The Champs Are Here

Hercules Johnson

Washington, D.C — The Washington Nationals won the World Series a year ago and Washington, D.C. was on a heady high. The District of Champions! What a time to be alive in the Capital.

I missed the celebration when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. In 2018 we lived across the country while I attended law school in San Diego. We still had a great time. My brother drove down from Reno to watch games 5-7; the night he arrived we watched Ovechkin hoist the Cup and we stayed classy in the streets of San Diego.

In the fall of 2019, however, my wife and are were living in Northeast D.C., off the Red Line near the Brookland exit by the Basilica. It was gorgeous and it was good to be home. The tail end of October brought the Capital’s first World Series appearance in the better part of a century.

D.C. was starving for a championship, going without for 27 years since the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. But to make matters worse, until 15 short months ago, when Evgeny Kuznetsov robbed Sydney Crosby and sent the Penguins packing, the Capital City had not even been to a Conference final since 1999. That year the Caps made it to the Stanley Cup Finals and were unceremoniously swept by the Red Wings. So even the one time the district was close, we really only got a sniff.

I am not the fan who tends to get despondent after a defeat, even in the playoffs, but there were so many, and soo many were too bad. After decades of heartbreak the playoffs became almost reviled, offering far more despair than satisfaction.     

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals put the kibosh on all that. They proved it was okay to believe and there was a new feeling around town. Then, in 2019, the WNBA’s Mystics brought the District another championship mere weeks before the Nats faced the Astros. Not to say that Washingtonians were strutting around like cocky Massholes, we just weren’t flinching at every play.

The Nationals were on the road for the first two games where things would kick off in Texas. The Astros may have been hosting Games 1 & 2 in Houston, but Washington D.C. was alive. The vibe wasn’t overconfidence, but the District was ready.

Neighborhoods were bustling despite the games being played out of town. Bars and restaurants were overflowing and rowdy on Capitol Hill and in Adams Morgan, in Columbia Heights and all around the Golden Triangle. The waterfront area around Nationals Park was electric.

Nationals Park hosted viewing parties for the away games, inviting 20-30,000 fans to watch the game on the big outfield screens. Beer vendors and Ben’s Chili Bowl completed the experience.

We didn’t make it out to the first two games but the underdog Nats won both. Houston sent up two of the best pitchers in the league and the Nats banged up studs sent both of them home losers. So we knew we’d have at least one more chance.

The games in D.C. did not go well. The Astros won all three and the Nats scored exactly one run in each. Expectations were a little tempered for Game 6, but we had tickets and we were pumped.

We took the Metro down to the park, red line to the green line to the Navy Yard. We made a popular choice. The Metro dropped us off about a block from the gates as we poured out with the crowd. All along the block, street vendors were hawking there t-shirts for half-off: down 3-2, the Nats could be eliminated by the time we saw these guys again. We should have bought stuff then.

We met a few friends inside, grabbed some half-smokes from Ben’s and found seats along the third-base line. The first half of the game was a little slow, the Nats were down 2-1 after one and nobody did a lot for the next few innings. The Nats took over around the halfway mark and the fans in attendance watched their teams put up two runs in the 5th, 7th, and 9th.

It was a great comeback and, even without a game on site, was an amazing environment to enjoy overpriced drinks and chowing down on a legendary chili god. The crowd was and engaged from the start and by the end of the game, you would have been forgiven for thinking it was played at home.

The streets were loud and full of song as the fans danced out of the stadium. The vendors t-shirts had more than doubled in price. Game 6 was awesome, an exciting win to be sure, but tomorrow was Game 7.

We weren’t expecting to attend the viewing party for Game 7.  I was supposed to work until nearly 9:00 p.m. that evening, so we didn’t bother securing tickets. Yet, as fate would have it, I was out of work shortly after the first pitch.

I called my wife and we discussed the new situation as I raced to the Metro. Tickets to the game were sold out and it was raining, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to go down there, but it was still early and they were only down 2-0.  We decided it would be irresponsible not to at least try to get in. Even if we failed, we could try to find a spot at a nearby bar and be a part of the aftermath. It was Game 7.

