30th stop: Nationals Park (October 3rd 2014)

All along our trip, we were looking over the different scenarios that would’ve let us come back to Washington to catch the game we missed.  The trip wasn’t completed to us is we only had seen 29 games even though we visited Nationals park during our rain delay. It was with great pleasure that we followed the Nationals during the regular season until they clinch a playoff berth. At this point, we knew we had to go back to catch that 30th game.

A lot of people will find ironic that we end the tour in Washington, new home of the old expos. Some will say it is a sign. We were lucky enough to meet with awesome fans the first time we went to Washington and they supported us during the whole trip. They were nice enough to reserve for us a pair of ticket for the first game the Nats would play in post season.

So after spending a few days at our homes in Montreal, we went back on the road to finish that trip in the American capital! To make sure we would make it this time, we traded our minivan for Adry’s dad’s car. It really is a relive to be driving and not feeling the whole car shaking when you go above 60 mph! So we took the road on Thursday to see the Nationals play the Giants on Friday.

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We will be staying at Brian and Meg’s place in Washington: a couple that we met earlier in the trip that also offered us to stay there when we first went to Washington. By meeting with fans like them who happens to be part a half season ticket plan, we learned a lot more about the Nationals and their fan base. We need to learn a lot from this team since it’s the youngest team in the MLB. When we’ll get baseball again in Montreal, we will have to take in mind all the steps Washington had to go through.

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What can we say about the Nationals? First of all, some people might think that the return of a team to Washington was an instant success and that fans rushed to the turnstile to see games. The first years were really hard on the Nationals. The team played in the old RFK stadium that is still used by DC united, an MLS soccer team. This stadium was a temporary solution while Nationals Park was built. During the first season, 33 000 fans were coming to the games in average. This number put the team above average in the National League in 2005. Sadly for the fans, they understood that their team was still the expos and they were not playing well. The team went under National league average in attendance until 2013! In fact, the 2005 year was the best year when we talk about average fans per game in Washington. We could also mention that they went under 2,000,000 fans 4 times since they got to Washington.

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Why did this happen? We realized that, through the league, it is very difficult to create a fan base on a short period of time. In the Washington area, a lot of people were and still are Baltimore Orioles fans. In fact, driving from DC to Orioles Park in Baltimore is under an hour drive. A lot of people had a difficult time doing the transition from a team to another, especially since the Orioles are evolving in a very exciting division. The Nationals inaugurated their new ballpark in 2008 in a not so good neighborhood. The city is working hard to make the surrounding area more attracting but according to Meg and Bryan, the area won’t be ‘’ready’’ for another 10 years. Condo towers have been built all around the ballpark and this raised the price of lodging.

Parking around Nationals Park is not an easy task. Taking the public transit is the most efficient way to get to a game. A few parking complex are visible right behind the ballpark. The organization added some banners promoting the team to hide them a bit and that’s a good thing because parking lots are kind of ugly! The Nationals are one of the few teams that offers a ‘’valet’’ parking for bicycle. A lot of elements in the ballpark are certified ‘’green’’.

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When you get to the ballpark, you get on a large plaza behind right field. It is nice and easy to walk around from there. On the plaza, you can observe the statues of Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard or you can get pictures with the Nationals mascots represented by ex United States Presidents! One of the main attractions of the ballpark is the Red porch: a large restaurant offering various foods with a rooftop bar giving a view of center field. On the rooftop bar, you can just enjoy the view, eat or sit on sofas and relax before the game. You can also connect with the main stands from there without coming back to the main plaza. Inside the ballpark, a time line is painted on a wall showing the history of baseball in Washington. For those who didn’t know, it is the third team of major league baseball in Washington. There is not that much reference to the old Expos apart for the retired numbers of Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.

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This National League Division Series game was presented on a Friday afternoon. We understood that, by looking at the schedules, the MLB didn’t any game to be played at the same time to maximize TV ratings. It seemed like a lot of fans took off work to attend the game so fans arrived early and the atmosphere was electric even an hour before the game! People were filling up on food before first pitch so they wouldn’t have to stand during the game. During the pre-game ceremony and player’s presentation, Adry and I looked at each other and we knew exactly what feeling the other one had. First, we were both so happy to be there, to be able to live postseason baseball and to finish our trip with this very important game. On the other side, we were both filled with emotions because this could’ve been us. Not only because the Nats used to be the Expos but also because, without baseball, we don’t have a team to show this kind of love to the sport. It could’ve been us. We know Montreal love sports and baseball. We shook this off our minds and we got in with the crowd to support the home team.

