I couldn’t tell you what my first Nationals’ game was, but I can tell you I wasn’t rooting for the Nats. In a story not uncommon to the DC area, I had grown up cheering weakly for a distant team. In a story slightly less common, that team changed multiple times throughout my childhood. My allegiances moved with a distant relative’s contract, providing a fun fact but little attachment to the team or even the game itself. And as his career petered out, so did my passing interest in baseball. But in late 2011, I found myself unceremoniously back in the hometown I swore to leave after college and needing to convince myself this wasn’t the *worst* thing in the world. If you know anything about the seven-year-old, 2011 Washington Nationals, not the worst thing is about the best description you could offer. (They finished the season 80-81, leaving the 77-85 Mets and 72-90 Marlins in their sad, under-.500 dust.)
Against the odds, come 2012, affordable tickets, sunny afternoons, and a passionate fan for a best friend soon found me spending far too many days at Nationals Park. Also seemingly against the odds, the Nationals were winning. I had started the spring expecting to root for the lovable losers that had occasionally caught my attention in years prior. Instead, I found myself on my feet for the last out of winning games, watching Bryce Harper break into the big leagues, and ultimately seeing the team to the best record in baseball that year.
As any Toronto Maple Leafs fan will tell you, though, being a fan isn’t about the winning. It’s about the people. It’s about the place. And it’s about the feeling that for at least that moment, you’re all in this together.
Being a Washington fan anchored me to this city in a way that even shared experiences like an inability to respond to snow and godawful rush hours never had. DC gets a bad rap for being a city of transients, and it’s true many fans live for the day their team comes to town. But that just makes the solidarity I feel when I pass another Nats hat that much stronger. We’ve sat in the same blue seats for hours of extra innings. We’ve felt the same gnawing concern about our bullpen for what feels like years without end. We’ve cheered the same home runs and bemoaned the same embarrassing errors.
Baseball offers on in-game community unlike no other. The pacing of the game begs for idle conversation interspersed with rapt attention. They literally build in time to take a break and stretch your legs, in case you hadn’t had enough opportunities in slow innings. As I fell further down the rabbit hole, I began to extend this community to people I had never even met. My enjoyment of games included the off-tempo clapping of my roommate in the next seat over, but also embraced the cheeky comments on Twitter, the shared breakdown of a clutch play on the metro, a columnist echoing my analysis in the next day’s paper. Other sports share a communal excitement, and often heartbreak, but few invite you to while away hours together while waiting for everyone on the field to decide that yes, indeed, they are ready for the next pitch. Only to repeat the process for the next one.
A discussion on fandom needs to acknowledge the other side of the plate: many would argue sports are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t personally earned the right to feel accomplished after a walk off. Losing a lopsided game wasn’t my fault. To those people, I’d be tempted to offer the truly nihilistic response that very little is meaningful on a universal scale. We ascribe meaning to distant world events. I value my career. You can look at one person of the seven billion on earth as special. On the list of meaningful things, why not sports? They’re a way to unite a community behind a common goal, taking on a meaning of their own.
The summer of 2012 was an easy introduction to fandom. On the way to 96 wins, I got my first Nationals tee shirts (free, but the start of a dangerous commitment that now leaves me with a drawer dedicated to team apparel). I learned the basics of baseball rules, beginning to see the strategy behind pitch selection and line-ups.That season laid the foundation for the fan and DC resident I am today. When I’m tempted to throw it all away, leave my apartment and my job and everything else, I remember there’s a nine-game homestand coming up and my people are at the ballpark.
October 2012 introduced me to another essential facet of sports fandom – tragedy. I watched my favorite player implode in the 9th inning of the 5th game of the NLDS. And just past that sick feeling in my stomach, I had another feeling. Now I was truly a sports fan, and a DC sports fan at that.