Farewell and thanks, NatsTown

As a reporter, I’ve always felt a little odd about the concept of a big, protracted goodbye on a blog - we’re supposed to relay stories about the people we cover to our readers, not be the center of the story ourselves. Then again, I’ve spent the last two years writing under a masthead with a goofy pun on my last name, so here goes:

Today is my last day at MASNsports.com, and my last day covering the Nationals after four years on the beat. As many of you know, I’m moving back home to the Twin Cities to cover the Minnesota Wild and the Minnesota Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I’m thrilled, both about the opportunity to head home before my wife and I have our first child in April, and about the opportunity to write for the paper that helped me start my career. I interned at the Pioneer Press as a junior at the University of Minnesota, and many of the things that were true about the paper then are still true now. It’s always had a pugnacious staff of reporters who look for ways to do big things, even if the paper doesn’t have the resources of its competitors.

But as I leave the Washington area, I’m also mindful of the tremendous opportunities I’ve had over the last four years. I’ve met people who will become lifelong friends, competed against reporters who inspired me to be better and witnessed some remarkable moments among the 379 games the Nationals lost in my time on the beat.

Among the highlights: I had four springs to warm to Florida’s Space Coast area, which takes plenty of grief from Nationals fans for its remoteness but actually has a quaint small-town-by-the-ocean feel. Mark DeCotis, who covers spring training each year for Florida Today, has welcomed out-of-town reporters into his home every year for a meal or two. He and his wife Pam are two of the sweetest, most hospitable people you’ll meet, and each spring, he’s as much a part of the beat writer crew as any of us who cover the team all season.

I can hardly stop there when highlighting people, though: My good friend Kristen Hudak, who shared these pages with me before going to ESPN, has been a sounding board who’s both willing to support me and put up with my incessant teasing (ask her what happened to her Facebook page and Twitter account after my Packers beat her Steelers in Super Bowl XLV). Rich Campbell, another great friend who’s now covering the Redskins for the Washington Times, made my first year on the Nationals beat a blast; since then, he’s introduced me to so many burger places that my waistline should have paid a bigger price by now.

There’s also Barry Svrluga, with whom I only worked for a few months but who made it clear during that time why he was the standard-bearer on the Nationals beat. There’s the inimitable Chico Harlan, who pushed me more as a writer than anyone I’ve ever worked with. There’s Mark Zuckerman, who shared his vast institutional knowledge of the Nationals during the two years we worked together at the Washington Times, and Adam Kilgore, who has carried on the lofty standard that Barry and Chico set at the Washington Post. There are the newcomers, like Amanda Comak at the Washington Times and Byron Kerr at MASNsports.com, who have tremendous futures on the beat, and the pro’s pros like Johnny Holiday, who showed me how to work with class and grace on TV.

There are the editors, like Mark Hartsell and John Taylor at the Washington Times and Pete Kerzel at MASNsports.com, who have pushed reporters forward while covering their backs more than anyone knows. There’s the Associated Press’ Joseph White, the eclectic Eagle Scout with whom I took third place in the CitySolve Urban Race in September. And, of course, there are Bill Ladson and Craig Heist, whose ability to quarrel about music, sports, politics, food, drink, weather, driving, stereo volume, room temperatures and the change in Craig’s back pocket is truly remarkable. As I’ve said before, they’re the real-life Tom and Jerry of the Nats beat. They’re also best friends, and in the last few years, they’ve become great friends of mine, as well.

And, amongst the losses, there have been some tremendous moments: I got to see Randy Johnson win his 300th game in front of about 200 people, and I saw Jordan Zimmermann win his first in front of fewer than that. I saw the old Yankee Stadium on its final Fourth of July, and I felt the new one rocking in the World Series as Mariano Rivera came out to “Enter Sandman” (still, for my money, one of the coolest entrances in sports). I visited new cathedrals, like San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and old dumps, like Shea Stadium and the Metrodome. I sat in a front-row seat in Fort Worth, Texas, as Stephen Strasburg threw heat past college sophomores, and watched from high above Nationals Park as he struck out 14 major leaguers in his debut last June - a game that still gives me chills.

This post is far longer than I intended it to be, and I’m running dangerously close to doing what I promised not to do at the top of it (it’s OK if you need to scroll back up to remember what that was). But I want to close by thanking all of you for reading stories, watching videos, listening to podcasts, commenting in chats and trading barbs with me on Twitter. It’s a tremendous way to make a living, to be the one telling stories, but it’s even more rewarding to know there are so many people who will react to the stories you tell. It’s a dream for me to tell them in my hometown, but it’s been an honor to tell them here, as well.

I’ll close this the way I’ve closed numerous posts here over the last two years: by asking what you think. If there’s an anecdote or an opinion you’d like to hear, ask about it in the comments and I’ll respond to it there.

The next few years should be exciting ones for the Nationals, and as the team continues to improve, continue to hold the people who cover it to high standards. Ask questions, give honest feedback and demand good work from reporters. As people who spend so much money to watch the team - and so much time discussing it - you deserve a quality product.

Pete Kerzel will be covering the Winter Meetings for MASNsports.com, and will keep you up with all the Nationals news from Dallas next week and until MASNsports.com hires a permanent replacement for me. You can follow him on Twitter @kerzelpete. Byron Kerr will continue keeping track of the Nationals, as well, and you can find him on Twitter at @bkerr32.

I’ll continue to be available on Twitter, if you’re interested in keeping track of what I’m doing in the future or staying in touch. Thanks again for your involvement; I can only hope you’ve gotten as much out of it as you put into it.

I know I have. Talk to you soon.