In a quiet corner of the room covered with cherry wood walls and shiny floors under a sprawling buffet, Staff Sgt. Brian Keaton sank into a leather chair.
He sipped a cola from a plastic cup. The dull roar from sold-out Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon leaked through. None of this felt real.
Every few seconds, the sergeant’s face twitched. That didn’t erase — not even for an instant — his stunned smile.
Major League Baseball’s first postseason game in Washington since Oct. 7, 1933, meant more to Sgt. Keaton than nine innings of history in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 8-0 victory over the Nationals in Game 3 of the division series. Baseball meant healing.
“It’s kind of therapy for me,” he said. “It kind of turned a corner for me in a long battle. Next to the birth of my children, this is may be the greatest moment ever.”
A patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Sgt. Keaton enlisted in the Army in 1993 after growing up in Kentucky and, in 2008, found himself in Iraq with the 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment on the last of multiple deployments.
“I got blown up a lot,” he said. “I just got blown up like 20 times. Somehow, I walked out with my legs and my arms. But it got my brain pretty bad.”
Frequent seizures, well over 100, kept Sgt. Keaton from traveling much. Baseball, his lifelong love, aided his recovery. A doctor told him to sort his baseball card collection, then, in April, a Nationals game was his first significant public outing. More games followed in the Lexus Presidents Club, where at least 29 tickets each game go to members of the military and their families.
Sgt. Keaton feels relaxed at the ballpark. Welcomed. Like he’s around family. That, if something happened, even if his wife, Kristin and five children, aren’t around, he’ll be OK. So, a doctor told Sgt. Keaton to visit Nationals Park as often as possible. Progress followed the games, from improved breathing to dealing with social issues and a better attention span. He ducks into the quiet room if the game’s bustle becomes too much.
After the playoff-inflated $45 parking spots filled, after the drum line under the giant U.S. flag outside the center-field gate quieted, spikes walked on red carpets, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the first manager in Nationals history, lobbed the first pitch to shortstop Ian Desmond and four F-16 jets thundered overhead, the sergeant stood on the red dirt a few steps from the Nationals’ dugout. The television trucks parked on South Capitol Street, the couple on stilts wearing Nationals jerseys, the hulking mobile command from the FBI’s Washington field office and the red line snaking from the Navy Yard metro stop to the ballpark all seemed distant.
“This was so overwhelming,” he said. “My emotions took over because we love the Nats.”
To his left stood Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, chatting like they were old friends. Robinson signed Sgt. Keaton’s red Nationals hat. Desmond, who visited him at the hospital, offered a hug. Manager Davey Johnson ambled over to say hello.
Then Sgt. Keaton’s face appeared on the stadium’s video board. He didn’t expect this; delivering the lineup card was his task. His story boomed through the stadium and a cheer, the kind of thing that raises goose bumps and turns eyes watery, washed over the ballpark.
Behind the sergeant, on the facade above the Diamond Club, rested the Ring of Honor, detailing Washington’s complicated relationship with professional baseball: the numbers of Hall of Famers from the Expos, two versions of the Senators and the Negro League’s Homestead Grays. Seventy-nine years and three days after Senators first baseman Joe Kuhel struck out in the bottom of the 10th inning to end the World Series at Griffith Stadium, the postseason returned. So did hope, even in the loss, that extended beyond the game.
“This has been like a storybook year for me,” Sgt. Keaton said. “The Nationals don’t know how much they’ve helped me.”
Fireworks crackled, red towels were waved and gray-haired Charlie Brotman, the former Senators announcer, hollered, “On behalf of the Nationals and Senators, let’s play ball!”