D.C. Baseball, Tattoos and the World Series

Kenny Akers, Steven Parrish, Michael Legg and author Chris Hamilton.

Some thoughts on one fans’ journey from Senators, O’s and Washington Nationals as the first World Series game is played in the District since 1933. Note this was first posted on my Facebook page on October 21, 2019.

“Oh, you’re from Baltimore?” is the usual reaction I’ll receive when a stranger notices the 1954 Orioles Bird logo tattooed on my right arm. “No, actually I’m from Washington, D.C.” I’ll say and usually get a quizzical look and continue, “When you’re of a certain age and grew up as a kid with the Senators who left in 1971, and we didn’t have team for 33 years, it was fairly easy to follow the Birds who were just a few miles up the road.” Ohhhh they’ll nod. To confuse them further, I’ll go on, “But I’m a Nat’s fan now – because I’m a Washingtonian.”

Just last week Mikey turns to me and says “Are we having fun yet, because it doesn’t look like it.” I reply, “Yes, this is fun Mikey!” He questions this supposed fun because we sit there, contorting our bodies as if trying to sink into the couch and agonize out loud with the bases loaded, our hopes fading, as Daniel Hudson desperately tries to hold a lead. “Yes, playoff baseball is fun! This is what we wait all year for… Really.”

Over the last couple of weeks as our Nats have surmounted seemingly intractable obstacles and banished old demons by winning their first playoff series – the Wild Card (bye Brewers), then winning the NLDS (see ya Dodgers) – after being jilted four times in the last seven years (3 times in the final game at home), and then sweeping the NLCS (that’s for 2012 Cardinals) – I’ve begun to breathe easier. The week off, because of the unexpected sweep of St. Louis, has given me some time to think. To ask, why does this matter so much to me? Why does this seem at once so personal and yet so communal – shared with my fellow Washingtonians? Perhaps for me, like for so many of us, its because baseball has a way of working its way into your system. 162 times a year – more if you’re lucky. Year after year. Decade after decade. That’s a lot of games! Even as there is communal anguish or joy, we all experience it differently. Baseball has a way of becoming part of our life.

I have hazy memories of going to a couple games with my Dad, Granddad and Uncle Jimmy before the Senators left RFK Stadium for Texas. From those experiences I somehow recall the sense of awe at seeing the huge field of green upon entering RFK’s seating bowl. How is it that I know the names Hondo Frank Howard, Del Unser, Mike Epstein, Ed Brinkman, and more? While I was never good at the intramural version I played as a kid in suburban Crofton, I learned to loved the game. I followed it in the Washington Post and Star newspapers and at night on the radio.

I was a new or young enough fan that when the Senators left, it was easy enough to pick up with the O’s. After all, my mother’s extended family were all from Baltimore. We had ties there and visited relatives on occasion. It was my granddad Lou Cicero, one of six kids who grew up on Hanover Street just blocks from where Camden Yards would eventually be, who moved to the District with my Grandma Lucille during the 30’s to find work. And so our family were Washingtonians. My Mom grew up in D.C. and Adelphi. I was born in Georgetown Hospital. The family mostly worked for the government and/or worked downtown. The District was in our blood, even though with the arrival of kids, my parents decamped for the then exurbs of Levittown Bowie and Crofton as my Dad’s Navy job took him from Washington to Annapolis.

We still had the Redskins, who’s Over the Hill Gang captured the hearts of people across the D.C. area as they started fielding good teams under Coach George Allen. Sunday’s were family days and fall Sunday’s were spent together, often including watching football. The 1971/72 Redskins and their trip to the Super Bowl cemented us as a Redskins family for decades. But I only mention the Redskins to reinforce the family’s D.C. bonafides, this is about baseball.

What solidified my true love of baseball was the late 1970’s/early 80’s Orioles led by wascally Earl Weaver. By then I was in high school at Martin (now Bishop) Spalding, just south of Baltimore. Our gang liked drive up to Memorial Stadium, clap and hoot as we drove by the “Welcome to Baltimore” sign (oftentimes lovingly inscribed by some scofflaw with “Hon” at the end), grab a bunch of to-go subs at Tugboat Annies on 33rd Street (or if we had time, at Attman’s Delicatessen downtown) – yes we were allowed to bring food into the ballpark – and then head as close as possible to the famed Section 34 overseen by cab-driver and ultimate O’s fan Wild Bill Hagey. It was Wild Bill who taught us how to spell – O R I O L E S Orioles! We loved shouting “Eddie, Eddie” for our favorite player Eddie Murray and singing John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy at the 7th inning stretch.

Back then tickets were so easy to come by that for the 1979 playoffs we snagged a group of eight seats to see all the home games vs. the Angles in the LCS. I vividly recall the upper decks serenading the Angles with a full-arm jiggly whammy. We got another 8 seats for each of the home World Series games – the first of which was postponed due to snow – and we proudly perched in the outfield’s first row behind our homemade sign that read, “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now,” which had become the O’s and thus our anthem over the summer. The excitement of the series took on a cruel tone as our beloved O’s lost 3 of 4 home games, including game 7 to the Pittsburgh “We Are Family” Pirates. We despised the Pirates wives who had whistles and cow bells in OUR park. We were heartbroken that our bats went silent in the final two games despite our shouts. Even with the crushing loss, baseball was now more soundly embedded in my soul then ever. You never forget your first LCS and World Series.

