Rewriting Tragedy

I get frustrated easily. It’s a flaw I keep trying to work on, but it’s been a lifelong battle. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for anger, but there are also many “small stuff” things that you’re not supposed to sweat so much. Those include slights and conflicts far in the past that can’t be altered now, but that continue to generate grudges. Add to that the trivial day-to-day things that I take too seriously, and can do very little to alleviate, like the bumbling of my incompetent sports teams, and the inevitable stupidity of politicians. These feelings are silly, self-destructive, useless … unless you happen to be a writer.

Writers can make use of everything. We have our best fun re-imagining things that went sour and turning them into something quite the opposite. Almost anything can be rewritten to give it a satisfactory resolution. A sports fan like me can transform disappointments into triumphs like magic. I can make my team win, even if their real-life performance fell short. Baseball is my favorite sport, not only because of the athleticism and skill it requires to play at a high level, but because each individual game is full of mini-dramas and seemingly little things that can turn a result around. Games lost in this way are no tragedy for a fan, but sometimes a capricious turn of events can shadow an individual career forever after.

As a Washington Nationals fan, I’ve never quite recovered from the “tragedy” of Drew Storen, the one-time closer who “should” have salted away a victory in the National League divisional playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He would have done so, if he had gotten the benefit of the doubt on two borderline pitches that could have been called third strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5. After failing to get the calls, he went on to lose the game, and the Nats lost the series in a year when they were arguably the best team in baseball, all primed to win a championship. The shadow of that loss seemed to stay with Storen, and history repeated itself eerily in another divisional series two years later. I’m convinced his whole career, at least in DC, would have taken a different course if he hadn’t been “cheated” in 2012 by an umpire who inexplicably narrowed his strike zone at the end of the game. As it is, Storen became a something of a punching bag, a symbol of failure in local sports lore. He was cut loose from the Nationals, and has been mostly wandering around in the wilderness ever since. The Nationals lost two more divisional series after his departure, and some of us still find a way to blame him, as if the stench of failure he left behind still hangs over us.

That sports tragedy is nothing compared to that perpetrated by (and on) Bill Buckner, who played for five Major League teams from 1969 to 1990, won a batting title in 1980, was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981, yet continues to be a national joke owing to a single fielding error he made while playing for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, he picked the worst possible time to commit that outrage. According to Wikipedia, Buckner is “best remembered for a ground ball fielding error in the tenth inning that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, a play that has since become prominently entrenched in American baseball lore. Buckner’s error epitomized the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ of Red Sox fans, and he soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base.”

Overall in his career, Buckner was a reliable contact hitter and wasn’t prone to making fielding errors. The importance of his mistake was exaggerated; it did not, in fact, cost the Red Sox the World Series that year, although many fans believe to this day that it did. Buckner’s chronic ankle problems might have hindered him in getting to the ball in question, and the fast runner who had hit it might have beaten it out anyway. Untimely injuries, and opponents who happen to be a little luckier or better at a given time, are frequent hazards in baseball. It should also be noted that the Red Sox went on to blow a lead in game 7 of that World Series, so there should have been enough blame to spread around.

Buckner didn’t last much longer in Boston, as the fans continued to act ugly in 1987 although he was playing well. He and his family were harassed with death threats, and the news media was making too much hay from the incident to let it go. It took years for the fans and Buckner himself to develop some perspective on it. When he returned to Boston’s Fenway Park as a free agent near the end of his career, most fans seemed ready to “forgive” him. After his playing days ended, he involved himself in several businesses, did some coaching, and made television appearances in which he willingly remained the butt of that eternal joke. It seems that one fluky error defines him more than a respectable major league career spanning 22 years.

Baseball fans are particularly prone to heartache, since there are so many close-call losses. Sometimes the loss is so gut-wrenching, a matter of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory at the last second, that it seems impossible to move on. We declare that this is the worst defeat ever, that we’ll never recover, that we must shun our favorite players until they rouse themselves and give us a reason to watch again. Luckily, unless the fan in question is the kind of nut case who spews death threats, perspective tends to return by the next day. That’s fortunate, since it gives us time to prepare for the next heartbreak that is no doubt just around the corner.

