WASHINGTON, D.C. — From perfect to panic.
Just like that.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
It led to runs. No, not on the diamond by the San Diego Padres or the Washington Nationals.
It was on the concourse. It was the fans. And they were running for their lives.
Those multiple bangs were gunshots. They were loud. They were clearly recognizable. They quickly led to confusion, fear and finally — terror.
For sure, the scene turned from a beautiful summer’s Saturday night at Nationals Park to a nightmare not far from the Capitol here in D.C.
It halted the national pastime on the field and sent the fans into total chaos, including this reporter.
I’ve covered Major League Baseball for 35 years all over America. There isn’t a stadium in the country I haven’t been to, either in the stands or in the press box. In either case, it was my sanctuary, my happy place.
Few love baseball more than I do. It’s the ultimate quality time you can spend with family and friends. These days, the only place you can get three hours of a person’s time and conversation is at a ballpark.
On this night, I was starting my vacation in the stands with buddies who live in the District — Fred, Brad and Tracy.
It was a glorious scene, baseball like it oughta be.
We were thoroughly enjoying the ballgame. Fernando Tatis Jr., one of the game’s biggest stars, was putting on a show with a 4-for-4 performance at the plate.
The weather was calm and comfortable. You could smell hotdogs in the air. The beer man was everybody’s friend.
Then, the Padres had just taken the field for the bottom of the sixth inning. All of a sudden, we heard those loud pops.
I can remember looking at my friends and saying that they sounded like gunshots. They weren’t fireworks or a car backfiring.
We were sitting on the first base side of the field near right field. The shots rang-out across the diamond near third base on the concourse level.
The next thing you know, people are running for the exits in centerfield. They weren’t fleeing raindrops, they were running for cover.
Then, I looked down on the field. It was empty, no players or umpires to be found. The dugouts were barren. Something was happening, but still unclear.
My friends and I looked at each other and started to try to figure out what had changed, caused such a commotion.
At that point, I said, “That was gunfire. We need to bolt, leave the stadium immediately.” We hopped up from our seats and headed up the stairs to the concourse level to get to the center-field exit we came in from.
We started walking quickly like we were on a mission to exit the building amid the confusion.
At this point, there had been no public address announcement from the Nationals. There were no staff directing fans what to do. There were no signs of police or security personnel. It was a free-for-all. Fans had to guess and act.
And just as we picked up some speed on our quest to exit the building a crowd of fans in sheer terror started running toward us. They were screaming in horror. People were falling and being run over.
The only thing I could think of was that there was a gunman, or gunmen, in the stadium and they were both shooting and headed this way.
We turned and ran for our lives.
We pushed our way into an office that was used to manage concessions at the stadium. There were a few workers in there. Me and two of my friends wound up in a storage closet with about four or five other fans we didn’t know. We talked about blocking the door. We frantically called loved ones. Brad, Tracy and I were separated from Fred. I called him on my cell and he said he was OK and lost us in the mass confusion.
Inside that office, different heart-wrenching scenes broke out. There was a worker in absolute tears. She said she had post- traumatic stress disorder and was without her medication. Strangers tried to calm her. There were so many acts of kindness going on.
There was a little boy in a Padres T-shirt and hat. The shirt had Tatis Jr.’s name on the back. He was hiding under a desk. His dad was there. But he was scared to death because they were separated from his mom.
Tracy and I tried to calm the kid, along with his dad. He stressed everything would be fine and we would all get through this. Finally, someone pointed to a TV set in the office. There was a message from the Nationals. It said we should exit the stadium. The ordeal was over.
It was easier to digest after we got the details that three people had been shot outside the stadium and there was no real danger to fans inside.
But for those 30 minutes or so, we just didn’t know.
Honestly, I had never been so scared for my life.
Those pops were a game-changer on Saturday night. It turned my baseball utopia to Hell.