Comity and courtesy, however, are whimsical reminders of our former selves. I remember when the first Boston Red Sox fans began to arrive at Camden Yards in large numbers. Their team was not yet the one it has become and they were just there to celebrate the game, to drink and carouse noisily at the Inner Harbor. They were not yet the Red Sox Nation that has become the most obnoxious club on the eastern seaboard.
There is little doubt that at some future date Washington will cross the Delaware in some future invasion of New York in sufficient numbers to rout the enemy. It is part of the game now, like 6-digit, multi-year contracts, an unfortunate spectacle that we created and cannot exorcise. It is part of our lesser, meaner selves. Yet it is a planting of the flag that demeans us.
There is only one flag I want to see; one that soars over us like that Ramos home run and says, “National League Champions,” with a time stamp and a meaning for only those who love the game as it is played at Nationals Park. That is one that is truly worth something and the only one that will stand the test of time. That is a real flag and I will salute it when its birthday comes.