Day Nine 2019 interlude: Chatting with Bill at Nationals Park

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While in Washington, D.C. I had a lovely, meandering conversation with a Twitter (and now real-life!) friend, Bill. He had messaged me to offer to buy me a beer and hang out at the Nationals game for a while: he was instrumental in bringing the Nationals to D.C. in the mid-90s. We talked about living with cancer, his work in sports law, and the state of the Nationals, post-Harper. I felt blessed being able to have this conversation with someone who, a few months ago, I didn’t know. If you’d rather listen, you can access the audio here.

Me: I’m here with my buddy Bill, who I just now met for the first time. Bill, you were saying we have a sort of a kindred spirit.

Bill: Yeah, I’m a cancer survivor as well. So I really appreciate what you’re doing. My cancer, I discovered it about 10 years ago, it’s an advanced carcinoma, slow growing tumors, usually in your intestinal area. The thing is, it gets in your bloodstream, and I still have treatment today. The good news is that it’s slow-growing. So I’m constantly getting scans, constantly getting blood work. And the treatment plan is that every time they discover a tumor, hopefully they can do surgery. And if they can’t, they do this shot I haven’t had to do this yet, chemo or what have you. Twice now I’ve had to have tumors removed. I don’t know how you feel, and I don’t want to talk for half an hour, although I could. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

Me: Really?

Bill: Yeah. I mean, it just totally changed my life perspective. I used to, ironically, be fearful about cancer; I’d just sit there and wonder whether I had cancer and all these other things. And then when I had to actually face it, you know, ‘normalize’ it is probably not the right word, but it’s different. I’ll tell you one quick thing. So when I first got it I was so freaked out, you probably were too. I mean, I was terrified. And I did all this research and I was like, ‘Okay, so the life expectancy is eight years. But that’s old research. And I’m younger, and I’m healthy, so I’ve probably got 12 years.’ You know what I mean? And I’m doing this constantly, constantly, constantly. And I have an adult son. And finally one day, he just looked at me and said ‘you know what, I don’t even want to hear it anymore.’ He said, ‘If you want to talk about quality,  I’ll talk to you about that all day long. Quantity, I’m not really interested in.’ it just totally reversed my mindset.

Me: Changed the way you were thinking about it.

Bill: Yeah, it is all about quality.

Me: That’s for sure.

Bill: I’ve been fortunate enough that the quantity is pretty good, too. But yeah, it gave me a different perspective.

Me: So you said you were first diagnosed 10 years ago?

Bill: Yeah. 2010, so nine and a half years. I mean, it’s not that interesting a story, but I was sick, went to the hospital. That’s what it was. I feel kinda like it changed my life. I feel like I’m in a better place. So tell me about yours.

Me: I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in late 2011. I’d been feeling just not quite right, for a while. It’s funny, people talk about doing self-examinations. But it’s not really that way; it’s more a feeling you get from the inside, like something doesn’t feel right inside of you, rather than trying to diagnose it the other way. I was driving to a conference in Chicago from Detroit, it’s about four or five hours. And the whole way, I was just uncomfortable. And I kept thinking as soon as this conference is over, I need to go see the doctor.

Bill: Did you have physical pain?

