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.

Advertisements

Reasoning With The Baseball Gods

untitled (2)“In spring, everything was sunny.” That was how a recent Washington Post article began its postmortem of the Washington Nationals’ disappointing 2015 season. The article went on to describe “the rise and fall of a dream,” as if the failure of this team to achieve its goals was comparable to the collapse of a nation. Unbeknown to some analysts, many of us fans anticipated from the start that the 2015 season was a disaster waiting to happen. That’s because we understand how damaging super-high expectations can be—and that the baseball gods love to punish hubris.

These things are written in the clouds, after all. Certain deities have had it in for this team ever since it arrived from Montreal in 2005, denuded and abused from a period of neglectful MLB ownership. It was as if the newly constituted team had no right to exist, much less to develop into a contender. A series of near misses and agonizing playoff defeats in the ensuing years can only have one explanation: those pesky baseball gods haven’t let us off the hook yet.

Baseball pundits on the national level seemed to wish for this collapse. Apart from one quote from superstar Bryce Harper before the season began, taken wildly out of context, it was those pundits who kept anointing the Nationals prohibitive World Series favorites. It turns out that winning championships on paper is easy. Those “experts” now have the pleasure of crowing while the fans suffer. One writer I ordinarily respect, John Feinstein, the author of several entertaining baseball books, seems to utterly lose his rational mind when it comes to the Nats. He cited Bad Karma as a primary reason for the Nats’ struggles.

This Bad Karma, in his opinion, has lingered from the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown—three years ago! General Manager Mike Rizzo angered the gods with his arrogance in assuming it made sense to limit Strasburg’s innings in 2012, the year after his Tommy John surgery, because there would surely be other opportunities for him to pitch in the playoffs. How arrogant, fumed Feinstein, to assume such a thing. Never mind that Rizzo followed the medical protocol for such injuries, and that Strasburg did get another playoff opportunity, in 2014. Further, I wonder why the gods are so determined to punish this particular decision. Everyone wanted to see Strasburg pitch in the 2012 playoffs, but Rizzo took the decision upon himself, in the interests of the pitcher’s long-term health. It takes convoluted reasoning to portray that as anything but a selfless act, but it just goes to prove that the baseball gods can’t be reasoned with.

All season long, many fans have been wishing to see more passion and emotion from this team. A few days ago our wish was fulfilled, a little too emphatically. An altercation broke out in the dugout between Bryce Harper and newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose bust-your-gut-every-minute lecture didn’t sit well with the young superstar. The fight only served to underscore the final unraveling of this season’s fortunes. As always, the baseball gods got the last laugh.

Life Is Unfair And So Is Baseball

We Win 4-01-13Why do some of us (and by some of us, I mean me) allow mere games to assume such life-and-death importance? I’m ashamed of myself every time I catch myself doing this, and then I invariably do it again. For example, the Washington Nationals’ recent eighteen-inning torture-fest, which effectively torpedoed their chances of advancing in the playoffs, produced a hissy-fit of epic proportions. For the second time in three years, my beloved team, touted by many experts as one of the most talented they’ve ever seen, came through the marathon of the regular season with flying colors, only to collapse under the pressure of a short playoff series. Plenty has been said about questionable umpiring and the inflexible decision-making of a rookie manager. But in close games at this level, the victory almost always goes to the experienced team that keeps its composure and executes the fundamentals on both offense and defense.

Gradually our perspective returns, and we remind ourselves that “it’s only a game.” Yet somehow for me, baseball is more than that. The love of that sport in particular seems to be in my genes, and is an important part of my family history. Many of my early childhood memories are associated with local ballparks, from Griffith Stadium on. Well before that, it was part of my parents’ dating life. They went so far as to drive all the way to Yankee Stadium to take in a Senators game. I once had a vivid dream in which I retraced that trip, getting lost on the way but eventually reaching my destination-—probably the only time that ever happened in one of my “getting lost” dreams.

