How the Nationals Gained Three Canadian Fans
(Photo by Cathy Taylor)
Saturday morning, I went to a rainy Nationals Park to watch five or six dozen kids go through a free clinic with the team's coaches. The kids in question included 10-year olds Brock March and Tyler Davies from Ontario, who had driven through the night from the Toronto suburbs with their dad Will, couldn't check into their hotel room because they arrived too early, wandered over to the Park to try to take a tour, instead were invited to join the clinic by a Nats employee, and ended the afternoon with Nats equipment bags, autographs, a lunch, and free tickets to Saturday night's game.
"You guys have given them some memories they won't forget, that's for sure," Will told me, evidently assuming that the Nats represent all of Washington. "Already they're our second-favorite team. Other than the Jays, we didn't have another team, but now we do."
Look, I don't want to make Write Nothing But Good Things About the Nats Week some treacly sledgehammer of media criticism, or self-criticism, and I'll try not to even mention it after this. But the implied point is that the Nats-as-punch-line thing is a terrific gimmick, but also a bit easy, like making fun of Sarah Palin, The Big Lead, or Vinny Cerrato.
Once you're on the prowl for Fail, you can find it everywhere, and can just as easily avoid any good news, which wouldn't fit with the theme (or draw page views). So while the normal me would noted that it even rains during clinics, for this week, I passed on the Weather Fail jokes.
Instead I went into the 'pen, where pitching coach Steve McCatty was doing his first clinic since joining the big-league club. First one young chucker heaved a ball off-target, hitting a girl square on the leg; then another sailed a pitch toward some young heads.
"National League pitchers," McCatty observed.
I asked McCatty what was the most important thing he learned from his first pitching coach, Lee Stange. "Throw strikes," McCatty said. And did that advice work? "Sometimes," McCatty said.
I went into the home dugout, where bench coach Jim Riggleman was attempting to teach signs to a fidgety group of youngsters. Finally he gave up and opened the floor for questions, all of which concerned players being hit with balls, fans being hit with balls, fans falling onto the field, baseballs flying into dugouts, eyes being split open by baseballs, and the like.
"You all ever hear of Babe Ruth? Babe Ruth got hit by a lot of pitches," Riggleman finally said, as third-base coach Pat Listach looked on. "Pat actually played with Babe Ruth. Babe learned a lot from Pat."
Riggleman told the kids to play as many sports as possible, to have diverse interests, that their teachers were more important than Michael Jordan, that fans really shouldn't jump onto the field during a game, and that if they needed extra money they should ask Listach. Which they did.
"Is that true?" one youngster asked Listach.
In the batting cages, first-base coach Marquis Grissom was helping kids hit off tees; "I'm actually pretty impressed that they have the real coaching staff here, not the bottom of the barrel coaches," said one parent, Sean O'Connor.
And then there were the brothers from Toronto. They always go to the Jays game on Father's Day, but this year the team was on the road. The kids have been to plenty of games in Toronto, and have run the bases there, but had never had a chance to get tutorials on the field with genuine MLB coaches. Also, every kid who goes to a Nats Park clinic gets free tickets to a game, part of the approximately 60,000 tickets the team gives out each season, so even though Brock and Tyler and their dad only had plans to go to Sunday's game, they wound up with tickets for Saturday as well.
"In Toronto you have to pay for everything," Tyler noted.
"We couldn't do this, that's for sure," Will, the father, said.
"We thought it was going to be boring because we couldn't check into our hotel room," Brock added.
"We weren't expecting to do this, that's for sure," WIll said. "It was amazing. This whole day has been amazing."
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