Trump And Baseball

August 20, 2017

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.

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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.