We were there for the first Strasmas.
All religions have their pilgrimages and their pilgrims. So there we were that night in June of 2010, carless and stranded on Independence Avenue thirty minutes before first pitch, the Three Wise Kids, holding pink scraps of paper with the words NEED A RIDE TO NATS PARK sharpied on the back, waiting on a miracle.
Would you believe we got one?
Our God didn’t rise from a burning bush but instead from a white taxi, one of the dozens that had driven past the corner we were begging from without a glance. Dark sunglasses concealed his identity. “Hop in,” he told us through a roly-poly smile. So we did, squeezing into the back of the cab in blind faith and clear disobedience of every how-to-avoid-kidnapping lesson our parents and elementary school teachers ever taught us. Empty promises of candy aside, a King was being born just down the road, and we needed a camel.
We arrived on South Capitol Street at 7:01 pm at ran through the left field gate by 7:03. A minute later we were sprinting up the stairs to section 406, a sea of seats so high in the sky they’re officially called a “Gallery”. From the Gallery a wide landscape of brown and green was visible, illuminated by bright lights from unnaturally made bulbs. At 7:05 a group of eight men in white and red trotted out of the first base dugout, littering the landscape with their rapid steps. One man, larger than the rest, followed more slowly. He only made it to the pitcher’s mound, where he began throwing balls we couldn’t see. We had made it to Mecca. The Three Wise Kids would be witnesses.
Everybody knows what happened next, what we witnessed. It was a dazzling night, full of flashbulbs and fastballs and Pirates missing over and over again. Our fireballing Savior was born that night in DC, and while everyone else marveled at the Sportscenter highlights, we were three of the only 42,000 who cheered it live. We saw Strasburg’s first pitch (a ball to Andrew McCutchen), his first out (McCutchen’s liner to short), his first strikeout (the legend that is Lastings Milledge), and the thirteen that followed, all while jumping and shouting with the rest of them in the Gallery. Strasmas was born that night, and in a way we were too. We were born into this idea of phenoms and of people who can actually live up to the hype. And we bought it, bad.
Two years later, it’s almost June again, and another biblically-talked about figure has arrived in Washington. The legend of Bryce Harper had been growing for so long, the countdown until his major league career ticking so fast, that you just knew he would arrive with a splash. We had planned to come back for Harper during our Strasmas sojourn, a full year before Washington even drafted him. Now he had risen. It was time to witness Brycster.
So we went. Over the Outer Bridge and into Jersey, leaving our town of mayhem and Mob Wives for greener, holier lands. Onto 1-95 for a minute, then south on the Turnpike, which we rode past Trenton, past fake Levittown, to the end.
Over the Water Gap we went, with a quick stop in Newark (pronounced New-Ark) to pick up the last of the original Wise Kids. It’s fair to say we’re more Semi-Wise Men now, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Olly’s luscious locks. New Ark is Philly territory, both in the beautiful girl and sport fan sense of the word. The ladder scare the willies out of me, so after a quick stop at a gas station we got straight out of Dodge.
Back on 95, the weather was looking like it would damper our plans. Waves of dark gray clouds appeared, slamming rain down on the speeding windshield. By the time we could see M&T Bank Stadium on the left, our view had become so compromised, so watery, that the rest of the Baltimore skyline looked pretty too (it’s not). Siri is telling us, just like my father had the night before, that it would stay like this all day in DC. That we should turn around, because there’s no way they’d play a game in this weather.
Pilgrims are people so engulfed in faith that they need a journey, a mission to a land where they can experience their religion unlike ever before. A place where the road to is just as important as the locale itself. A place to complete you as a spiritual being. This was a pilgrimage, one to see the coming of a new Savior in DC. How could we not believe we’d get there? I kept driving.
Through the Harbor Tunnel and onto the Balt-Wash Parkway, passing shoulder joggers as we went. It was still drizzling as we passed the airport, which is so impractically named I won’t even make a joke about it. The skies cleared as we crossed the Potomac, but traffic picked up. Nationals Park was now in sight; we had 25 minutes to get there for the 1:05 first pitch.
Switching lanes and looking for spots, dodging blinkers and helpful traffic directors alike (“I don’t DO parking!”), we wrapped our way around the stadium. “Let us out!” one of the Wise Men yelled, but the doors stayed locked. We would all be witnesses.
After coughing up a small fortune to park in an oversized outhouse, we made it to the center field gate with three minutes to spare. Just how we like it. Strasburg had just began his warm up pitches; the skies were gray and threatening. A San Diego Padres lineup featuring Orlando Hudson in the five hole awaited, seemingly without a chance. Number 34 stood in right field.
Strasburg got it up to 97 on his first pitch to Will Venable, who bunted it foul (we were expecting his bat to explode, but it didn’t). Venable hacked at another 97 mph fastball a few pitches later and skied it to shallow left, where Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond decided looking at each other was more interesting than trying to catch the ball, and it fell in for a “double”. It started to rain.
What happened next resembled witnessing beautiful car suffer an uncontrollable, deathly sputter. Around and around Strasburg went that inning, fighting his control, the Icy-Hot on his balls, and the rain, which forced home plate umpire Brian Gorman to issue one of the shortest, most ill-timed rain delays in big league history. He walked Chase Headley and James Darnell. He gave up hits to Yonder Alonso and John Baker. By the end of one it was 3-0 Bad Guys, and our jaws were so dropped they would have hit the field from the Gallery.
