There Is Crying In Baseball

Now that the world has fallen off its axis, and we’re whirling into some unknown void, it’s time to take stock. Most of us, barring the experts who are paid to anticipate disasters, have been shaken out of the complacency of our daily lives. I suppose everyone has a moment when something like this hits home. If we’re lucky, it’s not that we’re actually sick with the virus, or know someone who is, or are faced with job or wage loss because of it. The absence of some of our favorite pastimes doesn’t compare in importance, yet it produces a punch in the gut just the same. It’s that moment when you realize this is going to be more than a temporary glitch.

I guess we all have selfish moments when it’s all about us and our loss. On March 12, I had casually tuned in a spring training match-up between the New York Yankees and my world champion Washington Nationals. The game meant nothing in terms of results, but afforded an opportunity to glimpse the sport after the winter layoff and watch the players prepare for the upcoming season. It’s a rite of spring as dependable as the crocuses coming out. Gradually, I realized that I might be watching the last game that would be played before a silent spring set in. Then confirmation came from Major League Baseball’s front office, like a lightning bolt, that all baseball operations would be suspended as of 4 p.m. that afternoon. It was 3:55 p.m. when the game I was watching finished. I couldn’t help letting out a sob.

The greatest thing about the 2019 Washington Nationals was their joyfulness. The dancing, the silly shark song, the champagne and beer flying during five clubhouse celebrations, each more raucous than the last. As often happens to teams that hit the pinnacle of success, there would likely have been a “World Series hangover.” That might have undercut the hunger and intensity of their play, but would have allowed the joy to continue. Now, that feeling is only a memory. I remember hugging strangers at the ballpark watch party on the night they won it all. On the subway train afterward, there was a communal rendering of “We Are The Champions.” I wonder how much longer it will be before anyone is comfortable with hugging friends, much less strangers. Close contact and shared emotions are an essential part of the ballpark experience. There is no way for us to get our sport back until the crisis has passed.

The Nats proved you can win it all without having the most talent, or intensity, or fire in your belly. You can do it with pure love of the sport and camaraderie with your teammates. That feeling would have lingered well into the new season, even if they didn’t repeat their championship run. Now, during what should be Opening Week, I can’t help letting out another private sob. I long for the time when comparatively trivial things like baseball begin to matter again. When that happens, we’ll have overcome the disaster.

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.

We Are Un-Cursed

The unthinkable has happened. My town, surely the most beleaguered and unlucky locality on the face of the earth when it comes to my favorite sport, has delivered us a World Series championship. Much like the experts, I didn’t see it coming. During the first 50 games of the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals looked like an epic fail, and their manager’s head was on the block. Digging themselves out of that hole was a slow process. Unable to catch up to the division-leading Atlanta Braves, they had to settle for a “wild card” berth at season’s end. Three weeks before their great triumph, it still appeared that there were too many obstacles in their path, as in too many teams with superior talent contending in the playoffs. Two weeks before, it looked like a “nice try, but not quite enough” situation.  Even a week before, when they had made it to the mountain, it seemed doubtful that they could reach the summit. Going into the World Series, the Houston Astros, champions in 2017, were prohibitive favorites.

History was never on the Nats’ side. They had suffered four previous playoff failures in the first round, when they were the presumed favorites. That “Oh, no, not again” feeling reared its head many times during the 2019 playoffs, since they trailed in so many elimination games. The difference this time, I’m convinced, was that none of the most renowned “experts” expected them to win. They derived a weird magic, a defiant attitude, from that underdog status. It was more a question of chemistry than talent. Winning games you aren’t “supposed” to win must be the strongest tonic available.

I’ve written about baseball often on this blog, usually from a position of frustration and futility. My previous ranting on the subject reeks of heartache and longing. I managed to tap almost all of the metaphors for life situations that the sport seems to provide in abundance. I lectured myself incessantly about taking mere games too seriously. But it was difficult not to feel snake-bit. This is the town of two departed Washington Senators teams within my memory, following the 1960 and 1971 seasons. Then there were the 33 blank years between the departure of the second team and the arrival of the Nationals, a transfer from Montreal, where they’d been “owned” collectively by all the other Major League teams, and consequently allowed to die on the vine.

