Sparklers: Nats light up the 4th

Ever since the Washington Nationals became a reality, my dad and I have joked about seeing a game. Like many baseball fans, we expected the expansion franchise to be the last-place laughingstock of the 2005 baseball season.

In early July, however, I became desperate for a change in my boring summer routine. So my dad, my sister, and I headed for DC to enjoy America's pastime on America's grandest day.

We weren't worried when we arrived at the ballpark, because– despite the Nats' surprising early-season success– they hadn't sold out one game since opening night. No problem getting a few scalp tickets, we thought. But on the sidewalk outside RFK, we found ourselves competing with frantic fans holding up fingers and yelling "two here, four here!"

Scalpers were enjoying a field day. Minimum $7 face-value tickets for seats buried in the upper deck were fetching $40.

My dad laughed at such prices, and we moved on, certain those tickets would never sell. But we soon learned that anything's possible in a market where demand overwhelms supply.

It was amazing to see men shelling out Ben Franklins for a regular-season game. It seemed to be a hopeless case for anyone who refused to pay anything less than three times a ticket's face value.

We were those stalwart hold-outs.

We considered buying individual tickets and sitting apart in the stadium. I was all for it, but my sister objected, so we trekked back to our $10 parking spot. But on the way, we ran into a guy willing to sell his one extra ticket at face value. Without hesitating, my dad quickly bought it for me.

Although I love baseball, I never imagined I would attend a game by myself. I couldn't pass up this opportunity, though– I'd been whining to my Dad for an hour that he was a cheapskate who had ruined our holiday.

Walking to my great seat on the first-base line, I became a 12-year-old Little Leaguer again. For the first time in years, I stood in awe at the sheer beauty of a sporting event. Once the umpire shouted "Play ball," the majesty of the spectacle swept over me– and apparently everyone else, so that when the New York Mets eventually broke a 2-2 tie with a three-run ninth inning rally, not one fan even considered leaving.

Unfortunately, the never-say-die Nationals could not pull off another thrilling comeback. But as I rode the Metro packed with Nats fans back to the hotel, I realized that on this monumental day, Washington, D.C. had finally been rejuvenated beyond its "Hail to the Redskins" glory days.

A band of unsung no-name heroes had refused to allow nay-sayers to interfere with their dreams. The Nats entered the All-Star break leading the Atlanta Braves by 2-l/2 games for first place in the National League East. Yes, Atlanta has won the division title the past 13 seasons, but the Braves are suddenly in danger of being dethroned by one of baseball's greatest Cinderella teams.

Some pundits call the Nationals the best story of the season's first half, and some have even gone so far as to call them "America's Team." It's a shame that it took so long, but after interminable losing seasons with the original Washington Senators, a 34-year hiatus after the Senators moved to Dallas to become the Texas Rangers in 1971, and three months of flawless baseball (52-36), on July 4, 2005, Washington officially became a true sports town.

The fireworks that night were just an extra bonus.