So why do I stick with something that causes so much “pain”? Well, the wins can be euphoric, and the losses can be rewritten. I attempted something like this in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, in which the long-awaited championship run of the local baseball team parallels the blossoming lives and loves of the fraternal twin sisters whose fortunes are entwined with the team’s.

How I wish political realities could be rewritten as easily. The results of the 2016 US presidential election are difficult to put into perspective as yet. Rewriting the results seems next to impossible while we’re still experiencing the tumultuous aftermath, and have no way of knowing how much stranger it might get in the next two years. But as the lies and outrages multiply daily, some form of escape seems necessary. I long to see a work of fiction that portrays a Trump-like figure and his abhorrent enablers finally plummeting to the humiliating defeat that they so richly deserve. In fact, I’m half inclined to give it a try.

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Using Our Powers For Good

A skillful writer has the power to change things, for better or for worse. Assuming we’re all getting more skillful at this process through obsessive practice, how are we using that power? Are we writing sagas that mesmerize the world, or exposés that shake up the establishment? Not too likely, although it would be nice. Most of us have to settle for entertaining a few readers or sharing some of our hard-earned wisdom once in a while. Even such modest efforts should be based on reason and intellect. Hopefully, like doctors, we “first do no harm.”

These days, thanks to unfettered social media, the power of expression is becoming more and more of a high-stakes game. The freedom to impart and receive information is the foundation of our democracy, yet that democracy is being buffeted by an equally strong freedom to spread misinformation. If the public doesn’t have sufficient knowledge or judgment to distinguish one from the other, we’re all in trouble. To make things worse, we have a president who believes he has the power to decide what reality is. Anything that doesn’t pamper his ego or confirm his greatness is “false news.” He has sufficient enablers in high places to bring the United States perilously close to his ultimate dream, a Fascist dictatorship under his control. For this reason, it has never been more important for writers to speak truth to power. That means using their own powers to promote decency and truth, to counteract the poison that is emanating from the top and pervading everything.

Unfortunately, dangerous extremists are often skilled at talking or wielding a pen. For example, Alex Jones, the main voice of Infowars Network, is a crackpot but also an effective communicator. He combines wild imagination with political hatred, and feeds it to gullible followers who add fuel to the fire as they pass it along. Here is a verbatim quote: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped … yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” He paints a vivid picture for a receptive audience that is predisposed to believe the worst about someone they hate.

We know of at least one idiot who took action based on this report. Not for a minute, it appears, did he stop to think how plausible it would be for a former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State to operate a child sex ring in plain sight for many years without being detected. He never asked himself why a woman who is a mother and grandmother herself would want to murder children. He located the pizza restaurant where Clinton’s nefarious operation was supposedly going on. Armed to the teeth, he burst into the place, and confronted … employees who were busy making pizza for their customers. Even now, he and many others reportedly still believe the sex ring he expected to find is operating in a diabolically subtle way among the pasta-spinners.

The times are so perilous that we might be excused for thinking fiction-writing is too trivial and takes too long. But stories that illustrate timeless verities tend to last longer than the headlines. It would be great if we could all find a way to convey the great truths of our times. Admittedly, we’re more likely to indulge in petty vindictiveness than earth-shattering revelations. What fiction writer hasn’t used thinly-disguised characters to satirize people who have slighted him or her? Yet those personal slights are injustices, all the same.

One of the story lines in Sycophants, my current novel-in-progress, makes use of an old friendship from my college days. We were drawn together as fellow English majors and aspiring writers, although she was the aggressive type and I was not. While I dabbled in poetry and the literary magazine, she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I was conscientious about my studies, while she concentrated on her extra-curricular life and barely graduated. Still, I admired her greatly. It was the Watergate era, and many young journalists fancied themselves a budding Woodward and/or Bernstein.