Me: It was more uncomfortable and sort of verging on pain rather than intense physical pain. I think I caught it pretty early in the process. I made an appointment while I was in Chicago, I went home and went to the appointment. This was a day or two before Thanksgiving. And they diagnosed It immediately. I got an ultrasound and I don’t know if this is a mistake or not, but I could see the ultrasound as they were doing it, and I just saw this nasty black mass on the ultrasound. And I was like, ‘that doesn’t look right.’ The technician can’t really diagnose anything, they’re not supposed to. But I’m sure she’s thinking at that point, ‘no, this doesn’t look right.’ So I had surgery right after Thanksgiving, I had one heavy dose of chemo right before New Year’s, one crazy high dose called Carboplatin, it was sort of an experimental thing at the time. I didn’t have to even go through that, but they said, Well, just to make sure, this is something you might want to do. And then it came back in a lymph node. I was clear every CAT scan for a couple of years, and then two-and-a-half years later it came back in a lymph node. I had 20 treatments of radiation, and that seemed to do it. So I am five years clean. I got to the point where I actually saw my oncologist and she said, ‘You don’t have to come anymore. You’re done.’ But I know what you’re saying about it being life-changing for sure. I mean, it definitely changes your perspective. It’s not like I became a crazy health nut or anything. I just, I don’t know, you think differently about things and I appreciate the opportunity to do things like this and meet other people and not take things for granted. I think that is really important.

Bill: I found myself being a little bit more courageous. Whenever I end up in a situation that’s a little bit hard, always look back and go, ‘This shit ain’t cancer, you know?’ I got through that. And now cancer itself doesn’t scare me. So yeah, definitely life-changing.

Me: How old are you now?

Bill: I’m 55.

Me: What do you do?

Bill: I’m an attorney who specializes in sports labor. You were in Baltimore last night: that was my first gig, working for Peter Angelos. Do you mind me just talking about it?

Me: Do it. We’ve got time.

Bill: I’ll give you the elevator pitch of who I am. So when I got out of law school, first I was working for the government. And then, through a friend, I ended up hooking up with Peter Angelos, who didn’t own the Orioles at the time, but a year later, he goes to buy the Orioles. This was roughly around 1993 or so. So he buys the Orioles and I’m doing menial work for him at the time, for the Orioles. Where I really started to enjoy this line of work was around the 1994 strike. He was a fresh new owner and he was a renegade, he still is. And he was he was a thorn in the side of MLB. When the MLB put out anti-player statements in late ‘94, he would refuse to sign them. Of course, 1994 ended with no World Series and he was pissed too, because the Orioles were good that year. The plan for MLB was to have replacement players in 1995. But he was the one owner refused to do it. He came out publicly and said, ‘I’m not going to have replacement players.’ And they threatened to sue him, a huge amount of money. I was young, and I was an asshole. You know what I mean? Like I was aggressive. He loved me. I threatened to sue anyone who sneezed. And I just went to war for him. And obviously, there was a season in 1995 and it all worked out. But he was a hero at that time. So I worked for him for another year or two. And then I left, went to work for the government. I was working for what was then immigration services, INS, after 9/11 and became DHS, ICE and all that. Then 2003 rolls around and D.C. wants to bring the Expos. And Angelos is protecting his territory; there’s a 40 mile radius where he owns and he’s like, ‘you can’t put a team within that 40 miles unless you pay me hundreds of millions of dollars. So there was a three way fight going on. You had MLB, who wanted to move the team here from Montreal, the city who wanted to bring the team here, and Angelos, who probably really didn’t give a shit but wanted to make as much money as he could off of the whole thing, right? At the suggestion of the MLB, because they still hated Angelos, they suggested to the city that they hire me and I went. If it were the Civil War, I went to the other side. Now I’m fighting Angelos. So I worked for the city, fought Angelos the whole way, through that whole negotiation, and we got the stadium built, Now I’m on Angelo’s shitlist.

Me: I was gonna ask, you have any contact with him anymore?

Bill: No. I know his son, John, I talk to him every once in a while, but that’s why I don’t really use my name and I try and be a little bit more careful on Twitter. Not that it matters too much, you know what I mean? These guys, they’re billionaires. But yeah, that was kind of bitter. So then I worked for the city and then I went to work for the Redskins, all the way until last year.

Me: Okay, so what are you doing now?

Bill: I’m really not doing anything but hanging out. I do a little bit of contract work here and there, just because it’s fun and to make a little bit of money, but I really am pretty much retired.

Me: You said you have a son?

