The last time most of the people huddled outside the center field gates at Nationals Park tonight were inside the stadium was Sept. 25, when the place was rocking with the optimism of 37,638 fans who could see better days on the horizon.
On a pleasant Sunday afternoon, the Nationals shut out the Atlanta Braves, winning their final home game of the year with Ross Detwiler shutting Atlanta down, Michael Morse taking a curtain call after his home run and the team streaking to its 78th win in a year that would end with 80 victories and plenty of excitement about what was to come.
The 24-year-old catcher that hit a solo home run and drove in the winning run that day - Wilson Ramos - was a big part of the reason Nationals fans were so giddy about the future. The team had snatched him in a 2010 trade deadline deal with the Minnesota Twins, and watched him turn in a breakthrough rookie season - a .267 average, 15 homers and 52 RBI, while honing his defense under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez.
Forty-seven days later, some of those same fans bunched together on a cold Veterans' Day night, a few hundred feet from where Ramos' homer had landed. As they sipped on hot chocolate and coffee left on two tables by the Nationals, they traded stories about the young catcher - the walk-off home run against the Mariners that turned one fan's girlfriend into a baseball aficionado, the miles-wide smile he gave another when she mentioned the Smurfette costume he donned in a September hazing ritual.
And they punctuated all those stories with the same hope they'd had in September. Actually, this was probably different; back then, it was about baseball. This was about life and death.
Between 50 and 75 fans gathered at Nationals Park on Friday night in a candlelight vigil for Ramos, the catcher who was kidnapped outside his home in Valencia, Venezuela, on Wednesday night. The rally, organized by Alicia Durfee on the MASN Nationals Facebook page earlier this week, was less of a somber proceeding than a shot of optimism at the end of a long week.
Fans played Ramos' walk-up music, chanted "Free No. 3!," laughed about his mischievous sense of humor and talked almost defiantly about seeing him in the spring.
"I have this beautiful, beautiful picture (with him) that I will get printed and bring (to Nationals Park) when he comes home," Nationals fan Mary Brick said. "I will get him to autograph it and say, 'Thank you. I am so glad that you are home."
Said Durfee: "I wonder, wherever he is, if he knows how much he's loved by everybody, because we're not known as a baseball town." She was quickly interrupted by shouts of, "We are now!"
And not two hours after fans had dispersed from Nationals Park, leaving signs and candles behind after a night of talking baseball in the November chill, their hope was rewarded: News broke in Venezuela that authorities had found Ramos safe, and were bringing him back to his family.
When the news was announced at the Tigres de Aragua (Ramos' winter ball team) game, fans broke into a loud ovation, according to the team's Twitter feed.
The elation echoed a continent away.
"I. Am. Elated," Durfee posted on MASN's Facebook page. "That is all."