Sadly, the latest playoff failure means that the Nationals will have to go on enduring the ignorant rants and disrespect of “pundits” on the national level. We’ll go on hearing the canards about Washington not being a baseball town, which should have been put to rest during the Nats’ first playoff run, if not sooner. Incredibly, people continue to bring up the Stephen Strasburg shutdown of two years ago, which the team handled in the only rational and moral way possible. Worse, we’ll have to endure the continuing success of our closest neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles, who own the Nationals’ TV rights and are squeezing them in an unfair business arrangement, just because they can. Hopefully, there will be a fair resolution of that matter. But since life, like baseball, is so often unfair, I’m not counting on it.

The Baseball Gods Turn Cruel

Nats Park 4-01-13The haters knew it all along: this team was destined to fold. Last year, my Washington Nationals captured the National League East championship and made the playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history, but they went no farther. That was evidently because they offended too many self-proclaimed baseball pundits with their “arrogance,” the worst sin there is in the eyes of the baseball gods.

What the experts howled about most was the untimely shutdown of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, which took place before the playoffs began. The Nationals chose to follow the widely recognized medical protocol for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery. They did this with the approval of Strasburg’s surgeon, one of the world’s leading experts on the treatment of pitchers’ elbow injuries. The decision was based not only on medical theory, but empirical evidence that Strasburg’s effectiveness was declining late in the season.

You would think from listening to the baseball pundits that the Nationals had deliberately torpedoed the kid’s career by considering his long-term health. They accuse the Nats of figuring they’d easily return to the playoffs the following year, and all subsequent years when they’d have Strasburg’s services for the entire season. Now the geniuses can gloat, because the upstart team failed to make the playoffs in 2013. According to the common pundit wisdom, the Nats probably blew their one and only chance to make it to the World Series!

Clearly, the team was felled by high expectations. The players were accused of complacency, or maybe they lacked confidence in crucial situations. These reasons seem contradictory, so which was it? The experts can’t quite decide, but either way, they know they were right all along. The Nats were arrogant, and that brings about deadly baseball curses. Why don’t we fans just accept the mystical explanation, and never mind extraneous nonsense like scientific data and medical protocols?

Bright Lights Too Blinding?

The season when hope springs eternal is long past. It’s not even the dog days of summer anymore. Twilight comes early, the dogwoods are turning red, crickets are chirping. This is the time of year when baseball fans in Washington, D. C. traditionally succumb to futility as an inevitable part of the experience.

Only this year, with hope lingering into the fall, the baseball gods appear to be setting us up for a new kind of heartbreak … the smashing of rising expectations. A playoff berth has been clinched, the first in this town since 1933. That guarantees a grand total of one postseason game. More wins are needed to close the real deal, a divisional championship. But the remaining schedule is full of other contenders who aren’t about to lie down. The necessary wins to reduce that “magic number” are coming slowly. The team is mostly young and inexperienced, and may be having jitters.

Baseball pundits have never quite embraced the Nationals’ surprising success this season. It seems to have upset too many preconceived notions that the Nats “are still a year or two away.” Some of the commentary is downright mean-spirited, and seems designed to stir up trouble on a team that has enjoyed great chemistry so far. Lately, representatives of the team directly to our north have revived the tired argument that pitching ace Stephen Strasburg, who is recovering from elbow surgery, should insist on pitching past the innings limit that was established for him this year. Reaching new heights of hyperbole, they’ve pronounced it a “sin” and an “abomination” that the team has chosen to follow the best possible medical advice to protect Strasburg’s long-term health.

Further, these geniuses don’t bother to explain how the kid is supposed to “insist” on pitching. They’d love to see him do something flaky. Maybe occupy the pitchers’ mound in a protest? Walk off the team? Kidnap his replacement in the rotation?  Get his manager drunk and write his own name on the lineup card?

Strasburg’s replacement in the rotation is a solid Major League pitcher, and this issue is only relevant once every five days. The real problem is that our relatively unseasoned team has fallen apart several times on national TV. That doesn’t bode well for the playoffs, where the lights will be even brighter and more unrelenting. This season has been a great ride, however it ends. Still, being Nats fans, we prepare for heartbreak.