Friday night my wife, Misha and I went to the Nationals/Cubs game (as mentioned before). I had every intention of coming back home and writing a regular old recap until I had to sit through the taunts, jeers and chants of the opposing fans in our section. I’ve now been to four games this season, the first three against the Phillies, Braves and Blue Jays. This game was by far the most frustrating to attend as a Nationals fan, and I felt the need to write an open letter to Nationals ownership about the Nationals’ fan experience.
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing you today to give you an idea of what life is like as a fan of the Washington Nationals, and more specifically, a Nationals fan attending a home game in Washington DC. First of all, I am an avid Washington DC sports fan, a Redskins season ticket holder, and I attend Nationals, Wizards, and Capitals games regularly. I have been attending professional sports events in the district for the past eighteen years, and have seen a broad range of game environments. At the age of six, my dad bought us Redskins season tickets, and I grew to love the environment at RFK stadium. Through my time as a devoted Redskin fan (since about 1991), the team has seriously underachieved. Although I’ve experienced a great deal of heartbreak by supporting them so strongly, I continue to do so with fervor.
In my first five years of attending games, I grew to love RFK, mostly for the environment if not for the football. The way the stadium would rock during crucial moments and the chants of ‘We Want Dallas’ had a different feel echoing in those old corridors. When the final sale and relocation of the Expos was confirmed and everyone learned that they would play their first few seasons in RFK, not many people were more excited than I was. After attending my first Nats game in 2005, I fell in love with that old stadium all over again. Although the team was never great in RFK, it still felt like OUR stadium and OUR team at the time. From 2005-2009, that .500 Nationals squad deteriorated to a league laughing stock. I still attended games through the 2007 season without major issues with the product on the field, even though management was criticized constantly by national media outlets.
Hopes were high in 2008 with a move to the new, lush Nationals Park. Due to school and work obligations, I was only able to attend one game at the new park that season, and I enjoyed the views and game environment a great deal. There was only problem: the stadium was empty. Each game I have attended at the park since then has brought friendly staff, good food, and a welcoming environment. However, all those things describe my experience until I sit down to watch the game. Saturday, July 18th, I attended the second game of a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs. I was given the tickets by a co-worker and former teacher that wanted to do something nice for me, so I didn’t hesitate to take the tickets. I’ve never had any problems with Chicago fans in the past (although not in a baseball setting). I’ve seen four or five Bears/Redskins games and a few Bulls/Wizards games and there have never been issues with opposing fan behavior.
As my wife and I walked to our seats in Section 105 (left field wall, row D), I saw a sea of royal blue and white. Our section was full of Cubs fans watching their team take batting practice and begging for autographs. I figured it was a little saturated considering that the game hadn’t started, but as people began to file back to their seats around 6:45, the Cubs contingency didn’t seem to shrink. When the game started, the elderly man behind us wouldn’t shut up about how trashy our city is, how whiney our fans are and how terrible our team is. That sentiment was echoed by everyone seated around us. I only noticed about fifteen Nationals fans in our entire section. The Nats jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, and I felt compelled to cheer my team on. I received repeated derogatory comments from the Cubs fans, and felt drowned out in our home stadium. When the Cubs began to make a comeback, the section began a resounding “Let’s go Cubbies” chant that echoed through the stadium. On Dan Steinberg’s advice (from the Bog), I began a counter “You’re from Fair-fax” chant back at them. I had one guy tell me to shut up, and a young woman (seated two rows behind me) tell me to “keep talking, just keep talking” as if I was the visiting fan. I turned around and asked her if she thought that less than 90% of the Cubs fans in attendance were really from the greater DC area. She said I was probably right but that I shouldn’t “talk shit” like that. This was absolutely ridiculous. I didn’t feel 100% safe or comfortable watching that game and cheering on the home team. Adam Dunn was given such a verbal lashing in left field that he must have felt like he was in Philadelphia or New York, not at home. How can a general manager expect to draw in quality players when they’re heckled like that in their own stadium?
The situation at Nationals Park is dire. Nationals fans are not welcome in their own park, and opposing fans are welcomed with open arms (I’m looking at you Stan Kasten). In what world does a management team expect to build a strong fan base with such a terrible product on the field and a hostile environment in the stands? Two rows in front of us, a father and his young son sat with their Nationals hats, worn from the sun and the love of their home team. The boy, probably around seven years old, was trying to start chants for each Nationals batter that came to the plate with his dad’s help. The kid probably doesn’t remember a time when DC didn’t have a baseball team and when he didn’t wear that hat everywhere he went. As he and his dad tried to get a “Let’s go Gonzo” chant going for Adrian Gonzales at the plate, my heart broke a little bit for them. My wife and I were the only two fans that helped them keep the cheer going. The dad turned back at me and smiled as thanks for our encouragement. Not to sound sentimental, but it upsets me to think about that little kid missing out on the environment I was graced with as a young Redskin fan.
The reason I will always cherish my memories of going to Redskins games will be based upon the family that we had in our section. You cannot replace the shared high-fives and hugs in times of celebration and the shared dejections in times of loss that bring a fan closer to his fellow fans, and his team. That is something that this young kid is going to miss out on until Nationals’ management gets their act together and quits encouraging so many opposing fans into the park. Put in the work, spend the money, and put a competitive team on the field so kids like that can grow up with a team worth caring about. Until then, baseball in DC will continue to flounder, and fans like me will continue to struggle with the support that we through your way.