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It Has Been Seven Years, But Payback Is Now Finally Complete

It has taken 7 years. But finally, the monster is dead.

The monster I speak of was that horrible night in October of 2012. The Nats were in the deciding game of a series against the St. Louis Cardinals. They had a 6-0 lead. Everyone was feeling pretty good.

Then we all watched in horror at one of the most soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, black hole of depression things to ever happen. It was so bad, many of us still refer to that contest as “the game that can never be mentioned.”

But tonight, those same two teams met in a playoff game at Nats Park for the first time since that black Friday in 2012. Just like seven years ago, the Nationals took a 6-0 lead.

But this time, the ghosts of the past were exorcised. The lead didn’t crumble. Instead of blowing the lead, the Nats actually grew the lead into an 8-1 win to give the Nats a 3-0 lead in the series and place them one game from playing in its first World Series.

The biggest difference? Pitching. In 2012 Gio Gonzales made it through 5 innings, had a big lead, then faltered. By the time he left it was 6-3. After Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett, Edwin Jackson and Tyler Clippard were done, it was 6-5. The Nats would score a run in the bottom of the eighth, then Drew Storen would have his day of infamy, turning a 7-5 lead into a 9-7 loss.

This year, the Nats didn't even need to rely on the bullpen because of Stephen Strasburg. If you missed the 97 times WTBS pointed it out, yes, he was shutdown in 2012 and didn’t pitch in the series. But man, did he pitch tonight…so well that by the time he left after 7 innings, he turned over such a big lead that the Nats didn’t even have to use their best relievers. With a big lead, Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey went in relaxed, threw like they had nothing to lose, and retired the side in the 8th and 9th without giving up a single run.

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Now That We've Seen Hooker Play, What Was Fuente Thinking?

It’s been two weeks since Virginia Tech decided to make a quarterback change on its starting offense.

Having watched the last two games, I have questions.

Not about Hendon Hooker. He’s been a pleasant surprise.

My question is about what the heck Justin Fuente has been thinking not playing him earlier.

Quarterback changes are always emotionally charged discussions, as the most popular QB in just about every town is the backup. Fans think since he’s not playing, he must be better than the guy who is, and they keep thinking that right up until the moment the backup plays.

Then they understand why he’s the backup.

In Hooker’s case, the suspicion has been that it’s been more than lack of experience that has kept him from consideration in being a starter. He’s rarely been used, and when he’s gotten in for the occasional play due to injury or mop-up duty, he’s been a run-only quarterback. In one situation last season, he showed his speed and running ability were pretty good too, scoring on a 69-yard run late in the 4th quarter against William & Mary.

But since he never got a serious look at QB after Josh Jackson went down with an injury against Old Dominion last season, the presumption was he was a one-dimensional QB. That was further fueled by Fuente’s decision to go with 5th-year senior Ryan Willis at the start of this season, because most coaches would only go with a guy that old because they felt they had no other option or that the other QBs weren’t ready.

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With The Nationals, It's Starting To Feel Like Deja Vu All Over Again

As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future results, so this is not a prediction. But there is something eerily similar about the road the Washington Nationals are traveling versus the roadmap used by the Washington Capitals last year in winning the Stanley Cup.

The Nats, as much as I love them, are a flawed team. They have excellent talent at certain positions, but they’ve invested in that talent at the expense of the bullpen. Manager Davey Martinez – the kind of guy you pull for because he seems to be such a genuinely good guy – hasn’t been the greatest at pushing the right buttons with that flawed bullpen and the regular season reflected that with the team at one point being 19-31.

Even as they started winning, that trend never totally went away. Every 10 to 14 days, you’d turn off the television and think “there’s another one they should have won but blew in the last two innings.” Because of that, I think most Nats fans being honest with themselves would admit at one point during the season they didn’t think the team would make the playoffs. And if they did, they’d get beat in the wildcard game.

The Caps sort of did the same thing. From early January to early March in 2018, they were 10-10 over a 20-game stretch and didn’t look good. They’d lose 3 in a row, win two in a row, then lose two more in a row. Four of the losses during that stretch were in overtime, blowing leads in the final minute, then losing in OT (substitute bullpen for goalie and you’ve got the same deal). Since the team could never seem to get past the second round, many were saying on Twitter that the good news was this year, that wouldn’t happen. They’d just get eliminated in the first round and save us all the aggravation.

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If You Bumped Into Your Sports Hero, Would You Recognize Them?

There is a nice thread on Twitter this morning from a guy named Matt Barrows, who had a chance encounter with former Virginia quarterback and Cavalier legend Shawn Moore. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me @dullesdistrict, or check out the thread by going here.

Matt finds an empty seat at the Denver airport, notices the person next to him is a UVA fan (as he is) and they strike up a conversation about the good old days of UVA football. The stranger asks who the QB was when Matt was a student, and in the course of the conversation Matt goes on and on about the days of Shawn Moore and Herman Moore, who were playing before Matt went to UVA.

At the end of the conversation, the stranger introduces himself, and of course, it’s Moore.