The new Nats, from 2005 on, toted up a list of failures that in some cases were so bizarre that they seemed to have the makings of a curse. When these things keep repeating, year after year, there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation. So we resort to blaming those implacable baseball gods, as did Chicago Cubs fans, with their Curse of the Billy Goat, and Boston Red Sox fans, with their Curse of the Bambino. It required a World Series championship to un-jinx those franchises.

Through the years the Nats have had many players who through bad luck, or incompetence at just the wrong time, became associated with a particular brand of failure. They became our special punching bags, despite being talented players. To name only a few: Drew Storen, the closer who couldn’t get the umpire to call that last strike that would have won the 2012 divisional series; Cristian Guzman, a natural shortstop who owing to a personnel shortage one night, was tapped to play out of position in right field, where he famously lost what would have been a final out in the lights; Nook Logan, picked off third base for a final out, the type of boner even a Little League coach wouldn’t tolerate; Matt Wieters, whose brain was rocked by a follow-through swing, causing him to make an errant throw that lost the 2017 divisional series. These players would have been perfectly capable of contributing to a championship team, but they also demonstrated how easy it is to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

Somehow, our luck changed. Someone on the opposing team had a “Bill Buckner moment” (that is, a ball through the legs in front of a nationwide audience). The weird stuff that had always happened to the Nats started happening to others. Assuming no one in our fan base made a pact with the devil, I suppose we were just overdue for some good luck. Still, this was supposed to be the place where it just couldn’t happen. We’ve been told time and again that our capital city is not a baseball town, and never can be. It’s too transient and bureaucratic. The ballpark on any given afternoon is full of spectators working on their laptops and tablets, who can’t bear to be unplugged from the office for a minute. But my own family history belies that.

My brother and I were raised on baseball. It was part of our parents’ dating life. The little girl still lurking in me associates the sport with warm summer days and nights, and brawny guys in white uniforms. RFK Stadium, where we spent most of our baseball time, was a rickety building by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of magic. Even televised baseball on the local level was fairly rare back then, so seeing it live was special. At World Series time, I used to rush home from school on those crisp October afternoons to see great players on television that I never glimpsed otherwise. Those games were taking place so far away, both in distance and aspiration, since the Senators never had a ghost of a chance. I suppose the futility stimulated my imagination. The Cordovox that played “You Gotta Have Heart” at every Senators home game underlined the dilemma: “heart” was all we had.

Is there a chance that when baseball resumes next season, I’ll be nostalgic for failure? On rereading parts of the baseball novel I published in 2010, Let’s Play Ball, and working on its sequel (Let’s Play Two, maybe), I sense a thread of longing running through the plots, a need to invent a team that enjoys ultimate success. I thought it would always be a mere fantasy. We indie writers know what it’s like to grasp at pipe dreams. If we should catch lightning in a bottle someday, as the Nats seem to have done, how would we deal with that jolt of good fortune? Some writers who break through that way actually handle it rather badly. Likewise, no baseball team is exactly the same season to season. Chemistry can’t be preserved in a jar, to be replicated like an experiment. Players leave via free agency or other means, often because it’s in their personal interest, or the team might let some of its older or more expensive stars go, judging it to be in their long-term interest. Repeating a championship seems to be one of the most difficult challenges in sports.

Ah, the perils of success. What a nice, unexpected problem to have.

Anger Trumps Everything

I wake up most mornings in a decent mood, but things often go downhill within minutes.  Despite having retired from the Federal government over five years ago, I still get my wake-up call from Federal News Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to snuggle in bed and listen to reports of office struggles and piles of work that no longer concern me. That part is nice, although it tends to remind me of the way I used to have loads of stuff piled on me, often while certain pampered prima donnas were off on taxpayer-funded junkets or “retreats” (Retreat from what? I used to ask myself). As if that weren’t perfect for getting me off on the wrong foot, the Federal news is usually followed by the latest presidential twitter outburst, yet another ignorant rant or blatant lie from that twisted mind. Despite the current impeachment talk, I know in my heart that Trump will never be held accountable for anything, because he never has been, despite a lifetime of personal and business sleaze, followed by a corrupt-to-the bones presidency.

