Anyone who knows me, knows that I am absolutely nuts about baseball. This is a story about baseball, nuts, winning, and friends – not necessarily in that order. My good friend Rick invited me to the ballgame the other night. I get invited to go to games all the time by people – they know I love it, and they know I’ll be good company, with lots of baseball stories to fill the seemingly endless time between pitches, and innings. Baseball moves at a conversational pace, compared to most popular sports. That’s one of the things I love about it. I’m a conversational kind of guy.
My home team, the Washington Nationals, are in the middle of a tremendous run. At the game we went to Tuesday night, they won their 8th straight game, 8-1. Today, they won their 10th straight game, 1-0. The last time they won that many in a row was their first season in town, 2005. I was there – it was really nuts that year, especially when they went on that winning streak, which put them in first place. It was completely unexpected, and they actually managed to stay in first place for two full months. It was as exciting a season as any I’ve had as a fan.
This year’s team is built to win. Sports Illustrated picked them to win the World Series before the season started. After the first half of the season, many had their doubts. They had great pitching, but the bats just weren’t there. Now, they are making an art form of the “walk-off” win – they did it in five of their last six games, the first team to do that since the 1986 Houston Astros. When team gets going like this, it is so much fun to be around. You just get swept up in it.
I was regaling Rick with many of my baseball stories at the game. I couldn’t believe I’d never told him my Pete Rose hat story, so I told him that one. By the time I was done with that, and my Roberto Clemente stories, and threw in the dancing with Tina Turner, and on and on, he was convinced I was just like Forrest Gump. In a way, I guess I am. I just tend to find myself in the middle of situations that make for good stories.
He really liked the story about the 2005 Nationals, and the peanuts. That’s one of my favorites - I don’t believe I’ve ever told that one, here. I guess it’s about time that I did.
That team was not built to win. In fact, Major League Baseball had tried to kill it. They had previously been in Montreal since 1969 – they were the Montreal Expos. Several years earlier, MLB wanted to eliminate a few of its teams, and the Expos headed up the list of teams they wanted to drop. They allowed the team owner to bale out and buy another team in Florida, and nobody wanted to buy the Expos, since they looked like they were going to die on the scrap heap of baseball. But, the Players Union would not allow the league to contract (become smaller), so the league ran the team for its last few years in Montreal, while it tried to figure out what to do with them. It damn near ran them right into the ground. Their Farm System was decimated, and they had a rag-tag group of players that nobody else wanted. Their best players had left the team, via free agency, as soon as they were able to.
Washington, DC, hadn’t had a team in 33 years, and had been stood up by MLB on a number of occasions, when the league had expanded, and once or twice when a team was all set to move to DC, they would change their minds, usually when the city they were in agreed to build a new ballpark. Moving to D.C. was a reasonable threat that the team would actually leave if they didn’t get what they wanted. Finally, in 2005, DC got the Expos, when they became the Washington Nationals.
They started out kind of slow, but the players were really excited to be back in the states. They were also thrilled to have a lot of fans in the stands - their last few years in Montreal, fan support had waned, as they’d become lame ducks there. Meanwhile, D.C. fans immediately fell in love with them. All these people who had grown up with the Washington Senators, only to have them break their hearts not once, but twice – two different times, a Washington Senators team up and left D.C. without a baseball team. Then, late in May of 2005, the real fun began. I was there. Here’s what happened.
My friend Hugh, who I’d met on a bus ride up to the Nationals first game ever, up in Philadelphia, had seats right behind the Nationals’ dugout, along with his wife, Lisette. Hugh always brought a big bag of peanuts to the game with him. He’s a very generous guy, and was always happy to share his peanuts with you. My seats were over on the other side of the infield, but whenever I came to a game by myself, I always went over to sit with Hugh and Lisette. There were always a few empty seats near them, and the usher didn’t mind a bit. I got to be good friends with her, too.
