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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search Of Victories

August 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

We Still Got Heart

February 25, 2014

1388I’m getting a kick out of Frederic J. Frommer’s “You Gotta Have Heart,” an entertaining history of Washington baseball encompassing four different teams from 1859 to 2012. It describes the special sort of heartbreak that seems to have haunted DC baseball fans for more than a hundred years (including that appalling 34-year gap from 1971 to 2005). The word “heartbreak,” when applied to sports, is hyperbole. Yet when your team loses, especially when it should have won, it feels tragic. The aggrieved fan really ought to acquire some perspective no later than the next day, considering all the immeasurably worse things that are happening in the world and could even strike close to home. Yet what other city has “suffered” so endlessly as to inspire a long-running musical based on the proposition that the only way out of the doldrums is a pact with the devil?

I took personally the loss of two Senators teams, in 1961 to Minnesota and 1971 to Texas. It still feels like betrayal, and it even feels like the Twins and Rangers are at least partly ours. The first time it happened, it took my family a few years to warm up to the lousy expansion team we acquired in their place. The second time it happened, I was away at college when they slipped away behind my back … which in some ways made it worse.

The book describes the dramatic break in the clouds that the 2012 playoffs brought about: the first postseason baseball in DC since 1933. The Nationals played an up-and-down Divisional series, with the ecstasy of a walk-off win in Game Four followed by yet another heartbreak in Game Five. A floating strike zone tightened at the worst possible moment for the young closer, Drew Storen, who twice nearly closed out a divisional series win.

Those of us who take these things to heart are often told to “get a life.” I agreed in principle, until I read what some of the most respected political figures and pundits in town had to say about that loss. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likened it to “a death in the family,” and added that Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election was only slightly more painful to him. Democratic political consultant James Carville called it “one of the great searing moments of my life.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer, preparing for a television appearance and following Game Four at the same time, predicted he’d be the first person ever to have a heart attack on live television. So there you have it: bi-partisan fanaticism in DC.

Raised On Baseball

March 14, 2012

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.