Bill: I have a grown son, who is 27, who literally lives right across the street. I might stay for a couple of innings and then I’ll probably just walk over there and hang out with him for a little bit. And I have two smaller children. I have a 15 year old son, and an 11 year old daughter, and I live up on the hill probably about a half mile from here, by the Capitol. I lived here all my life, grew up in D.C., went to GW, I’m a D.C. guy. Love the area, love the stadium. I’m glad you’re here. Hoping you having a good time and fun so far.

Me: Tell me a little bit about the team and the stadium. Are you big Nats’ fan?

Bill: I’m a big fan. Growing up in D.C., we didn’t have a team. the Senators left in the early 70s when I was 10 years old. And so all my high school buddies, when I was growing up, we were all Orioles fans.

Me: Those were good years for them.

Bill: Yeah, it was great. Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson. We were all Orioles’ fans growing up. But I really wanted the team in D.C., a team of my own. I actually saw an Expos’ game; I talked about that on Twitter once, I don’t know if you saw, but I went to an Expos’ game when they were talking about moving here. The last year of the Expos I went to a game. Talk about changing your perspective; you think all Montreal doesn’t support a team, they don’t care, they’re leaving this area that doesn’t want them. And then you go to a game and you’ve got 10 year old kids walking around in Expos’ gear. And you’re really happy that a team is coming, but there’s people that are going to suffer because of that, right? But when the team came, I was thrilled. They played their first three years over at RFK stadium, this old trash stadium, just dumb, while they built this place. Now, the thing about this stadium, I have to defend this part: our friend, Sierra, who you met last night of Baltimore, she came and she hated this park.

Me: She did not have a good experience.

Bill: And I kind of get it in some ways. But here’s what you need to know about this park and the team. So when they first built this park, that was right on the tail end of the retro feel, you know? Camden Yards was the first one with the retro and then everybody started doing it. When they designed this stadium and decided to do this, they were like, that’s kind of getting old. We really don’t want to do the retro feel, we want to do something different. I don’t know how much you could tell, but when you get outside this gate, on the south side of the stands, there’s a lot of marble, a lot of white marble and glass. And the reason they did that is because that’s the architecture of the city. All the museums and government buildings, there’s a lot of marble. You think Washington Monument, the White House, the Capitol building. And that’s what they tried to get a feel for. That’s what they wanted the facade to be on the outside. Now, this was Sierra’s big beef: there’s no like real nice sight lines like in Baltimore, But the problem is, is that behind us. There’s a parking garage. They’re going to do the National Anthem.

Me: Yeah, we’re gonna pause for just a bit. [Pause. Guitar rendition of the Anthem.]

Me: …That was a cool anthem. So you were talking about the sightlines.

Bill: They built this parking garage, which wasn’t here when they first did the stadium.

Me: It’s not that attractive. She does have a point.

Bill: She has a great point. And what I tried to tell them when they built it, if you remove the garage, you see a great view of the Capitol. That’s what they wanted. For whatever reason, they built it.

Me: It’s a big park. It feels big.

Bill: Well, they tried to make it expansive. What they wanted to do is when you walk along the concourse, they wanted you to be able to see the game. They didn’t want to close in the concourse. They wanted you to be able to walk around and see the game. That was the other feature. And there’s a couple of food places, when you get a chance, like Ben’s Chili bowl over here.

Me: Someone else mentioned that to me.

Bill: That was that was a D.C. landmark, a big one, especially in the inner city. And they fought franchising and all that other stuff. And then they had a second location, and they have three now. The second location was here at the ball. So yeah, eat there.

Me: That’s gonna be a for sure.