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Starting pitchers were Jake Peavy for the San Francisco Giants and Stephen Strasburg for the Washington Nationals. Peavy joined the Giants earlier this year when the Red Sox had their fire sale and traded a lot of their major players away. When we looked at both starting lineups, we see the difference between teams in postseason and other teams. Every player can make a huge difference and, apart from the pitchers, top and bottom of the lineup don’t seem to mean anything at all! Top of the third, Joe Panik hit a single good for one run and in the 4th; Brandon Belt pushed Hunter Pence to the plate for their second run. Crowd got calmer… Peavy was great on the mound, he would allow his first hit in the 5th inning and the next batter would hit in a double play ball.

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Giants didn’t go for long balls during this game but singles were working just fine for them. Both Strasburg and Peavy would be relieved in the 6th. The Giants would get one more run in the 7th to make it 3-0 Giants. Fans started to get worried at the ballpark but everyone was still at his seat. First batter of the bottom of the 7th, the young Bryce Harper, would lift the crowd with a deep home run at right field! Everybody got back into crazy mode especially since two batters later, Asdrubal Cabrera would also get a home run at right field and the Nats are now only trailing by one point: 3-2 Giants. That would be the biggest excitement the Nats would give us for the rest of the game. Santiago Casilla would come to the mound in the 9th for the Giants and will finish off that game easily. Giants won the game 3-2.

We were very sad of this result since we were both hoping to finish the trip on a win. Furthermore, we were very sad for Meg, Bryan, Mark and all the Nationals fans we met at the ballpark that supported their team during the whole year. After the game, we got to grab a beer with Meg and Bryan and we learned that, in Washington, there are bars for Democrats and bars for Republicans!

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The Nationals are still looking for a working organization model when we talk about administration and ballpark. We have to take in mind that they are losing a lot of money from TV rights. A big part of these profits goes to the Orioles, which own a big part of the Nationals TV rights. The Orioles were opposed to the coming of a baseball team to Washington so there were some negotiations and it was a concession that had to be made to calm down the Orioles owner. Another observation about the organization is coming directly from Meg and Bryan: the Nats have trouble with their priorities. It is hard to satisfy the fans that are paying 15$ for their tickets as much as the ones paying 150$. As they told us: great we had 5 bobble heads giveaway this year but, during some games, they will ran out of hot dogs in the 2nd inning! Also, the Nationals have given the floor inside the ballpark a great red paint coating but you still have to be in line for 10 minutes when you want to go to the bathroom during some games.

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The Nationals are still a very young team and began to get a steady and important fan base. We think that it is one of the main key to success. The Nats can also take advantage of the Political status of the city of Washington so this means a lot of visitors coming from all around the United States. We are very curious to see how the neighborhood will look like 10 years from now around Nationals Park.

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For us and a lot of people in Montreal, the Expos died in 2004. The Nationals are not the Expos. We only wish good things to the Nationals fans and we wish them luck in the years to come. A lot of cities already had lost a baseball team and got one again but you got to let go of your old team. Washington hasn’t stolen the Expos from Montreal but we understand why some people in Montreal will never root for the Nationals in their lifetime. It is possible for us that the same thing happen in Montreal: it is very likely that when we will get a team again, that team will be coming from another city. The best thing you can do is to respect the heritage of the old team and to support proudly your new team so people that lost it don’t feel like they lost it for nothing.

It is the end of the trip and yes we are sad. The return to normal life is way harder than we thought. This report is not the last we will write: we got a lot of conclusion to write about the trip to help baseball to come back to Montreal. We want to say thank you to Meg and Bryan for their help during our visit in Washington and we want to say thank you to everyone that helped us during this over 3 month’s trip. Whether it was when we were stuck in Tennessee or by giving us a place to stay when during our visit in a certain city, we cannot say thank you enough. We want to assure you all that there won’t be any break until we can hear: play ball again in Montreal.

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P.S. Did you know that the MLB forbids team to pay to keep public transit open late at night during game days? In Washington, it is a local university that finances the ‘’open late’’ service so fans can watch extra innings without any worries!

4 comments

  1. There are so many competing priorities in a ballpark, but every season is a new chance to play with the balance, try to get it right. Trial and error. We’re so glad you stayed with us (both times!) and you are welcome anytime!

  2. Let’s go EXPO ! I went with my wife and daughter to Washington last year to see `nos Expos“…..we all wore our Expos jerseys and Expos tri-color caps like yours…….lots of fans stopped us and thanked us for “our“ team…..I had a 35 year love affair with “nos amours“…….can`t wait to have ànother “EXPOS“ team in Montreal !!!

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