We drove to the Rhode Island Metro station, caught the Red Line, switched to the Green, and pulled in to the stop at the Navy Yard on a train peppered with fans rocking the red. The seventh inning was under way, Nats still down by two, but nobody we came across was feeling down. After all, the Caps had exorcised the demons.

We were still decelerating to enter the station when an Anthony Rendon Home Run got put the Nats on the board. The train broke out into applause. A few seconds later we all leapt out of the car, as soon as the doors slid open, and raced to the escalators and beyond. 

We quickly regretted not bringing umbrellas as the rain had picked up substantially.  We figured that only helped our chances of getting in, since the people we saw walking away from the park surely meant empty seats inside. The gentleman at the ticket gate would surely be moved by this turn of events.

Moments later we were past the metal detectors and approaching ticketing. I began to silently practice my sales pitch for why the lady, who would be expecting a pair of tickets, should let us in without a one.

“Hello ma’am,” I would greet her. “My wife and I weren’t able to get tickets to the game, because they sold out so early. We weren’t expecting to get in, but it’s raining and we saw people walking out. Is there any way you could let us in? We would be so grateful.” That could work, right?

Suffice it to say that I was taken aback when I heard the very same pitch come out of the mouth of the man in front of us. He was so polite and friendly, I was sure he would get in instead of us. Mercilessly, the ticket lady shot him down.

Resolutely she explained to him that her boss had covered this situation and specifically said that it was out of the question. If the man wanted to hear “no” from her boss as well, he was welcome to hang for a few. I pulled my wife away from the gate quickly to discuss Plan B. There was no Plan B so we frantically scoped our options.

This late in the game, the open ticket lines were few, and we already knew their position on the matter. I spent a lot of time going to and working concerts and festivals, so I had some experience trying to get places without tickets. I believed we had one reasonable chance for success so I took my wife’s hand and led her towards the exit gate. It was time for some quick thinking!

There were two security guards at the exit gate, a tall black man and a shorter, older white lady. I figured if I was going to have a chance, I would need to connect with one of then quickly. I made a beeline for the big dude.

The two guards were talking to separate couples as we approached, but it looked like the couple my dude was talking to might be about to dip. Instead, they and he wandered off together.

As the one couple and their security escort preceded into the distance, I turned back to face the older lady, but she was still deep in conservation with the other couple, and did not seem to have noticed us. It would require a smooth confidence, but the moment was there for the taking.

Fortune favors the bold, so I glanced a “play along look” towards my wife and I spun around on the spot, catching the attention of the security Guard as I sell the bit.

‘Well shit babe, they just hit another Home Run, should we just go back in?” I directed, as the security guard turned towards us.

“Yes please,” she said confidently.

“Is that fine ma’am?” I asked the guard again, as I instinctively, slowly backpedled towards the bleachers.  But my caution was unnecessary, she was sold and waned us on the through

We walked in to the park while the crowd was still cheering for Howie Kendrick’s 2-run bomb, which scored young phenom Juan Soto and took the lead. With the seventh inning stretch on the way, we made bee lines for hot dogs and alcohol.

It was a struggle, but our inside knowledge from years of event bartending helped us land a few drinks before sales were cut off. We ate our dogs under the cover of the bleachers with the hundreds of fans hiding staying dry. Then we made our way out, to some open seats a few rows behind the visitor’s dugout to join the tens of thousands of fans in the rain.

The mood was elevating and the crowd was roiling. Some wore ponchos, some used programs or t-shirts to block the downpour, but most of us just let the rain fall.

It was still dramatic until the top of the 9th. Corbin sat down six of seven batters and Soto added an insurance run in the 8th. The pressure valve blew off in the 9th when Eaton added two RBIs to put the game out of reach. Nats Park exploded.

The final five outs breezed by to the tune of songs, chants, and cheers. One large fellow splashed and slid across the dugout like it was a slip and slide.

