Two years ago, my parents and I headed down to Nationals Park in Washington, DC, to see our Cardinals play the Nationals. This was before the Nationals were any good -- baseball people knew they had some stars coming up through their system, but this was still in the "have to overpay free agents to even get them to consider coming there" period -- and the place was one-third full, tops. We found seats behind the Cardinals dugout for less than face value. This likely isn't going to happen again anytime soon.
In the top of the first inning, Ryan Theriot singled up the middle, and as Colby Rasmus walked to the plate, Albert Pujols stepped onto the on-deck circle. Cardinals fans may still be a little sore at Albert, but there's no denying what a figure he cut, and still cuts, the minute you see him on a field. He came out of the dugout like a boulder about to go screaming downhill. When you see greatness, even in repose, it can sort of take your breath away. This was the last year of Albert's contract, and no one knew quite what was going to happen. It gave every one of his appearances an added bit of urgency.
I noticed something else, though, when he came out of the dugout. All at once, at least seven different people, all from difference sections in front of us, when they saw Albert, leapt out of their seats and began running down toward him. I couldn't figure out what was going on: Where was everyone going? Then I realized: They were trying to get Albert's autograph. While he was in the on-deck circle. An usher, who, depressingly, appeared to see this sort of thing all the time, cut them off at the pass, explaining that, no, players don't typically sign memorabilia when they're about to bat in a Major League Baseball game. The fans walked away, dejected, almost offended. He's right there. Why can't I just ask him right now?
Nationals fans are improving along with their team, a little. During my trip there earlier this week, there were more fans, with a better understanding of the decorum of attending a sporting event, than last time. (They also did an excellent job of booing Pete Kozma, a positive sign for a fanbase: Knowing who your historical tormentors are, and punishing them.) Still, though, they've got a ways to go. They just don't get all the little things. The Nationals ushers follow the excellent policy that no one can be allowed into their seating section until an at-bat is over, but to a man, every Nationals fan "suffering" under this policy complained loudly and vociferously. By the end of the game, a 3-2 Cardinals victory, it was mostly Cardinals fans left in the lower sections. We even got a Let's Go, Cardinals! chant in there, and weren't drowned out. As a home crowd, you can't let that happen, not in a one-run game, not when you have one of the best teams in baseball.
This is still all sort of new for the Nationals and their fans, though, and I understand: They're just not quite there yet. Last year, Sports On Earth's own Patrick Hruby wrote a piece for the Washington Times explaining how Nationals fans were still sort of learning on the job how to be baseball fans, and it definitely takes time. The Nationals aren't even a decade old, and most of that decade has been spent with lousy teams. One of the reasons the Nationals and their fans took that NLDS loss to the Cardinals so hard -- Bill Barnwell's Grantland piece at the time, which literally ends with weepy Nats fans playing "Everybody Hurts" on the jukebox, sums it up quite well -- is that last year had been such a giddy, fun season, the sort of year that brings tons of fans onto the bandwagon, the sort of year you think nothing can go wrong. As painful as it was, that loss will help Nationals fans in the long run. It'll give them gravitas, it'll put hair on their chest. It'll sift out the fad fans. It'll make sure they earn it.
This is a natural progression for new fanbases. I've been seeing this a ton just down the street from my apartment here in Brooklyn, with the Nets. The Nets have had a perfectly acceptable first season in Brooklyn, even if you wonder if Mikhail Prokhorov is gonna freak out and fire everybody if they lose in the playoffs, and Barclays Center has been mostly full all year. It still doesn't feel like a real fanbase yet, though. There aren't a lot of old New Jersey fans who have crossed over -- though as an Arizona Cardinals fan who came with them from St. Louis, I can appreciate those who did -- and many of the fans are affluent Brooklynites just flattered their artisanal cheeses and diaper elimination communication are being recognized on a national level. (Or people who just spend the game looking for Jay-Z.)
There's no history with this team, no inherent deep connection, and the arena feels like it. Barclays Center is a lovely place to watch a game, but it's not a kinetic place to experience one yet; by design, you feel like you're watching a theater production, like you're being held at considerable remove. That can be overcome by an engaged, fiery fanbase, of course, but the Nets are too new for that. It's a tourist attraction at this point, a crowd enjoying themselves in a welcoming environment, but not banded together in a collective froth.
I've been at playoff games at both Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center this week, and, needless to say, the difference between the MSG crowd and the Barclays crowd is roughly analogous to a thrash metal concert and your fourth-grader playing his recorder. Both crowds are sellouts, with every seat filled, but one fanbase has decades of built-up anticipation, of pain and Isiah and gravitas, and the other is just having a good time at a pretty building.
Nets fans will get there, just like Nationals fans will get there. The franchises have too much going for them not to eventually join the same tortured fanbases as everybody else's. But forgive me if I find myself siding with fans of the Knicks, or the Warriors, or the Orioles, the ones who have been going through this for years and hoping now, at last, is the time to break through. If the Nats and Nets don't win the way they expect to this year, it'll be good for their fans in the long run. The more you lose now, and the tougher the losses are, the better it'll feel later. Being a sports fan about pain, and release. You know, like being a human.
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