The ambitious editor made a big splash with one particular piece, a student survey of professors’ competence and popularity. The survey was particularly cruel to one of our English teachers. This man was my honors thesis adviser for a paper about Sylvia Plath, the poet and author of The Bell Jar, who famously attempted suicide as a college student, and succeeded in the act about ten years later. After the survey appeared, my friend was ostracized by the English department, and denied any chance for future references.

A few years after we graduated, we learned that my former adviser had committed suicide. Without knowing the exact circumstances, I can only speculate about what led to the tragedy. It was rumored that he had failed to get tenure, and that his wife had left him. My friend is a good person at heart, and she certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. No one can prove a direct connection between what she wrote and the tragedy. Still, I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience. It could be that Karma, or the writing gods, have repaid her in some ways. She eventually went to work for a small mid-west newspaper, writing some great investigative stuff but for very little pay, constantly plagued by online trolls who belittled her progressive views.

I typically turn to sports when real life gets too heavy. We sports fans should be able to insulate ourselves from the worst of the daily news by watching and analyzing games, since they don’t have life and death implications. Unfortunately, some fans treat them as if they did. Many of the debates that rage on my favorite baseball sites these days devolve too easily into the ugly and personal. That in turn leads to writing that is highly imaginative, but not particularly informed or analytical.

Predictably, my Washington Nationals are coming off yet another bitter playoff disappointment, leading to widespread recriminations that have yet to subside three months later. It’s risky to defend, for example, a catcher (Matt Wieters) or a manager (Dusty Baker) who is presumed to have made the boneheaded plays or decisions that torpedoed the team. Someone is sure to question your sanity or your morals. A “humorist” will write that the person you’re defending must have some major dirt on you. (Nude photos are the most popular choice). Many fans think they’re mind-readers, and can judge by a player’s demeanor that he just isn’t into it, or is only doing it for the money. Urban legends about players’ personal lives abound on social media. It’s almost a given that when a star player leaves a team, he had to get out of town quickly because he was having an affair with another star’s wife, and it was about to be revealed in all its sordidness.

Does this style of debate remind you of anyone prominent in the news these days? Even in sports, we could benefit by sticking to substantive issues and having informed discussions, but that wouldn’t be Trumpian. It’s easier to insult someone than to actually know what you’re talking about. All in all, social media spreads democracy with one hand and chokes it with the other. A reader has as much responsibility as the writer, perhaps more, to distinguish wheat from chaff.

The Bad Boyfriend Analogy

Somewhere in the blogging universe several months back, I read a rave review of actress-writer Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. It was described as a good read for anyone trying to succeed in the arts and encountering mostly frustration. I wondered how this could possibly be true, considering the amazing successes Poehler has enjoyed, including being a full cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008, and then starring in and co-writing her own series, Parks and Recreation, from 2009 to 2015. What could she possibly have to say to the struggling artist?

Some of her opening remarks in the memoir struck me as encouraging, although perhaps disingenuous. For example: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” Is she telling us satisfaction remains elusive for her, even after having acquired fame and fortune through constant effort? And also: “I am struggling every day, just like you.” I doubt that her struggles are equal to the average creative striver, although maybe she’s simply asserting that she knows what it is to struggle. This is her explanation for the anger she let loose at an aspiring writer who had the nerve to approach her on an Amtrak train and dump his screenplay in her lap. That person, in her view, was trying to take a short cut to success, something she didn’t have the luxury of doing. She spent years honing her craft in humble improv and comedy clubs. Some lucky breaks did come her way, she acknowledges, but nothing was easy. By a combination of good fortune, a natural zest for performing, and most of all perseverance, she was able to impress the kind of people who could help her.