Just before a game was ready to start, one of the Nationals players, a reserve infielder named Carlos Baerga, got really hungry, and was asking a Peanut vendor for a bag of peanuts. The Vendor said, “Sure – that’ll be 4 bucks.” Carlos didn’t have any money on him – he was in his uniform, about to play a game of major league baseball. “No money, no nuts!” the heartless vendor told Carlos. Hugh caught it all, and immediately yelled, “Hey, Carlos – you want some nuts?” Carlos nodded his head and smiled, and Hugh pitched a bag of nuts over the roof of the dugout, and Carlos made a one-handed catch, and down into the dugout he went, with his nuts.
The Nationals went on to play their most inspired game of the season, featuring a come-from-behind rally in the last inning, and a walk-off home run. The place went nuts! The next game, Hugh brought an extra bag of nuts, just in case. Sure enough, just after the National Anthem was sung, and just before the first pitch was thrown, Carlos’ head popped up out of the dugout, like a ground hog popping its head up out of its hole, and looked around – Hugh was right there, ready to pitch, and yelled, “Hey Carlos” – Carlos looked over, and there was a bag of nuts, airborne in his direction. Carlos made another one-handed grab of those nuts, and down he went into the dugout with them, after thanking Hugh. The Nationals went on to win that game, too, in grand fashion.
Baseball players, and fans, are a very superstitious lot. When the team does well, whatever you did before and during the game, you tend to be certain you duplicate it the next game, in hopes that it will lead to another great game. The peanut transfer became just such a superstition. Hugh came to every game with an extra bag, Carlos popped his head up like a gopher right before every game, the nuts were pitched, the Nats won, and it all started happening – baseball was truly back in D.C.! This went on game after game, and the Nationals just kept winning. It was really nuts! They weren’t supposed to be winning like this. But they won, anyway. When they went on a road trip, Hugh brought in a big bag filled with extra bags of peanuts, and they kept winning on the road.
ESPN the Magazine did a spread on National League East teams and their fans. When they interviewed the Nationals players for the spread, they asked the guys, “So, how are the fans treating you? Do you have any little old grandmothers baking cookies for you?” Carlos piped up, and said, “No, but there;s this little old Jewish fellow who gives us peanuts every game!” ESPN sent a camera crew up into the stands to take some pictures of Hugh for the spread. I was sitting right beside him when they took the shots. My right arm made it into several shots that went into the magazine! My right arm felt really special!
A little later in the season, that arm would get in on the action. I was at a game, and as was my custom, mosied over to say hi to Hugh and Lisette before the game. To my surprise, they weren’t there. As game time grew closer, still no Hugh! I got a little concerned, so I called him. He was sick! He wouldn’t make it. But what about the nuts? “You’re going to have to do it for me, Pete.” I hurriedly looked around for a peanut vendor, found one, got a bag of nuts, and kept my eye on the Nationals’ dugout. Sure enough, at the appointed time, Carlos’ head popped up, looking around for Hugh. I called his name – he didn’t hear me! I called it louder – he was still looking for Hugh. Finally, in desperation, I just sent those nuts flying through the air, heading right towards his head. Oh no! What if they hit him, and he gets injured and can’t play? I yelled his name as loud as I could – he looked over, just in time, and reached up and grabbed those nuts, just before they nailed him in the head. He thanked me, ducked down into the dugout, and of course, the Nats won the game.
My name did not make its way into the box score of that game, but I knew – I had a hand in that win! I had stepped up, in relief of my friend Hugh, and delivered the nuts on time, and kept the streak alive.
Unlike Forrest’s mom, I don’t see life as a box of chocolates – it’s more like a bag of nuts. You do whatever you have to do to deliver those nuts on time. Then, you just sit back, and enjoy the game!
Pictured - (1) My pal, Hugh; (2) Carlos, in his younger years; (3) Me being interviewed by Comcast Sportsnet, after trying out for the Racing Presidents; (4) Me with some friends in high places.