The unthinkable has happened. My town, surely the most beleaguered and unlucky locality on the face of the earth when it comes to my favorite sport, has delivered us a World Series championship. Much like the experts, I didn’t see it coming. During the first 50 games of the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals looked like an epic fail, and their manager’s head was on the block. Digging themselves out of that hole was a slow process. Unable to catch up to the division-leading Atlanta Braves, they had to settle for a “wild card” berth at season’s end. Three weeks before their great triumph, it still appeared that there were too many obstacles in their path, as in too many teams with superior talent contending in the playoffs. Two weeks before, it looked like a “nice try, but not quite enough” situation. Even a week before, when they had made it to the mountain, it seemed doubtful that they could reach the summit. Going into the World Series, the Houston Astros, champions in 2017, were prohibitive favorites.
History was never on the Nats’ side. They had suffered four previous playoff failures in the first round, when they were the presumed favorites. That “Oh, no, not again” feeling reared its head many times during the 2019 playoffs, since they trailed in so many elimination games. The difference this time, I’m convinced, was that none of the most renowned “experts” expected them to win. They derived a weird magic, a defiant attitude, from that underdog status. It was more a question of chemistry than talent. Winning games you aren’t “supposed” to win must be the strongest tonic available.
I’ve written about baseball often on this blog, usually from a position of frustration and futility. My previous ranting on the subject reeks of heartache and longing. I managed to tap almost all of the metaphors for life situations that the sport seems to provide in abundance. I lectured myself incessantly about taking mere games too seriously. But it was difficult not to feel snake-bit. This is the town of two departed Washington Senators teams within my memory, following the 1960 and 1971 seasons. Then there were the 33 blank years between the departure of the second team and the arrival of the Nationals, a transfer from Montreal, where they’d been “owned” collectively by all the other Major League teams, and consequently allowed to die on the vine.
The new Nats, from 2005 on, toted up a list of failures that in some cases were so bizarre that they seemed to have the makings of a curse. When these things keep repeating, year after year, there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation. So we resort to blaming those implacable baseball gods, as did Chicago Cubs fans, with their Curse of the Billy Goat, and Boston Red Sox fans, with their Curse of the Bambino. It required a World Series championship to un-jinx those franchises.
Through the years the Nats have had many players who through bad luck, or incompetence at just the wrong time, became associated with a particular brand of failure. They became our special punching bags, despite being talented players. To name only a few: Drew Storen, the closer who couldn’t get the umpire to call that last strike that would have won the 2012 divisional series; Cristian Guzman, a natural shortstop who owing to a personnel shortage one night, was tapped to play out of position in right field, where he famously lost what would have been a final out in the lights; Nook Logan, picked off third base for a final out, the type of boner even a Little League coach wouldn’t tolerate; Matt Wieters, whose brain was rocked by a follow-through swing, causing him to make an errant throw that lost the 2017 divisional series. These players would have been perfectly capable of contributing to a championship team, but they also demonstrated how easy it is to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
Somehow, our luck changed. Someone on the opposing team had a “Bill Buckner moment” (that is, a ball through the legs in front of a nationwide audience). The weird stuff that had always happened to the Nats started happening to others. Assuming no one in our fan base made a pact with the devil, I suppose we were just overdue for some good luck. Still, this was supposed to be the place where it just couldn’t happen. We’ve been told time and again that our capital city is not a baseball town, and never can be. It’s too transient and bureaucratic. The ballpark on any given afternoon is full of spectators working on their laptops and tablets, who can’t bear to be unplugged from the office for a minute. But my own family history belies that.
My brother and I were raised on baseball. It was part of our parents’ dating life. The little girl still lurking in me associates the sport with warm summer days and nights, and brawny guys in white uniforms. RFK Stadium, where we spent most of our baseball time, was a rickety building by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of magic. Even televised baseball on the local level was fairly rare back then, so seeing it live was special. At World Series time, I used to rush home from school on those crisp October afternoons to see great players on television that I never glimpsed otherwise. Those games were taking place so far away, both in distance and aspiration, since the Senators never had a ghost of a chance. I suppose the futility stimulated my imagination. The Cordovox that played “You Gotta Have Heart” at every Senators home game underlined the dilemma: “heart” was all we had.
Is there a chance that when baseball resumes next season, I’ll be nostalgic for failure? On rereading parts of the baseball novel I published in 2010, Let’s Play Ball, and working on its sequel (Let’s Play Two, maybe), I sense a thread of longing running through the plots, a need to invent a team that enjoys ultimate success. I thought it would always be a mere fantasy. We indie writers know what it’s like to grasp at pipe dreams. If we should catch lightning in a bottle someday, as the Nats seem to have done, how would we deal with that jolt of good fortune? Some writers who break through that way actually handle it rather badly. Likewise, no baseball team is exactly the same season to season. Chemistry can’t be preserved in a jar, to be replicated like an experiment. Players leave via free agency or other means, often because it’s in their personal interest, or the team might let some of its older or more expensive stars go, judging it to be in their long-term interest. Repeating a championship seems to be one of the most difficult challenges in sports.
Ah, the perils of success. What a nice, unexpected problem to have.