Poehler discusses some of her enduring insecurities, including major doubts about her looks. She has the face of a comedienne rather than a beauty queen, but she found a way around this early in her career. Improvisation provided a way of becoming somebody else, anybody else, at will. Ironically, she devotes part of her book to complaints about the difficulty of writing a book. She just comes straight out with it: “Writing a book is hard!” Don’t we all know that? She offers the only possible solution: “Just do it!”

Poehler’s best piece of advice, in my opinion, can be summed up by one of her chapter headings: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Passion, she explains, is not the same as career. Loving what you do may be a prerequisite for accomplishment, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. You may feel yourself falling in love, but who knows if the object of your passion will reciprocate the way you want him to, for as long as you need him to? Poehler herself was going through a painful divorce while writing the book, and was still figuring out how to co-parent two young sons, so her choice of a metaphor might have been influenced by real life.

That phrase struck an immediate chord with me, as I realized that the unreliable suitor could be a metaphor for any hobby, any relationship, any sports team, or anything else you are irresistibly attracted to that continually lets you down. Since the pain is still relatively fresh, I chose to apply that advice immediately to a certain baseball team that takes me for a ride every season and then drops me off in the wilderness, lost and abandoned. Baseball has always been known to imitate life in many ways, and I admittedly take it too seriously, so why shouldn’t I treat my favorite team like the worst boyfriend ever? My Washington Nationals have won four divisional championships in the past six years, and failed every time to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Talk about a guy who takes you to the prom, buys you a lovely corsage, and then dances with someone else, or worse, leaves with someone else. Or a guy who proposes, and then never sets the date.

Bad boyfriends always have their ingenious excuses, just as the Nationals have a plethora of reasons why they’ve never gotten over that hump. This year, in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series, Matt Wieters, the stalwart although light-hitting Nats catcher, got hit on the head by the follow-through of a batter’s swing. Because of the violent contact, the pitch should have resulted in a strikeout, and the inning should have been over. As it turned out, nobody in authority knew the rule that pertains to a catcher getting beaned. Everyone, including the committee of six umpires and Nats manager Dusty Baker, was caught up in that cluelessness. No one but the catcher himself seemed to know enough even to argue, and it’s doubtful how articulate he was after getting his brain rocked. Maybe that also accounts for the flaky things Wieters did in the immediate aftermath, including a passed ball and a wild throw that cost the Nats two runs in a game they eventually lost 9-8. Some fans continue to malign him, saying he should have reacted like a professional even under duress. Maybe the life lesson to be derived from this is that the worst boyfriends always have the most creative reason for not showing up. “I was in an accident” is a classic.

Since baseball isn’t as heart-rending for most people as it is for me, and there really isn’t anything even an ardent fan can do about it, I’d advise you to apply the bad boyfriend rule to things you can actually control. We all need a little validation to wash away the inevitable bouts of self-pity we suffer when it seems nobody understands us. If your novel simply doesn’t grab the reader, the fact that you spent years writing it will not alleviate that problem. Even the blog articles that we labor over might go days or weeks without being “liked” or commented on. Fans sweat along with their favorite teams at the crucial moments as if they were on the field themselves. Then, as likely as not, they face a long winter, unrewarded.

Amy Poehler would advise us not to bother at all with these endeavors unless we can find a way to enjoy the process. In other words, don’t expect too much. Don’t sweat it. Maybe that good review will come out of the blue. Or it might be a review that’s not so good, but at least shows that the reader took our book seriously and sort of got it. That bad boyfriend might forget your birthday, and then show up unexpectedly one day and bring you flowers for no particular reason at all. So be joyous, Poehler says, but don’t expect to be satisfied. And be careful what you wish for, because the small successes will only make you hungry for more.

Trump And Baseball

The Trump effect is invading my space. I see it every time I leave my house, especially when I venture out on the roadways. Jerks have always been abundant behind the wheel, but unless it’s my imagination, I’m seeing more and more Trumpian behavior out there. My personal favorites are the motorists who drift over to your lane, nearly sideswipe you, and then have the nerve to honk at you. That is one of Trump’s tried and true methods … to attack others where he is weakest himself. If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be comical to hear the most famous con man and pathological liar in the country attempt to smear others as crooks and liars.