Harper and his .233 average come up in the second with a runner on first and no out. His average isn’t nearly indicative to the way he’s played in three weeks in the Show, spraying rockets to all fields and hustling his ass off. He stands in against Anthony Bass, a righty who we’ve never heard of who sports a delivery that reminds us of Timmy’s. Bass hides the ball well behind his back as he curls his body around, and Harper is a lunging hitter, so this may not be the best matchup for our hero. But we have faith anyway. Ball, strike, ball, foul, and it’s 2-2. Bass tries to beat Harper with a 94 mph fastball inside, but the 19-year-old scorches it to right field, and we stand in excitement, which dies after we notice Venable sliding over easily to snag it. “He hit it hard,” we tell ourselves. “He hit it hard.”
By the time Bryce bats again it’s 5-0, Strasburg is gone and Venable’s 3-3, prompting his new identity in our circle as the Grinch Who Stole Strasmas. Bass is still in for San Diego, cruising along. He starts Harper out with a slider, which runs away. We’re sitting down the right field line, two levels up, on the balcony. We’re happy to be hear, another six-dollar StubHub dream come to fruition. The rain has passed and the sun is starting to peek through. It’s actually getting hot.
From our lofted perch we see what happens next almost in slow motion. Bass wraps his legs behind his body, uncoils and delivers a fastball, which collides with Harper’s angry swing with enough force to power a small town. Up and up and up it goes, out to center field, where Cameron Maybin is drifting. We stand. Did he? Everyone stands. He did! Maybin gives up as his feet hit the warning track and the ball sails over his head, over the 402 mark and into the mitt of a mustache-rocking, glasses wearing, middle-aged fan in a Strasburg jersey, who’s dancing like mad upon his newfound luck.
We erupt in applause. Maybe applause isn’t the right word. In celebration. Arms are flying up and down, unnatural sounds are coming from our mouths, and we’re high five-ing strangers. Out of sheer over exuberance, Olly and I whiff on the first high five, which would have been a little embarrassing had Bryce Harper not just blasted his second major league home run. We ditch the failed high five for a hug, which is long and full and accomplished. By the time it’s over, we look back down to the field to see our hero run his victory lap. He’s already in the dugout. Happy Brycster.
The euphoria of the moment lasts as the game moseys on, as we get nachos and sneak onto field level, as Bass continues to steal our holiday, as Venable finally makes out, and as Harper grounds out to second in the 7th. We’re sitting behind a group of four older men now, one of which is wearing a “Congressional Golf Outing” or something shirt (note to self – avoid putting things in quotes when their names are followed with “or something”). Anyway, we think they’re congressman or senators or who knows, even Obama’s caddies. Either way everyone gets all scared and barely talks for three innings, except me, who heckles Orlando Hudson like the overgrown little-leaguer that he is. Steve Lombardozzi replaces Danny Espinosa in a double switch in the 8th, and rips a single in his only at bat. “That guy should be playing more!” one of the senator says. I agree.
San Diego brought in the fireballing Andrew Cashner to pitch the ninth with the Padres up 6-1. A 6’6 righty, Cashner has no problem pulling a Strasburg, getting his fastball in the triple digits, but he’s not as polished as the Nationals’ righty; he has walked 14 batters in 18 innings so far this year. “We should start making our way towards the gate,” one of my non-original Wise Kids buddies says. I look into his eyes, almost down to his soul. “But Bryce is up fourth.”
We need something from someone, and neither Bernadina or Ryan Zimmerman prove to be that person. Bernadina breaks his bat on a 98-mph fastball from Cashner and grounds to third; Zimmerman pops out to shallow right.
Adam LaRoche steps in, and we joke about the pronunciation of his name. It’s all just to mask the pain, for we know he’s not going to get a hit. And then – smack! – LaRoche lines Cashner’s first pitch to left for a hard single, bringing Harper to the plate. Sorry for every doubting you, La-Ro-Chay.
We’ve snuck down to the dugout to witness this Goliath vs. Goliath battle. Power vs. Power, that’s Cashner and Harper, two of the game’s most promising and awe-inspiring young talents. Cashner comes set as Bryce digs in and swings his bat out in front of the plate. He starts him off with a 100-mph fastball that cracks the catcher’s mitt like hammer hitting brick and runs outside for a ball. The guy next to me is playing the Logos game.
Cashner’s next two pitches are changeups, one at 89 and another at 90, the harder one the only one that falls in for a strike. It’s 2-1, still a hitter’s count, and we’re waiting on pins and needles. He’s going to go with the fastball; will Bryce catch up?
He does choose the heater, this one at 100 mph, and Harper hacks through it, promptly “ohhs” from our section. Instead of going back to the fastball, Cashner follows with a slider at 89, a good pitch, but one that Harper fights off foul.
This is it. This is what we drove 210 miles to see, what we came all this way for. Harper had already homered, delivering on our stage of personal expectations and gas money sacrifice. For us, he delivered, we’re convinced. For Strasburg, who may have pitched the worse game of his career. And for the belief that compelled us to make journeys to see the two of them. We have faith.
We have faith as Cashner winds and deals, and we have faith as Harper leg kicks maybe just a tad too high. His stride’s a little too long, and the inside fastball slips just under his bat. The swing is so big we’re surprised we don’t feel the wind of it. The scoreboard radar gun reads 101 mph. Harper walks back to the dugout, and everyone leaves.
Is there more to say? Sure, there is. But sometimes it’s better to not. Brycster came and went that day, and we celebrated in grand fashion. We were rewarded, just as we were two years ago, with gifts for our loyalty, our belief, our faith. There will be more Strasmases. There will be more Brycsters. Here’s to wishing you a Happy Harper Day.
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