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.


Raised On Baseball

I love most spectator sports, but baseball is my passion. My dad began instilling this in me over fifty years ago on a hot summer afternoon in Griffith Stadium, a place that no longer exists. That day our Washington Senators were pounded unmercifully by the hated New York Yankees. My second experience that same summer was no better, as the Senators fell by almost the same score to the Cleveland Indians. Our team was not only bad, but comically incompetent. I distinctly remember two infielders running into each other trying to catch a routine pop-up. The manager was so angry that he wouldn’t speak to either player after the game, even to ask if they were hurt.

Griffith Stadium was not very kid-friendly. There were always poles blocking my view. I must have gotten tired and whiney, but we stuck out those brutal games. I guess my dad wanted me to learn that the joy of victory doesn’t mean much unless you also know the tiresome futility of losing. Besides, we had our own heroes─definitely not the caliber of Mickey Mantle or Mudcat Grant, but at least Harmon Killebrew and Camilo Pascual were our own.

It’s always been more futility than joy for D. C. baseball fans. Two Senators teams departed, spurred by almost criminally bad owners. The first of these teams was just beginning to improve when it was snatched away. I remember listening to the radio one evening as the Senators trailed the enemy Yankees by 5-0 in the late innings. Then our team miraculously erupted for three runs─only to see the rally washed out by a torrential rain. God was cruel that night, but announcer Bob Wolff’s excited, sympathetic descriptions made it an experience nevertheless.

There was a gap of 34 years between the departure of the last Senators team and the arrival of the current team, the former Montreal Expos, now the Nationals. The romance of the game endured, fostered by its very absence. In the seven years they’ve been here, there have been many obstacles to overcome: a farm system left to die on the vine before the move; no genuine ownership or cable TV contract during their first two years; inadequate facilities until a new stadium was built; a prolonged fight between the City Council and Major League Baseball over funding for that stadium; the absence of a strong fan base because of all these issues. Still, every season brought moments to savor.

Now our Nats are finally starting to look like a team, but that doesn’t guarantee success. It has yet to happen on the field, day in, day out. The modern new ballpark contains echoes of the ones that are gone. Old or new, ballparks are enchanted realms where the bad outcomes feel like tragedy and victories are sometimes miraculous. Grown men play the game with the exuberance of boys. It’s basically the same game they played in Little League. That belies the tremendous skill and discipline it takes to succeed at it.

Baseball marks the seasons of the year. Opening Day means spring, even when the freezing temperatures require winter coats and heavy doses of hot chocolate. The year moves on quickly to hot summer afternoons and warm evenings that bring the thirst-quenching taste of cold beer. Then there’s the fall classic (only a pipedream in D. C. so far). Summers fade away and leave their sweetest memories behind. There’s nothing more magical than the nation’s pastime.