A Sports Town, Seemingly Overnight

Sometimes, it’s good to live in Washington and be a Washingtonian.

Especially this summer, in spite of the heat waves, the rain, the presence of politicians, the steady and sad rise of the number of shooting victims, the hell that was Helsinki and its daily chattermouth aftermath.

In recent days, we had something better than all that.

We had the 89th All-Star Game at Nationals Park, pitting the best baseball players in the National League and the American League in a feel-good baseball game against each other. We had ourselves a game between the best of the best.

We had Scherzer strikeouts, we had a record 10 home runs (including one by arguably and quietly one of the best players in baseball, Mike Trout).

We had a Home Run Derby, which has become an annual tradition every bit as important if not more than the All-Star Game itself. It was won — with thunderous applause and craziness on the part of the over 40,000 (yes, 40,000) people who came for the show, by Bryce Harper, the hometown hero with his one-of-a-kind haircut, reckless exuberance and bigger-than-life-its-own-self personality. He won in the waning seconds (and time is of the essence in a home run derby as much as power itself), hitting nine home runs to overcome Kylie Schwarber, 19-18.

Not only did the crowd erupt, but so did Harper, known for his smooth stroke, his dramatic homers, his cap flying often. Watching Harper, you’d think this was the last out of the last game of the World Series, instead of, well, the Home Run Derby.

The whole scene, and all of the days and nights of the All-Star Game, looked familiar. It had the pungent, jubilant, endless music and exuberance of the seemingly days-on-end celebrations that followed the Washington Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup not so long ago, a time when a kind of madness overtook this city. The cup, big and shiny as trophies go, was everywhere, at Cafe Milano and in Russia, home country of star Alex Ovechkin (returned safely). The joy in this long trophy-less city, often disappointed in playoffs in football, baseball, basketball and hockey, was a hot blast of fresh air amid chaotic times.

There had not been triumphant scenes like that since the very first Washington Redskins Super Bowl win, when fans jumped on cars and climbed lampposts in Georgetown after a victory over Miami.

If truth be told, Washington sports fans had been craving, starving for and longing for a championship of some sort for years and years. Washington, the capital of the world in some ways, was a bridesmaid in the macho world of team sports.

All of a sudden: the Stanley Cup, the All-Star Game, the Home Run Derby and the inauguration of Audi Field, a spanking-new, $400-million pro soccer stadium that came complete with a major star in the person of Wayne Rooney, the English superman who looks rough and ready to lead Washington or star in a Transporter movie.

Seemingly overnight, or over a fortnight, Washington has become a sports town. That Stanley Cup is a real trophy, not a facsimile, although you could probably buy a plastic version. The rest is all joy and confidence. Sweet dreams are made of this.

If the Caps, after years of futility and near-misses, can emerge a winner, why can’t the Wizards and the Nationals, why not even DC United, which is underwhelming at the moment, but who knows? Why not, Lord help us, the Washington Redskins and, Lord help us, owner Dan Snyder?

There is, in the embrace of the presence of the All-Star Game, a kind of hunger only the trophy-starving can appreciate. Washington baseball fans took to the All-Star Game with the Christmas-eve eyes of children, spending big bucks on overpriced merchandise, hot dogs and beer, soaking up the atmosphere of baseball’s storied history. The Nats owners did a great job of presenting and promoting baseball.

That would be the baseball of modern times, the digital age and the data age, where sports nuts, fantasy league players and fans devour strange new gauges of values like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a form of sabermetric statistical appraisal of a player’s individual value.

Modern baseball is and remains a heartless game for fans because it breaks your heart more often than not, every year. So far, the main feature of a Nationals fan’s uniform is not the big W, but a crack in the heart.

This year has brought even more pain than usual. The Nats, who have become a team of excellence, are well on their way to perhaps not even making the playoffs from the National League East, where they’re in third place with a .500 record.

More than that, Harper, although he’s high in the home run stats in the league, with infrequent blasts, is having a season that can be charitably described as mediocre. He may not even be a National for long.

Baseball today is about strikeouts and home runs, and in Max Scherzer the Nats have the best strikeout artist in the game, a hell-for-leather player who gives up home runs occasionally. In Harper, they have a (this season) home run hitter who strikes out a lot.

The All-Star Game, on the other hand, thrives, for all the modern reasons of commerce and fandom, often driven by the social media, the internet and the need to find solace and passion in games as events, in victories big (the Stanley Cup) or small (the Home Run Derby).

It’s hard to say what the old-timers might think. There are statues in almost every ball park of folks like Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

They might approve of all the ballyhoo of commerce and fandom. It was Babe Ruth, after all, who, when asked why he should be paid more than the president replied: “I had a better year than he did.”

P.S.: The American League won, 8-6.

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals at bat at the 89th All-Star Game. Photo by Bill Starrels.

The All-Star Game at Nationals Park was the place to be July 17 — with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez in attendance. Photo by Bill Starrels.

At the field of Nationals Park, a giant All-Star Game logo. Photo by Bill Starrels.

A choir at the field of Nationals Park in the form of an American flag. Photo by Bill Starrels.



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