Naturally, that leads to a host of other annoyances, until I find myself mad at the entire country. How could the electorate let this happen? It must be a failure of the educational system. I see evidence of that every day. I don’t like to flaunt too much baby boomer superiority, but I gotta ask, when did they stop teaching history and civics in schools? I couldn’t have gotten out of high school without knowing something about the history of my country and the form of government I live under. Are these subjects too controversial these days? Are teachers being instructed to avoid any topics touching on politics for fear of offending somebody?  How, then, is a student ever going to be intellectually challenged? When a large part of the electorate appears to embrace a wannabe dictator, it points to a lack of both critical thinking ability and historical perspective.

This is not strictly the fault of right-wingers, in my opinion. So-called progressives are often guilty of closed-mindedness. For example, there have been battles in local school districts over Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest classic of American literature. Some authorities would like to sanitize it, if not ban it entirely, because some of the language is rough on delicate sensibilities. Today’s snowflakes cringe at anything that sounds racist to the modern ear, so they miss the point of the story, which is an eloquent indictment of racism. This inability to put things in context is both startling and alarming.

I also rail against the general loosening of grammatical rules, as if it foretold a barbarian invasion. Not that I’m grammatically perfect myself, but I have particular trouble with the current fad for disguising gender by using a plural pronoun. Something like this often pops up in popular advice columns: “After my partner had tried to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I was.” Unless the writer is actually dealing with multiple partners, this is simply incorrect. I want to shout out: For the love of the English language, people, pick a gender and stick to it. It’s not going to blow your cover. So what if you happen to reveal that your spouse is a man? The world is full of male spouses.

I realize, of course, that there are times when the plural pronoun is being used to make a political point, especially when the subject’s gender is undetermined or in transition. Still, in most instances, that person identifies as either male or female, or closer to one gender than the other. Why not use the preferred gender pronoun, even if a transition is underway and is not yet complete? The Washington Post recently published an intriguing article entitled “A Mother, But Not A Woman.” The subject of the article intended to become male, yet didn’t want to lose the chance to give birth. The sentence “He is a mother” might sound peculiar, but it would underscore that such things are possible in this day and age. And while I’m at it, I’d like to squelch the indiscriminate use of apostrophes when a possessive is not involved, as in “To all artists and writer’s, welcome.” And please, let’s deep-six  “alright” for good.

When anger intrudes on our entertainment, it’s time to chill. For me, baseball has long provided an escape from more serious worries, but sometimes it makes for more aggravation. Sports fans, by definition, are unreasonable, and even those rooting for the same team fight like cats and dogs over every point of strategy. I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my team, the Washington Nationals, that regularly turns into a battle ground. If the team loses, it has to be someone’s fault; it can’t just be that the other team was better or luckier that day.

The group’s primary punching bag is the beleaguered second-year manager, Davey Martinez. This Davey-hatred has abated a little recently, in view of the team’s recent success, but I have no doubt it will rev up again as soon as the Nats fail to win the World Series. Many fans declare that the wins come about in spite of Davey’s stupidity, not because he could possibly have done something right for a change. There is a serious lack of perspective whenever one game goes wrong. In the course of a 162-game regular season, they demand that the manager go for broke and fire all his bullets every time out. That simply isn’t possible, unless it really is an elimination game and there’s no tomorrow to consider.

This strikes me as another form of Trumpism, which boils down to overly simplistic thinking. Second-guessing fans tend to forget that they have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, which the manager didn’t have when he made whatever decision blew up in his face. I’ve given up trying to convince some people that a bad play, or a blown save, or a missed offensive opportunity could be the result of a player’s failure to execute. Maybe it looks like Martinez put the wrong guy in the wrong situation, but it’s not like he had a ton of better options. Since managers and coaches don’t rise to the level of hero worship that players do, it’s easier to call for their heads. We’d all like to think that if the decision-makers could be replaced, every player would instantly find his inner Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson, and joy would reign throughout Nats Land. I don’t claim to be a fount of wisdom all the time, but I do value reason and intellect, even as a fan. It may take me twenty-four hours or so after a painful loss, but at some point I try to develop some perspective, remind myself it’s just a game, and stop cursing the baseball gods.