As I posted on Twitter, it seems like 137 years ago when I was watching Shawn play QB for the Martinsville Bulldogs in high school. He’s always been a great person, so the conversation is not surprising. But it did surprise me Barrows did not recognize him. For one, Matt is a sportswriter for The Athletic and covers the San Francisco 49ers, so he should have some idea of what past and present football players look like.

For another, if you’re so fanatical about your college team that you strike up conversations with strangers at airports, you should probably know what Shawn Moore looks like. If they built a Mount Rushmore for UVA football, Shawn is one of the four. He led UVA to it’s only No. 1 ranking in football back in 1990, and has not only been one of the school’s best players in history, but his gentle demeanor has also made him a great ambassador for the Cavaliers.

But to be fair, I first considered the possibilities that someone who met me in college would recognize me now. I dug up an old photo and a current one. You see these side by side to your right. I personally don’t think I’ve changed at all, but my wife and several friends have indicated that the pictures look like people from two different planets.

So I may have to cut Matt some slack.

The thread also reminded me just how much ESPN has changed the landscape when it comes to the recognition of football players. Back when Shawn played, ESPN was not on the air wall to wall broadcasting every aspect of the lives of top players. If you saw somebody play, you saw the game on television – with that player wearing a helmet – and aside from a brief interview of sideline shot, really didn’t get a good look at their face to know what they looked like.

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They May Drive Me Crazy, But It Wouldn't Be The Same Without Them

Yeah, I get it. The Washington Nationals are one frustrating team to watch.

But this morning, I was reminded of a different perspective of why most of us are sports fans in the first place.

We’re dealing with the passage of time in the circle of life in our house these days, as in the last 9 months, we’ve lost my wife’s mother and both of our dogs. They all lived full lives, but no one outruns Father Time.

With my wife’s mother, we’re in the phase of disposing of the house and all her possessions. It’s an emotional task, as it seems just about every other thing you come across sparks a warm memory. My wife just bought back another load of treasures this past week from the other side of the state, and this morning showed me a ragged, worn out Washington Nationals teddy bear I had given to her mother years ago.

She explained how in her final years she became quite a Nationals fan. She lived alone, so in the spring and summer, she looked forward to watching the Nats and she always watched it clutching that teddy bear. Given how the team has played at times the last few years, I’m surprised the head of the bear hadn’t been torn off. But it was in relatively good shape, although you can clearly see it’s been held by someone frequently.

The Nationals, to her, were company. When you reach your advanced years like she did, you face both the blessing and curse of old age. Living as she did until she was almost 90 afforded her a lot of great memories, but she also outlived her husband and most of her friends. Her children were grown and moved away. My wife called just about every night and we visited when we could, but there’s no question her final years were at times lonely ones.

So she looked forward to seeing the Nats. She knew all the players by name, and she looked forward to hearing the voices of Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo. She knew little about baseball and certainly didn’t care about the finer points of broadcasting. But they all were familiar, like friends or family, and she looked forward to seeing and hearing from them through the magic of television each night. All while clutching that Washington Nationals teddy bear.

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Back In The Day, The ACC Tournament Was A Can't-Miss Spectacle...

Imagine, if you will, a time and place where college basketball players stayed four years. You had to win your conference tournament or you couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Arenas were stuffed full of maniacal fans, and the pressure to win nearly drove coaches crazy.

That was the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball Tournament when I was growing up.

Today, the tournament means nothing other than the entertainment value of seeing your team play another game. If your team is good, they’re going to the NCAA Tournament the following week any way. If they’re bad, they could run the table and qualify for the NCAA’s the next week, but the odds of that happening are right up there with ordering a unicorn from Amazon, so in all likelihood, the season ends.

But go back to 1970. No matter how good you were, you had to the win the tournament or you went home. Before 1975, all conferences only got one bid to the NCAAs. Players couldn’t leave early for the ABA or NBA. Freshmen were ineligible. Heck, you weren’t even allowed to dunk. Getting a ticket to the event was like winning the lottery. The atmosphere was electric.

The 1970 tournament is the first one I really remember, and it featured a South Carolina team that had gotten through the ACC with a perfect 14-0 record. They had John Roche, Bobby Cremins and a host of players the rest of the league really hated. They were cocky, physical and very good. They were ranked No. 3 in the country and the only other team in the field ranked was No. 19 N.C. State.

They met in the finals back when the title game was on a Saturday night. The game was televised by C.D. Chesley and you found yourself humming along to “Sail With The Pilot” during commercials for Pilot Life Insurance. The Wolfpack slowed the ball down (this was also before the shot clock) and the game went into overtime. Twice. Although South Carolina was clearly the better team, Vann Williford and NC State prevailed

If you weren’t an ACC basketball fan then, this game converted you. South Carolina, even though ranked No. 3, 14-0 in the ACC and 25-3 overall, didn’t go to the NCAAs.

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The Trip Turned Out To Be A Baseball Version Of "A Christmas Carol"

I just finished a week in West Palm Beach, FL watching spring training. Great weather, good baseball, wonderful people, and as close to having days where you don’t have a care in the world as you will probably ever experience.