Bill: I’m defensive about the stadium because I fought so hard to build this thing. I have a free pass; I don’t have a seat, but I can come to any game. That was part of my deal at the time: I just want to be able to go to the stadium anytime I want. I have a little pass and I just go in. As for the team, the early years, they were bad. The Lerner family owns the team, and they’re very wealthy. They’re probably in the top 10 of wealthiest owners. And then along came Strasberg and Harper. They had back to back number one picks and that changed everything. The third thing was that they were bad. They had these draft choices. And then Jason Werth signed here $126 million, which are probably like $40 million more than anybody else was going to give him. But they do that at the time because we need a coveted free agent to come here to establish the fact that we really do want to win. We don’t want to be doormats. We don’t want to be Pittsburgh I love the Pirates, I have family there. But they didn’t want to be that team. That’s why I’ll buy a drink for Jason Werth his entire life. He came here when no one else would come here. Then the glory years around 2012, that’s when Harper was rolling, Strasberg was rolling, Werth was here, Rendon was first coming up.

Me: When did Scherzer get here?

Bill: That was about three years ago. From that time until probably last year or the year before, there would have been at least 30,000  here. I mean, it was like that every night. And people were really excited. But they also had a lot of heartbreak in the playoffs. They were one strike away from beating the Cardinals in the Division Series. I was here, dude. It was like you’re down to the last strike, and they couldn’t get it done and lost the game and the series. Not quite that dramatic, but it happened again in 2014. All these high hopes when Harper was here, and they were spending money on people like Scherzer and Fister and others. I mean, they didn’t mind spending money. They still don’t mind spending money. Their general manager, Rizzo, is considered one of the better general managers in the league. But what’s happened in the last couple of years is, partly because people are jaded. I don’t think Harper leaving was really a big deal. Only because the top two guys in their farm system are now on the club and I think in the lineup tonight, both are outfielders. So there was a feeling that we have replacements for him..

Me: And I mean, Harper had one great year right?

Bill: He had that MVP year, yeah. He does walk a lot. He’s got a really good and he does play hard. I might be a homer but I always felt like he sort of got a bad rap for what kind of guy he is. He’s a kid, man, a young kid. He doesn’t seem to be the brightest bulb in the world. But he was a fan favorite. I mean, people loved him. But they also weren’t up in arms about him leaving either because they sort of understood it right. Rendon is going to be a free agent at the end of this year, and if they let him leave. It’s going to be like this every night. He’s the man. He’s the guy that they really don’t want to leave.

Me: So they re-up Rendon and there’s some there’s some hope that they’re trying to turn it around?

Bill: Because there’s faith in Rizzo, they know that they’ll spend money. I think most people believe that they’ll spend money

Me: Well and this team, it’s not like they’re at the very at the very bottom of the standings. There are a couple of few games under 500. I think right now few games under 500. So I mean, I don’t know, as a Tigers fan. Or a Royals fan…

Bill: Or an Orioles fan. Yeah, but from where we’ve been the last few years. So there was an article in the Post the other day about attendance being down and why is attendance down and it’s mostly because we’re off to a slow start. They don’t have Harper, they’ve, they’ve had some injuries. They don’t have a very good bullpen. The bullpen is probably the biggest issue. There’s a lot of talent here. Trey Turner. Rendon, the two kids, Soto and Robles in the outfield. There’s a feeling that of course, you know, in your rotation you have Scherzer and Strasburg who signed an extension. So he’ll be here for a while. The feeling is, is that we’re a real team. And we can compete. But it’s a kind of a kind of a fickle fan base too. This city is a lot like Atlanta in the sense that if you’re winning, they’ll come. But it’s not like Chicago or Boston, who will come out no matter what. They won’t come out of you’re not winning here. I would hope they’d be better fans now. But they’re really not.

Me: Well, let’s hope then Nats can win one today. Get some Ben’s Chili bowl. I think that’s on the agenda. And I appreciate your time, man.

Bill: Dude, I am so happy to meet you. And I appreciate everything. I love following you on Twitter. I’ve been talking for 23 minutes, so I’m gonna let you go.

Me: That’s awesome. I love it, man. All right, brother.

Bill: Dude. Thanks.

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