As I began my twenties, my best friend Kenny Akers and I started a tradition to get together for the O’s Opening Day. We determined Opening Day is a holiday after all. By then I lived downtown in the District and he lived in Pennsylvania and then Delaware. But we always made it a point to meet up in Baltimore and go to Opening Day. We even made it a point to meet in Baltimore when the Queen came to Memorial Stadium. How could we not see the Queen? We didn’t miss an Orioles Opener – some twenty something years – until I broke the streak and attended the first Nats Opening Day instead. See…

…while it was fun and easy to follow, even love the O’s, as a Washingtonian, I always knew they were somehow being borrowed. Hope never died for baseball in our hometown. Throughout the 80’s there seemed to be rumors the O’s might move to D.C. or Howard County (you know – somewhere in the middle), or we might even get an expansion team or someone else’s team might move to the District. I remember in the early 80’s opening up a ‘Washington Baseball Riggs National Bank Savings Account’ that was supposed to show prospective owners we had people waiting with money to buy season tickets. But nothing ever came to fruition. Our hopes were always dashed and in the meantime the O’s were just up the street, so at least we had baseball. In the end, then Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams did the right thing and laid the foundation for the team to stay in Baltimore. The City, with the now storied and prophetic prodding by O’s management, then built the beautiful Camden Yards and that changed everything.

The last Opening Day at Memorial Stadium was a gorgeous, hot and sunny day, but I recall being sad that an era was ending (I’ve still got the t-shirt). That gave way to jubilation upon entering Camden Yards for the first time on Opening Day in 1992. The ballpark changed baseball nationally and us local fans too. Most Washingtonians seemed to embrace the more easily accessible throwback style ballpark. The Washington Post, including my faves Thomas Boswell and Tony Kornheiser, wrote about them affectionately as if they were our home team. Cal Ripkin’s run at breaking Lou Gerigs’ record and then the ’96 and ’97 playoff runs (when I got that tattoo) seemed to cement the O’s as our team too. Estimates ranged from 1 out of 4 to 1 out of 3 fans being from the DMV (the affectionate term for our District, Maryland and Virginia region). Washingtonians helped fill the ballpark and the owner’s coffers – even as many Baltimoreans seemed to resent the more cerebral interlopers from the south. Attendance was so good that I needed to resort to buying mini-plans so as to provide access to Opening Day and potential playoff tickets.

What seemed an easy drive to get to the Yard from DC in 1992 seemed like a nightmarish crawl along the BW Parkway just 10 years later. Going to the games could be a chore. Hey, we needed our own team. Somehow, despite all the disappointments and near misses, that hope never died.

So when MLB decided to move the poor Expos (I’d been to Montreal a few times and was lucky enough to go to a couple games – nothing like poutine and sliced meat sandwiches in the cozy confines of the indoor Stade Olympique) to the District after 33 years – a lifetime for most of us, it didn’t feel quite real till that first pitch at RFK. I got season tickets and was in heaven. Especially as the team got out to a surprisingly good start during its first year. What a joy it was to be able to go see our own team, in our own ballpark. To take the subway to the game. To go after work – not having to leave 2 hours early to get there. To get home in time afterwards without it having to disrupt the next day.

It was awkward but fun to learn about the National League. I’d have to redirect my hate of the Yankees to who exactly? The Braves? Phillies? Mets? All of em! My real test would come a year later as the Orioles played their first interleague game with the Nats. I wondered if I could love two teams. I wondered if I could even root for two teams. The day came and there were plenty of orange clad O’s fans in the ballpark. Would I shout “Oh” along with them during the National Anthem? Hell no. Washington fans didn’t do that. Would I root for both teams? Hell no! That was it. With no hesitation, I was a Nats fans. Period. There was no going back. There was no loving two teams. In the new ballpark I was lucky enough to get seats in the Nats, Nats, Nats Woo! Section – 312. What a wonderful bunch of people. Wonky, smart and so many scorecards. I was living and breathing baseball. I loved the ballpark. I loved the teams.

Since they arrived in 2005, I’ve been to 20+ games per year, often riding my bike or Capital Bikeshare to Nats Park, plus all the playoff games through 2015 when I moved to Key West after the season to begin a simpler, sunnier and warmer life. I was fortunate enough to be there for the first pitch at RFK and at Nats Park where Ryan Zimmerman walked off the win with a homer. I remember Steven Strasburg’s first mesmerizing game when we didn’t seem to sit or go to the bathroom till he left the game. I remember the agony of the 9th and 10th innings against the Cardinals in 2012 – as just an hour earlier we were plotting our NLCS activity. The anguish of an 18 inning loss to the Giants in 2014 as the evening got dark and cold – we started the day in the sun and in shorts – still gnaws at me. I liked Bryce – till I didn’t. Loved Ryann Zimmerman from the start and am so happy to see him in a World Series all these years later. I was lucky to be there for Jordan Zimmerman’s no-hitter. I worshiped Dusty Baker and those teams that couldn’t get past the first round. I hated that they let him go.

Now that’ I’m living in the Conch Republic we get the MLB package on TV and listen to F.P. Santangelo and Bob Carpenter on a daily basis, even if most of the time it’s just on in the background – sort of like the radio in days of yore. With a digital subscription to the Post, I’m able to keep up with the day-to-day minutia and the perspective still provided by awesome writers Thomas Boswell and Barry Svrugla.

The well documented playoff agony of the Nats has somehow made the 2019 team’s run to the World Series all the sweeter. Yes, I kept waiting for something bad to happen in the Wild Card game, the Division Series and even the Championship Series. The fact that this team seems to have more grit, more fight and more fun – who doesn’t love the Baby Shark phenomena and home run dugout dancing? – makes these Nats, all the more lovable.

The Senators gave me a start. The Orioles taught me baseball tradition and love of the game. But the District is my hometown and the Washington Nationals are MY team. I couldn’t be happier to see them in the World Series. My first World Series in 40 years and D.C.’s first World Series since 1933. I guess it’s time I finally get that Nats tattoo on my other arm, eh?

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