Marty Niland: A magical season, a boy and a lesson in life

I got to be 11, all over again this summer, thanks to the greatest season in Washington Nationals history, and my boy, Mark.

Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, baseball was not a huge part of my life. When I was 11, in 1975, I could still remember the Senators and their move to Texas. I followed the game, watched what was offered on network TV, occasionally read the boxscores in paper and knew the stars. I rooted for the Red Sox in the World Series against Cincinnati because my dad was from Boston. But I did not have a team I truly thought of as my own. My summer passed without attending a big league ballgame, and I didn’t think much about it.

Thirty-seven summers later, Mark is my son, though and through. He gets scores and news updates on his iPod, watches any game he can find on the myriad of satellite channels and has mastered the major baseball video games. He plays on the field, too, with more skill than I ever could, strapping on the catcher’s gear, throwing accurately enough to nail baserunners, starting a double play from third base and getting a clutch hit, all in a season that was shortened by a broken finger.

But most unlike me, he has a team to call his own: the Nationals. As long as he’s known about baseball, the Nats have been here. I’ve watched him grow from a child who could barely make it through three innings before begging to finish the day at the video arcade to an All-American kid with a blue, patriotic Ryan Zimmerman jersey who stays until the last out and keeps score. And he remembers it all, rattling dates, stats and starting pitchers off the top of his head.

This was our summer - a season for an 11-year-old boy and his father, discovering a part of his childhood that never was. Nine times, we headed to Nats Park for a season of collecting bobbleheads, keeping score, running to the front row for the T-shirt toss - and magic. The magic that can take a team from under .500 to the best record in baseball; the magic that can make an 11-year-old boy dream of championships; the magic that can make grown man feel young again.

The first time it happened was in a Take Back the Park game on May 4. Mark and I and one of his friends felt the magic as the Nationals came from behind and beat the Phillies on Wilson Ramos’ 11th-inning single.

It happened again on Turn Back the Clock Night, July 5, when Mark, his two best friends and I sat three rows behind home plate in President’s Club seats, acquired for a mere pittance at a charity auction. On that special night - when the Nats and Giants wore uniforms to commemorate the 1924 World Series, when Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa hit back-to-back homers, when Bryce Harper drove in the tying run and scored the winning run in a ninth-inning rally - both Mark and the 11-year-old boy inside me could feel that this was the magical season that Washington fans had waited generations for.

The magic happened again later that month, when Ross Detwiler mastered the Braves, and Zimmerman hit two homers on a Sunday afternoon, erasing the memory of a blown nine-run lead two nights before.

It came again on Aug. 15, when Stephen Strasburg dominated the Marlins, and yet again on Sept. 8, when we waited out a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay, with the Nats down by one in the bottom of the ninth.

“Can we get a seat upgrade, Dad?” Mark excitedly asked me as the crowd thinned, the rain abated and the game started again. He made a beeline for the front row, next to the third-base dugout. A Miami player gave him and a few other boys some bubble gum. We jumped up and down as Jayson Werth belted a game-tying homer and Tyler Moore delivered the winning run in the 10th.

“Can we get playoff tickets?” he asked me on the way home.

“Wait just a minute. They haven’t even made the playoffs yet,” I replied.

“Yeah, but if they make the playoffs, can we go?” he pleaded.

The 11-year-old boy inside me could not resist. Once they were available, I secured a table for four on the Red Porch for Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cardinals. This time, with Mark and my two best friends, we came back and relived all the memories of the season. I bought Mark a division championship T-shirt and he bought a 1924 hat, to commemorate one of those magical nights. And amid the laughter and the towel-waving ecstasy, the magic was in full force. As we watched Werth’s epic home run sail toward us and into the St. Louis bullpen, we cheered and jumped. We embraced. We reveled in the magic. We were both 11 and the world was beautiful.

Would that I could have stopped time and made that the end. I could have even insisted that we watch Game 5 on TV. That might have made it easier. But when another dad called to ask asked if I’d thought of going, the 11-year-old boy inside me took over again. I found tickets for Game 5: One last night of baseball, a night for fathers and sons.

The magic sure seemed like it was there early on. With the Nats ahead 3-0 in the first, we hollered, hugged and slapped high fives as we had the night before. When they took a 6-0 lead, we whooped and hugged some more.

Then he asked it: “Daddy, can we stick around for the postgame celebration?” He wanted the magic to last forever, and I wanted it for him. But this was taboo. Nearby heads shot around in disbelief. Sure, we were all thinking it, but no one dared say it.

“Shhh, the game’s not over yet. A lot can happen,” I replied. He just smiled at me and laughed.

I do not believe in jinxes, but suddenly, the child inside me was gone. I knew in that moment that summers pass, magic fades and the dreams of 11-year-old boys can die. Sometimes they fade with age, withering and blowing away, and sometimes they are murdered, tortuously, painfully, cruelly. As the lead frittered away, I could sense the end that was coming, and the tough duties ahead of me.

As the clock passed midnight and the Nats clung to their two-run lead, with the Cards down to their last strike, the magic was gone. Mark stood atop his seat, screaming and waving his towel, trying to will it back. Too late.

As batters walked, he turned to see a video monitor within eyeshot. “TBS called it a STRIKE! The game should be over!” he screamed. But it wasn’t.

The tying run crossed the plate, and tears streamed down his cheeks. He started sobbing. “Nooooo! I don’t want it to end, Daddy! I don’t want it to end! Not now!” he cried, articulating his pain. His heart was breaking, as was mine - for him. Even as the tears welled in my own eyes, I knew that my time to be 11 all over again was gone. I had to be the grown-up.

“Come on! Be strong, Mark!” I implored, drawing him close. No help.

Two more runs crossed the plate, and now he was in denial, “No! It’s not 9-7! It’s not 9-7!” he shrieked. He was rolling in the aisle, blocking the exit of the other horrified fans, his inner 2-year-old overtaking him.

“Take it like a man, Mark!” I insisted, as picked him up. “Besides, we have all those great memories from this season. They’re ours forever.”

“No! I don’t want those memories,” he insisted. But he also did not want to leave. He wanted to stay for the bitter end. I tried to pump him up for the bottom of the ninth, but he knew it was over, and so did I.

“Get off our field! Get off our field!” he raged as the Cardinals celebrated their win. I had to hold him back.

“Mark,” I said. “I know this is hard for you to understand, but there will be times in your life that hurt even worse than this. You have to let it go.”

He continued to cry as we filed out of the park, breaking into occasional tantrums on the long walk back to the car, blaming the umpire. Each time, I pulled him in, and told him I loved him, that he had to be strong, that he had to look at next year. Our companions and I started recounting the memories of the season.

“I feel better now,” he said, as we got into the car. On the way home, the conversation drifted back and forth between the game and other topics. Finally, after we got back inside the house, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, we shared one last, comforting embrace, letting the tears flow silently, softly, mourning the passing of our magical season. Mark and I had both grown up some.

“Can we get tickets for opening day?” he asked me the next morning.

I remember a good bit about the summer when I was 11: Riding bikes and playing games with friends in the neighborhood. But it took these many years and a special summer with my own son to make me realize what I had missed all those years ago: Sharing a mutual love for our own team with my own dad.

There will (God willing) be other summers and other seasons and other times for fathers and sons to spend together, enjoying a timeless game, loving their team. And there will (God willing) be happier endings to those seasons. But none will be as special, as wonderful, as magical for me as this summer, the greatest season in Nationals history, the one I shared with my boy, Mark: The one when I got to be 11 all over again.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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