We should consider ourselves lucky if his antics and babbling don’t get us all blown up, which at this writing seems possible. But now the Trump effect is threatening to invade my summertime entertainment. At least the president did us the favor, here in the nation’s capital, of declining to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. He was invited to, like every other president, but he may have had an inkling he’d be booed in super-blue DC, with its super-blue surrounding suburbs. That might have upset him momentarily, although I have no doubt his fantasy-prone mind would soon have converted that to a ten-minute standing ovation.

Baseball fans, with their penchant for gobbling up wild rumors and conspiracy theories, are particularly susceptible to Trumpian thinking. It’s like that wall that will someday rise up magically on our southern border, while the country that objects to it ends up paying for it. Fans expect their teams to put forth maximum effort and play great every day, while the other team lies down and lets it happen. That’s why fans often lack appreciation of how demanding the game is. Sports forums on Facebook lend themselves to snap judgments. Whenever a relief pitcher blows a lead, he must be sent packing. Never mind that up to that point, he may have had one of the best ERAs of any reliever on the team. Bring in somebody else, anybody else. There must be a budding Mariano Rivera down on the farm. Likewise, fans have a way of noticing that a traded player is doing well with his new team, and cussing out the general manager for letting him go. But do they want to give up the players that the team obtained in that trade? No way.

Fans at Nats Park recently had to sit through a three-hour rain delay. Embarrassingly for team officials, it didn’t rain during those three hours. At about ten pm the storm finally did arrive, and the game was officially postponed, but it seemed obvious that the game could have been played. There were conflicting weather forecasts that night, and the decision makers went with the one that predicted heavy weather would arrive early. Both teams, the Nats and the Atlanta Braves, wanted to avoid the possibility of shutting down their starting pitchers once they were warmed up. It proved to be a mistake, but the Braves management, as well as many commentators in other cities, couldn’t leave it at that. It must have been a conspiracy to play “mind games” with the opposing players. Never mind that the delay created the exact same “mind games” for the home team players. In other social media gems, someone seriously theorized several few weeks back that the Nationals’ bullpen was being bribed to throw games, so that the Nats wouldn’t make the playoffs. Crazy, you say? No crazier than some of Trump’s biggest hits on Twitter.

Someone on a Nats Facebook forum recently posted a picture of a pile of manure to describe Blake Treinen, the recently traded pitcher who was an effective setup reliever last season, but who struggled in the more pressurized closer role this season. Treinen is by all accounts a fine, serious-minded young man who had trouble shaking off his failures, which probably compounded his problems. He did not deserve to be depicted in such a nasty way, but it’s another example of what our level of discourse has come to. Who do we know in high office who might resort to such a tactic? Perhaps a man who, lacking any knowledge of policy, history, or government, and with no interest in educating himself, prefers to hurl insults at anybody who questions him. Understanding baseball, as well as public policy, requires a certain amount of nuanced thinking. Neither lends itself well to black and white judgments.

Second-guessing the manager is part of being a fan. We all think we know better than he does, especially when we have the benefit of perfect hindsight. There have been several recent editions in Nationals chat forums of “Has Dusty Baker lost his mind?” Some of us have been known to pull out our hair when he sends inexperienced players to bat in the late innings, with the game on the line. No doubt the most costly instance of this occurred in last season’s divisional playoff series when the rookie Wilmer Difo, with almost no experience, was sent up to save the day against one of the league’s elite pitchers, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Predictably, Difo struck out.

In the heat of the moment, hardly anybody, myself included, considered the series of difficult decisions that led to that moment. As usual, it took Thomas Boswell, Washington Post sports columnist and unfailing voice of reason, to explain how situations like this happen, and why the manager sometimes has no other choice. Boswell explained, “He used all his fire power at earlier points in the game, when he had good match-ups for his bench players to do their best work, and still had one position player held back just in case everything worked out so that — for the last at bat of the game — he had somebody, besides a pitcher, to send to bat.” Of course, most of us will keep berating the Nats for lacking the foresight to have a better hitter, perhaps a budding Mickey Mantle, as a secret, last-minute weapon.