But if you look closer, you may see more. Like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” I think I also got to see my past, present and future.

The under-rated aspect of spring training is the people. All are bonded by one common interest – baseball – and one of the greatest aspects of following sports are great stories and great memories. Sit next to someone in spring training and ask a question about baseball, and in a matter of minutes you’re like family. You have shared experiences through the sport, in both good times and heartbreak.

There are exceptions – I’m looking at you Boston Red Sox fans – but by and large, the rest of us fans who haven’t enjoyed something like 137 titles in three sports over the last 15 years don’t speak with a spirit of superiority. This leads to some great conversations.

The spirit of baseball past started for us from the very first game. My oldest and best friend Doug and I drove to Jupiter to see the Nats play the Marlins. I learned if you want to have great seats, go to a game involving your favorite team and the Marlins. They don’t show up for regular season games, so they show up even less for spring training games. Buy the cheapest ticket to get in, and then you can have your pick of any seat in the stadium.

We sat under the covered area that was even with third base. A few innings into the game, a young man named Codey took a seat right behind us. He was a student at Ball State and he was a sportswriter, writing for the student newspaper. A group of students from Ball State had headed down to spring training for the experience of it, and he was looking for story angles.

As I also worked my way through my final two years at Virginia Tech as a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper called the Blacksburg Sun, I couldn’t help but think “this kid is me 40-plus years ago.” As a result, the first thing we did was feed him. They had come down to Florida from Indiana with as many crammed into a car as possible, sleeping four to a cheap hotel room, and I was pretty sure the simple pleasure of a $6 hot dog was not in his budget. I know 1977 Dave would have appreciated it.

We spoke of baseball in the 60s and 70s, as Doug and I talked of following Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and many more that were probably ancient history to him. We talked about Bryce Harper going to the Phillies. I talked with him about sportswriting as a career, gave him all the advice I could without sounding like his Dad (my own father’s advice had been to give up sportswriting, come home, drive a truck and make more money), and because he’s a Ball State alum, even talked about David Letterman.

After a few innings, he left to pursue other conversations. Two sportswriting baseball fans of different generations, passing in the bright Florida sun.

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Recent comment in this post
Guest — Doug

Instant classic quote!

Life: "You keep playing until they get you out."
Saturday, 09 March 2019 13:37

Recalling Harper's Signature Moments Was Tougher Than I Thought

It’s been about 24 hours since the Bryce Harper trade to the Phillies was announced, and I still can’t get my head around one aspect of his career here in Washington.

Understand that I loved watching him grow up with the Nationals, and I will really miss him no longer being with the organization. But when you start applying the “great” tag to any athlete, you usually can think quickly of a signature play or two that reminds you of that greatness.

You can certainly do it with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Think of John Riggins and the Redskins, and it’s going to be 70 Chip in the Super Bowl. Michael Jordan and the Bulls? It’s him, tongue handing out, doing some incredibly acrobatic shot driving to the basket.

But with Bryce, when I scan my brain for such moments, I struggle. Lest you want to argue he’s not that great yet, don’t bother. By virtue of the contract alone, that says the league judges him at such stratospheric highs. It will pay $330 million over a time period that starts today and ends when a kid who is in third grade will finish their senior year of college. Wasn’t that many years ago franchises themselves weren’t worth that much.

So in trying to remember such signs of greatness, my mind first went toward walkoff home runs. Bryce certainly hit some mammoth shots during his time here in the most powerful city in the world, but when I think of great walkoffs for the Nationals, he’s not even in the top 3 of my personal memory bank.

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The Little Kid With An AARP Card Is Finally Going To Spring Training

I don’t know about you, but just about my entire life, I’ve seen all the sayings and memes about living each day to the fullest. Carpe Diem, etc.

But the truth is, if you’re a person who saves, who always feels the brunt of responsibility, who plans out for every “what-if” there is, you push out things you’ve always wanted to do and will one day be old. These habits become very hard to break. And many of the things you say you’ll one day do, they never end up being experienced.

Such is the case for myself and my old friend Doug. We’ve known each other since college, as he was the first guy I met at the dorm (Pritchard Hall) at Virginia Tech when I was moving in. We’ve stayed lifelong friends and have had a thousand conversations about “one day” when we’d go see this, or go do that.

We’re in our 60s now. We still talk about “one day” and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago we talked about how the list of things on our bucket list is still pretty lengthy, while our volume of “one days” is growing ever smaller.

We broke through it three years ago when he flat out shamed me into going with him and another classmate to South Bend, Indiana to see Virginia Tech play Notre Dame in football for the first time. We had said since our time as college students that if the Hokies ever played Notre Dame, we would go. When the game was announced 40 years after we promised we’d do it, he was on the phone to remind me.

Honestly, I hated the idea. I hate to fly, things were busy here at home, and the weather was supposed to be sub-zero.

We went. The weather was worse than we ever imagined, but we were there. Three years later, it is still a memory I cherish, and it ended up being something I wouldn’t have done if Doug hadn’t forced me.

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