Baseball Is Unreal

The baseball off-season has flown by, and soon it will be time for my Washington Nationals to begin defending their 2019 World Series title. I’ve enjoyed my past few months of resting on their laurels. Defending a title is a difficult task, even when the victory is less of a surprise (actually, a shock) than theirs was. Some pundits are even calling that recent triumph something of a fluke. If so, that’s a good thing. Without the high expectations of previous seasons, it seemed there was less pressure to choke them in the stretch run. Instead of taking “fluke” as an insult, why not revel in the magic of it?

Since my early childhood, the local ballpark has been a special place. Going there always felt like crossing the threshold to a different world. The stadium was part of its surrounding community, yet the dissension that wracked the city seemed to be left at the door. It was a safe space where fantasy could flourish. That happened in spite of, or maybe because of, the constant losing of my teams in years past. Both joy and sorrow were amplified.

Baseball is the greatest of the outdoor games, intimately entwined with all kinds of weather. The sport seems to embrace the changing seasons. There’s the promise of an often cold, early springtime Opening Day; the dog days of summer, a  sweaty grind that tests the mettle of players and fans alike; the crisp air and renewed excitement that a fall pennant race brings. Patience is needed to sit through rain delays that can last for hours, in some cases only to have the game postponed. The comparatively slow pace of the sport requires patient fans. It’s no longer the most popular pastime in the country, but it’s the most enduring. It has been providing metaphors for life for close to 170 years.

Looking back on the Nats’ World Series triumph, the culmination of many unlikely, come-from-behind victories, I wonder how a team in such an angry, polarized country came to be so joyous. It seemed they were always singing and dancing, celebrating individual as well as team triumphs. Some players were more demonstrative than others, but the spirit caught on. It was hilarious to see non-dancers, such as the rather straight-laced pitcher Stephen Strasburg, forced to join the communal dance because he’d just hit a rare home run. The young Dominican stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles must have relished demonstrating native dances such as the merengue. With a team as diverse as these Nationals, many different types of dance moves got air time. The crowds watching them provided a similar mix. How can things go so swimmingly in a ballpark, when the country’s political life is in the gutter? Maybe it’s because baseball is unreal.

Thomas Boswell wrote an in-season article about the team’s turnaround from a dispiriting first third of the season. Ultimate success was not yet in sight when his article appeared, but he recognized that a new spirit had come about when Gerardo Parra, a live wire from Venezuela but a mere journeyman let loose from his previous team, not only rejuvenated his career with the Nats, but introduced line-dancing to the dugout. Boswell wrote,  “Right now, from his role as team dance maestro and source of joy to his infrequent but valuable time on the field, Parra is the off-the-junk-heap symbol of a Nats team that thinks baseball is the jubilant, carefree, jump-up-and-dance game in the world … Yes, the worry-fee, high-flying, giddy-happy Nats.” Just as importantly, Parra introduced the Shark Song as the team’s unofficial theme song. It was his two-year-old daughter’s favorite, and a tune that inspired us all to act that age for a while.

The only sour note, in my eyes, occurred shortly after the season, when the World Series winners were invited to  hobnob with the president. To those few who declined the invitation, and especially to relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who explained his reasons so eloquently, I say: Bravo! To those who partied at the White House, I say: I forgive you. Nobody hired you to be political pundits. Nobody expected you to be on the lookout for poison in high places. You demonstrated, by your own example, that a better spirit can prevail.