Another bad trend I’ve noticed lately is that everyday unpleasantness is getting worse. For the most part, I’ve learned to walk away from rude people, rather than to let a situation escalate. Similarly, I scroll through screeds from Facebook “friends” that I know are full of right-wing nonsense and crazy conspiracy conspiracies. I haven’t “un-friended” anybody over that; I simply refuse to engage.

Still, I don’t think it’s advisable to zone out entirely. Anger can certainly motivate a writer. Looking back, I find that my novels are full of scenes plucked from real life, many of which gave me serious heartburn at the time. My stories deal with turbulent marriages, clueless bosses, workplace cliques, snobbish schoolmates, jealousy, desire for revenge, and many bad situations I’ve dealt with at some time or other. I also like to write about politics, and have always been most roused by politicians I find abhorrent. Now I’m being treated to a daily smorgasbord of stupidity, corruption, incompetence, and cruelty, all wrapped up in one person. I say, don’t sanitize it. Use it.

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.

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.

Can I Call My Team The Redskins?

1113161412aI’m an ardent sports fan, so it’s hardly surprising that three of the four novels I’ve self-published so far deal with sports teams and their fans. It’s challenging, to say the least, to describe the drama and excitement that live games can produce. My attempts along these lines are based, somewhat loosely, on actual DC-based baseball and football teams that I have known and loved over the years. Accordingly, the question has arisen: how permissible is it to use actual names of sports teams in a fictional work?

Most legal experts who give advice on this subject seem to think it isn’t a big deal, unless one of two situations applies: you’re a famous author whose use of the name is likely to attract widespread attention, or you have a beef with the organization and are attempting to sully its reputation. Neither of these situations is all that likely to come up in a self-published novel, or at least to be noticed by many readers. In any event, there are far too many books published each year for the legal profession to monitor.

Nevertheless, this issue is getting more attention in the self-publishing industry than it used to. In my 2003 novel Secretarial Wars, football is a peripheral part of the story, merely a stimulant to the secretaries who follow the team as fans and cherish hopes of meeting the players. My editors back then made no objections to my using the actual names of longtime divisional rivals, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t use real names for my star players, although I suspect their real-life counterparts would have been easily identifiable to a long-time fan.

Fast forward a few years, and it seems the self-publishing industry has advanced far enough to take the trademark and libel issues almost as seriously as traditional publishers do. So by the time I published my third novel, Let’s Play Ball in 2010, I was advised to change the names of the baseball teams I had referred to in the original manuscript. Thus, the Washington Nationals became the Washington Filibusters, and the Miami Marlins became the Florida Keys. The story includes a well-traveled player who managed to wear the uniforms of both New York teams in the same year. They were supposed to be the Yankees and the Mets, separated only by a long subway ride, but they were called something else.

1019041330Now I have a novel-in-progress, tentatively entitled “Sycophants,” in which football is a more integral part of the story. It revolves around a movie producer operating in Washington, DC, who is married to a star football player for the Redskins. The success of her current film-making endeavor depends at least partly on the fortunes of his playoff-bound team.

By the way, I’m sidestepping the entirely separate debate currently raging about the name “Redskins,” a team moniker which has been in use in Washington since 1937, and four years before that in Boston. It seems likely that modern racial sensitivities would prevent a new team from receiving that nickname today, and would also preclude many other team names and mascots that are still in use. I sympathize with those sensitivities, up to a point. I’m a progressive when it comes to politics, but I’m not a big fan of political correctness. In cases like long-enduring nicknames, I feel that context is everything. These names have sentimental associations and historical significance to fans. By some accounts, the original Redskins nickname was intended to honor a member of the Sioux tribe who coached the team during its Boston days. Further, polls have shown that Native Americans, who presumably have the most at stake in this debate and the most reason to be offended, actually care very little.

That leaves me with a nagging temptation to call my fictional team by a genuine, 84-year-old name. Somehow, it makes the team I’m writing about more real to me. It also complicates matters by being set in a past, around 1990, that many fans can remember. How confounding would it be to give them an altogether different past from the real one? Since it’s fiction, I can theoretically do anything I choose. Still, an author depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and messing with that can be dangerous.