Baseball fans need someone like Boswell to explain the tough realities of baseball, just as we need political commentators to explain the nuances of democracy. The Washington Post publishes the opinions of quite a few long-time conservative columnists who have lately taken to bemoaning the ruin of their GOP. Voices like Jennifer Rubin, Kathleen Parker, George Will, Michael Gerson, and Charles Krauthammer, who may have supported Trump initially or cherished some hopes for his growth, are in the best position to see this man for what he actually is: a president who has illusions of being a dictator, who has never heard of checks and balances or the emoluments clause and cares even less. This is a 71-year-old with less knowledge of United States history than the average elementary school student. After seeing a museum exhibit recently, he apparently had a revelation that “slavery was really bad!” Unfortunately, he has no inclination to take that a step farther and repudiate those who fought to sustain the system. Worse, he has thrown his support behind those determined to re-ignite battles that should have been settled generations ago.

No doubt a solid 35 percent of the populace will continue to believe Trump walks on water. They’re entitled to their worship. Just like we Nats fans believe our team deserves to win the World Series every year, and that it would have happened already but for some nefarious plot concocted by a combination of cheaters, incompetent team officials, and cruel fate.

We Need Baseball More Than Ever

I fell in love with baseball as a child. It’s been an enduring if uneasy relationship. My early associations with the sport were mostly joyful, win or lose … a good thing, since it was mostly about losing for my Washington Senators. Low expectations can make life easier sometimes. Even the Senators had their memorable moments, enough to provide an occasional lift for their long-suffering fans. But like most other relationships, my bond with baseball became more complicated as I grew up. When did I allow the love of the game to become sullied by anger and disappointment? Why did I begin to take losing too seriously? Was it because my new team, the Washington Nationals, has managed to raise expectations without totally fulfilling them?

The start of a new baseball season, being nearly synonymous with the beginning of spring, always brings an easing of the heart. I recall those Sunday mornings during the warm weather months when the anticipation of seeing a baseball game was as exciting as the reality. My dad often played golf on Sunday mornings, and I would get down in the dumps if it looked like he wouldn’t get back in time to go to the ballpark. But he usually did, and I was ecstatic. If it rained on a day when we had planned to go, I was inconsolable. My parents tried to dream up distractions, but nothing could really replace the game.

Maybe losses didn’t linger as much then because everything apart from the win-loss record fascinated me. I loved the ballpark atmosphere … and in those days, they were just ballparks, not amusement parks. That’s not to say I don’t think the Nationals are smart to try to draw in young fans by creating a carnival atmosphere on the ground floor of Nationals Park. Petco Park in San Diego, which I visited last summer, also features something of an amusement park, although it’s mainly outside the stadium. Still, I miss the simplicity of earlier times, when the green glow of an outfield underneath stadium lights had its own allure. Some of the vendors were entertainers who developed their own shtick. The phrases they used to pitch ice cream and peanuts would become so familiar that kids would start chanting the words as soon as the guys approached.

The capricious weather of spring and summer adds excitement, at least when the game is played outdoors as the baseball gods intended. Nowadays, teams can’t really afford to cancel games, so they play through or around bad weather as best they can. Rain delays must be handled strategically, since pitchers’ arms are particularly sensitive to being shut down and started up again. On summer evenings lightning often crackles in the distance, and the sound of thunder adds a sense of urgency. Certain cloud formations seem to occur only over a ballpark. And there are those sublime moments when a rainbow signals the resumption of play.