The last two Astros struck out swinging, and when the final pitch landed in the glove, it was pandemonium. No one left quickly, there was ambience to absorb, jerseys to waive and admire, and hands to high-five. My wife sparkled with joy; she must have taken celebratory pictures for half a dozen groups groups in our section. 

We eventually made our way out of the park and into the streets where revelry was well underway. People were dancing in and out of bars, climbing on poles, and screaming at the top of their lungs. It was a beautiful outpouring of joy and incredible to be a part of.

My wife and I decided we had not had enough, so we stopped at Gallery Place on the way home for some more. We headed straight to Fado’s Irish Pub for a Jameson and a Black and Tan, just like after a Caps game. We walked in to a serenade of “We Are the Champions,” and sang along at least four more times before we caught an Uber home.

It’s a Parade!!

A few days later we were back on the Metro, heading downtown for a parade. Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues were full of adoring throngs rallying around the streets. There was plenty of space to make our way around until we neared the parade route itself.

We struggled through the mass of humanity until we found a space close enough to maintain a view. Even there it seemed imperfect for my 5’2″ wife; I hope I was helpful. We saw the team and the trophy, we waved and yelled, and we heard some speeches. The happiness around the mall was palpable that day. Good times.

The dirty secret is, my wife and I aren’t even actually Nats fans, but this whole thing has been intoxicating. We are huge Caps fans. We rock the red so hard it has been called, “incessant” and “annoying.” I am also a longtime Redski Washington Football Team Fan who grew up on Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Doug Williams long before Clinton Portis, Sean Taylor, and Tress Way. But when it comes to baseball, we’re both Braves fans through and through.

I grew up in Richmond, a couple hours south of D.C., but I was an avid baseball fan before 2005. When I was a kid, Richmond was the home of Atlanta’s Triple-A team, the Richmond Braves. I grew up attending Braves games with my family and in the 90s I played little league baseball with a glove signed by Steve Avery. I remember watching Sid Bream burn rubber and I remember David Justice smashing the World Series winning home run.

My wife shared a love of baseball with her father, growing up in South Florida. Before expansion the team of the South played in Atlanta and you could watch most of their games on TBS. Despite our love for the District and D.C. sports, when it came to baseball we were covered.

We thought it would be insincere and bandwagony to appropriate Nationals fans’ claim to this experience, but it was impossible not to root for the city and for our fellow Capitals and Redsk Washington Football fans. Instead of buying Nats gear, we wore Capitals hats, and jerseys or RMNB t-shirts to both games. Our choice again proved very popular; the Cup winning Caps garnered endless praise and daps.

A year after missing out on attending championship games and parties for the Caps, we were thrilled to be a part of the Nats big week. It was an experience that more than lived up to its billing. The District of Champions. A good place to be.

Philadelphia Comes Through in the Clutch

Gritty 2020

There was a fairly consequential election last week. Wanting to do something, over the weekend and through Tuesday I phone banked for Biden and the Democrats’ Get Out the Vote campaign. For those four days I spent shifts calling voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas, encouraging supporters to vote and offering to help them find their polling place or make a voting plan. Most of my calls were to West Philly.

The majority of the people I talked to had already voted or were ready to do so. Quite a few people were frustrated and even angry about all of the calls. A few people were republicans, one of whom was not a real prick. Many of the people I spoke to, however, were friendly, grateful, and hopeful.

A lot of the people I reached were excited about the big day and happy to share their enthusiasm, including a campaign manager in Philadelphia. Some were a little more apprehensive and wanted to talk about how much the election meant to them. A dozen or so even needed my help, and I was thrilled to help them find their polling location and any other information they needed. But my very favorite interaction was with Lois.

Lois is 90-years-old, lives in West Philadelphia, and was my second to last call Monday evening, around 8:50 p.m. for her on the east coast. She quickly informed me that she did not need my help, but she was excited to share her plan.

“My neighbors are going to drive me right down the street, first thing in the morning,” she told me proudly. “I’ve got my ballot, I’ve got my bag packed, I’ve got my roller, and I have my folding chair, in case we have to wait in a long line.”

