When did I realize the insane lengths to which people will support the Washington Nationals? Probably when I found myself in a snaking line to buy a cup of tea to warm my bones in the chilly air rushing through Nationals Park on Saturday night. Yeah, that’s right. In the land of hot dogs and beer, decaffeinated English breakfast was the concession of choice.
And that was only in the tenth inning.
If, like me, you were in the stands for the entirety of Saturday night’s 18-inning bummer of a game between the Nationals and San Francisco Giants, your fingers probably thawed out completely about, oh, right now. Take your wind-blistered hands and pat yourself on the back for sticking it out—you’re evidence that Washington’s baseball team has truly committed fans.
And then flip a chapped bird to people like Will Leitch, who writes on Bloomberg Politics that “With Congress at 15 percent approval ratings and the President in the low forties, it’s a wonder the Nationals aren’t as hated as the Yankees.”
Unfortunately for Leitch, most people who were in their seats or standing-room areas by 5:37 PM on Saturday were still there for the final, heartbreaking frame nearly six-and-a-half hours later. Maybe one-third of the reported 44,035 people who attended the game left before the end.
Everyone in that chunk of the crowd should be ashamed of themselves, though. For starters, they give Leitch’s hypothesis—that national contempt of the federal government should translate into distaste or apathy for Washington’s baseball team—undeserved legs. The Nationals certainly got a popularity bump in 2012 when they became a National League powerhouse, but true fandom is forged in pain, not success. And Nationals Park was hurting just after midnight Sunday, when Jayson Werth flied out for the final out of the 18th inning.
Among the people who left before the end: Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, whom the Nationals invited to announce “Play Ball!” to the rest of the stadium at the game’s start. On one hand, Todd—who admitted on Sunday’s broadcast that he only stayed for ten innings—might be excused because he had a show to tape in the morning. Then again, these are playoff games. These are the days when you’re supposed to sit through every agonizing moment, waiting for exhilaration or defeat. At least Todd was bold enough to admit he abandoned the Nationals.
Fortunately, not everyone had to be tucked in early like the Meet the Press host. It’s tough to guess how many folks were still there through the second nine frames, but most stuck it out. From our perch in a standing-room only area on the third deck, a little down the first-base line, a friend and I could see a light trickle of red-clad bodies making for the center-field gate. The stream was constant, but at least it never surged. We stayed. Parents with elementary-school-aged children stayed. My editor’s 85-year-old father stayed.
If you scan late-late-inning photos of the Nationals Park crowd, don’t look at those empty rows at the very top and think those people left. Most likely, they moved down toward the fronts of their sections as their lamer compatriots bolted. There was one spot in the stadium that started looking embarassingly empty as the night dragged on: the Diamond Club seats, directly behind home plate and in the direct line of the main television cameras. Perhaps the people in the super-premium seats were able to flee the biting air and warm themselves in a plush, heated room, but it made for ugly optics from high above.
The tenth-inning tea wasn’t much help. We were in need of another hot beverage by the 12th, but by then there was a run on hot chocolate, coffee, and even cups. The concession stands were replenished by the 16th inning, but all that was left were watery cups of industrial Swiss Miss knockoff.
Still, most weathered it all, only to be let down in the end. The Nationals, down 0-2 in the National League Division Series, need to pull off three wins in a row this week, starting tonight. If you made it through all 18 innings of Saturday night’s game, feel free to use it as bragging rights for the rest of the series. If you left before the final out, you have only yourself to blame for the perpetuation of the theory that Washingtonians make for lazy baseball fans.
The only upside to people leaving? Around the start of the 11th inning, my friend got a text message from another friend of his, saying the people he was sitting next to in Section 418 had bailed, and that we should come up and join him. It was still cold, windy, and miserable, but it beat another three hours of standing through the elements.
To the pair whose seats we took: your fandom is inferior, but thanks for the chairs, you chumps.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.