The romantic feelings I harbored as a child centered more strongly on some players than others. There was something mesmerizing about the look of strong, healthy young men in uniforms performing athletic feats. I wanted to know more about them, but there wasn’t much to know. In those days before social media exposed everything, often spreading tall tales in the process, the private lives of athletes weren’t discussed beyond the few basic facts they chose to reveal.  Besides that, baseball used to be more of a radio than a TV game, which required fans to exercise more imagination. Even games that were televised didn’t reveal every facial expression and nuance, with replays from every possible angle, the way they do now.

Maybe that’s what got me started making up baseball stories. My imagination concocted pennant races that never happened in real life. Nowadays, some of the romance disappears when you can plainly see the grimaces, pain, and occasional temper tantrums that the game brings about. Nationals fans knew that their fortunes were about to plummet when their young ace Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow in 2010. His agony, matched by the genuine grief on the face of his pitching coach, was unforgettable. Toward the end of the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 campaign, their fans were treated to the sight of hotheaded closer Jonathan Papelbon losing his temper and putting a choke move on the equally hotheaded star Bryce Harper, who had objected to being criticized by the older player. Our dysfunctional baseball family was exposed in all its warts.

I’d like to reignite some of the old-time joy, if only because the current national mood is so grim, tense, and angry. We need distractions more than ever, and we need to genuinely enjoy them. We don’t need more anger and angst from sports, which are supposed to entertain us. If Nats fans must “hate” Mets fans, or vice versa, it should be a fun kind of hate. Sometimes I allow my dismay about other things, like the state of the country, to muddy life’s simpler pleasures, like watching a competitive game. But if we’re determined to take it seriously, we might as well learn one of the main lessons of baseball: it’s more real life than fantasy. It brings lots of pain to those who care. There is no time clock, which means that anything can happen in any given contest. You can lose a game that you led by ten runs. You can lose that game even if there were two outs in the ninth. These are not tragedies, although they sometimes feel like it.

Thomas Boswell, the superb columnist for the Washington Post, often lectures Nationals fans who devalue the team’s sustained excellence over the past several regular seasons because of their flame-outs in the playoffs. During a recent chat on the Post website, he wrote, “The first responsibility of a sports fan is to figure out: How can I get the most pleasure, the most fun, the most laughs and relaxation for my time and my dollar, for myself, my family and my friends as I possibly can while also being mature enough not to be bothered a great deal — or at least not for very long — by anything that goes wrong.” He sees this as a lack of perspective: “a kind of willful illness, a lack of basic wisdom and judgment about how to weigh our relative experiences, that troubles me and makes me wonder if we are seeing some distortion that is a characteristic of contemporary times.” Words to live by, from April to October.

In Search Of Victories

0619161350Baseball is the most romantic of all sports, for many reasons. What other game unfolds in a space that fans and players refer to as their “field of dreams”? Unfortunately, those dreams are often shattered. Here in the Washington DC area, baseball has a long, melodramatic history, interrupted by 33 years of non-existence from 1972-2004. We’ve lost three franchises, a record few cities can match. Our most recent pennant was won in 1933. My late father used to recall that team nostalgically from time to time, but those memories are now lost to me. Decades of futility followed, not limited to incompetence on the field. Throughout its history and non-history, Washington baseball has been continually betrayed by bad owners and bad faith from the sport’s authorities, and some of those grievances have lingered into the present. Luckily, there is something poetic about suffering. Early in the 2016 season, when young slugger Bryce Harper struck out with the bases loaded, it was somewhat of a shock. He had hit two grand slams recently, and it had started to seem automatic. For the moment, pitchers had “figured him out.” Mighty Casey struck out that time, as he has many times before and will do again.

Baseball is more up close and personal than other sports. Except for catchers, the players play without masks, which makes it easy to imagine you know them. You would know them if you saw them on the street. When I was growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, there were quite a few sightings of Senators star Frank Howard. Once he signed a dollar bill in the local grocery store for the mom of a friend. My parents saw him once in the Anchor Inn Restaurant, a huge man dining with his comparatively tiny wife. My mom, who was prone to exaggerate on occasion, claimed she almost tripped over his leg.