“I’ve been voting since the 1950s and I’ve never missed an election,” she said. “I’m ready to go vote him out of our house.”

I told her that she was an inspiration and must have seen some significant elections in her time. She replied that she remembered voting for Kennedy, and remembered her parents voting for FDR when she was growing up in the Catskills, “across the Hudson River from his home.”

Lois informed me that her church had linked up with other their denomination across seven states, and that day they had spent something like 6 hours joined in prayer. Together they asked that people would find kindness, let go of their anger, and vote to heal the country. She told me that it was important that America elect leaders who were good people again.

Lois thanked me for my efforts and I thanked her for her example, before she said goodbye and hung up to go to bed. She had big plans in the morning.

If you have ever wanted to do something easy to support a candidate or cause, beyond donating $15, I endorse phone banking. The bad interactions were brief, and you still get to help everyone by removing them from the list. The good interactions were longer and heartwarming, and you even get to help some people take action. That’s a bunch of wins.

Early Tuesday morning I saw a video going around of a 90 year old lady in southwest Philly dancing her way to the polls. I hoped it was Lois, it sure fit the picture in my mind; I later learned her name was Ms. Mildred, so perhaps not. If not, West Philly is apparently full of cool older ladies.

I spent the better part of the next 5 days watching Philadelphia on TV and often thought of Lois. West Philadelphia ended up being perhaps the most important community in the country this week, and they sure came through. Lois is awesome and she did it; they did it.

Saturday morning, after Pennsylvania was called and Biden was named President elect, my wife and I went out in San Diego. We live in North Park, where Black Lives Matter posters and Biden/Harris supporters are prevalent, we could hear shouting and honking horns out in the streets.

It reminded me of the tunnels in D.C. after a Capitals home win, full of horns blaring in a rhythmic call and response. We got in the car and drove out to join them, which turned out to be a great decision.

We found groups on every street corner, and pedestrians walking in between, waving flags and signs, and cheering. Others shouted and raised their hands or firsts in approval from al fresco dining areas as we drove by. We were enthralled and thought it only made sense to follow the calling cars down University to Hillcrest.

For those unfamiliar with San Diego, Hillcrest is a beautiful, vibrant, and hip community in San Diego, which is home to San Diego’s Pride Parade and fondly referred to as “the gay-borhood.” On the drive we witnessed an eruption of pure joy.

Hillcrest in Jubilation, San Diego, CA – Nov. 7, 2020

Not only did we pass continuous groups of revelers on the streets, we soon found ourselves in the heart of an impromptu motorcade parade. We drove from 30th Street down to 4th Street, immersed in a cacophony of joy and syncopated horns. The outpouring of happiness, love, and relief was palpable, energizing, and cathartic.

In honor of Pennsylvania, my Pittsburgh Steelers fan of a wife tucked her Terrible Towel to fly from the closed rear window. In honor of Philadelphia, and the enormous role which the City of Brotherly Love played in the securing the election and ending the Trump administration, she brought her Gritty t-shirt held it aloft like a banner. It featured the googly eyed Philadelphia Flyers mascot stating, “Fuck Trump,” and it was very popular.

Gritty of the Philadelphia Flyers

Every time we stopped and at multiple slow downs in between people would shout, cheer, and run over to take pictures with the heroic monster she waved out the window. As a Washington sports fan, I have always viewed Philadelphia as the bad guys. The Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, and Flyers have all ruined numerous days and can go directly to hell–and that’s not even mentioning the Pittsburgh Penguins. But there’s no denying it: Pennsylvania came through in the clutch.

Philadelphia and Alleghany County sealed the win and the entire world broke into rapturous applause. Philadelphia most of all was our hero, perhaps not the hero we wanted, but the hero we desperately need right now. The people on the street in San Diego knew it and many of them recognized and adored Gritty. And everyone loved Philadelphia. I hope Lois feels proud and I hope she’s dancing.