Baseball harkens back to childhood. Even the bad teams, then and now, exhibited exquisite, often breathtaking skills just to make what are considered routine plays. I used to fantasize about living at the ballpark. How cool would that be? I associated the game with warm summer evenings, rain delays, and rainbows arching over the stadium after the rain delays. At DC Stadium (later RFK Stadium), an accordion-like contraption called a Cordovox used to play “You Gotta Have Heart” and “I Know A Place.” Every time I hear those songs now, I’m back there.

Even the heartbreak was romantic. The Senators had such a unique way of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. One afternoon I overheard one of our neighbors, known to be an ardent Senators fan, screaming at her husband. They were a nice couple, never known to raise their voices to each other. It turned out that the wife was yelling, “How could they have lost?” Her poor husband had just broken the news he’d heard over the radio, that the Senators had blown what she had assumed to be an insurmountable lead. That dear lady died far too soon, of complications from diabetes. My mom speculated that the horrendous game hastened her demise.

It’s easy to take the sport too seriously, especially in the current era of rising expectations. I’ll admit that as I get older, I’m less patient with failure. Do I really love baseball, or do I only love winning baseball? I can’t seem to rediscover the pure enjoyment of the game I used to have, win or lose. I’m ashamed to admit defeats can seriously cast me down. I almost care more about the Nats holding on to their divisional lead during these difficult final weeks of the 2016 season than I care about the upcoming election, although I truly believe that one of the candidates poses an existential threat to the nation, if not to the planet. I can tell myself I’m being ridiculous, but I’m not a psychologist, so I haven’t really figured out why I’m like this. Maybe it’s just that time is growing shorter for a championship through which I could live vicariously.

Losing streaks feel like curses, and sometimes it feels like they’re my fault. Back in June I took a trip to California with my brother and a friend. Our main objective was to soak up some Hollywood vibes, but we also had a chance to catch the Nationals on a West Coast swing. They were playing the Padres and the Dodgers, two teams they should theoretically have been able to beat. Petco Park in San Diego is a particularly fun place, featuring an amusement park outside and a beach-like plot of grass beyond center field. Since so many good seats were unoccupied, we never made it to the cheap seats we had bought, instead grabbing a prime spot in the lower deck. I was afraid we’d be busted for cheating, but there were no ushers around to enforce the rules. Did we really get away with it? I later feared the baseball gods had taken note, because that game helped to set off our team’s seven-game losing streak.

0620161953We went on to Dodger Stadium (sometimes more romantically called Chavez Ravine), which provided a totally different experience, as ballparks usually do. It’s the biggest ballpark in the major leagues and one of the oldest. On that first day of summer, the hottest day of the year in Los Angeles, fire billowed from the nearby hills, but once the sun went down the conditions turned surprisingly pleasant. This contest was slated to be an epic pitching matchup (Clayton Kershaw vs. Steven Strasburg), two legitimate Cy Young contenders earlier this season, who have both been bitten by injuries since. Strasburg was scratched that night for unknown reasons, replaced by a journeyman who did his best but was no match for the star.

The fun aspect of baseball is jeopardized when we take it too seriously. The season is brutally long, and sometimes the games are, too. Not much can be done about shortening the games without altering basic strategies, but how about shortening the season? It’ll never happen, because it would cost the owners immediate revenue, but I feel sure the quality of the day-to-day product would improve. Maybe we’d have to endure fewer gut-wrenching losses that might have been more mistake-free if the players hadn’t been dead on their feet after a long summer of exertion. The drama tends to return in the autumn, and the level of play sharpens with the cooler temperatures and the greater excitement of pennant races and playoffs. For Nats fans, though, playoff appearances in 2012 and 2014 brought more agony than ecstasy. What if one of these years, our team actually does win the World Series and gets to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in a never-before-seen baseball parade? It’ll outshine any Inaugural Parade. On the other hand, maybe it’s better to have something left to yearn for.