Saturday, October 13, 2012

Members of the Club

There has always been something curiously antiseptic about being a Washington Nationals fan.  The team came here, fresh and new from Montreal, in 2005, and soon sank to the bottom of the NL East.  Washington is a canny and cynical town, and it was pretty easy for the natives to treat the Nats as just another place to take their kids and clients without too much emotional investment.  Not for us the tortured history of Red Sox fans, the pressure of rooting for the Yankees, or even the sullen fury of Phillies phans.  For us -- many of whom had grown up cheering for other teams, and many of whom still cheered for other teams -- the Nats were just . . . fun.  We bought cotton candy for our children, we taught them how to keep score, we had the occasional night out with office-mates and buddies -- and when it was all over we went back home to McLean or Bethesda or Silver Spring or Fairfax, and didn't spend too much time thinking about the Nats.

But all that time we were playing with fire, and this year we got burned.  This year, for the first time in 79 years, Washington had a really good baseball team.  The Nats started hot and stayed hot, and they won and won all summer.  By August, the mood at the park had changed.  No longer could you go long stretches of time without hearing serious crowd noise.  No longer was there more enthusiasm at the concession stands than in the bleachers.  Anxiety and worry appeared on Washington brows, as the Nats fans sought to cheer their guys on to the NL East title.

Still, there was a bloodless rationality about so much of it.  A lot of, "Well, whatever happens it's great to finally have a good team."  A lot of, "Anything can happen in the post-season -- I'm proud of them no matter what."  That explains, I think, why Washingtonians were so calm about the decision not to use Stephen Strasburg in the post-season.  In Cincinnati, say, or Baltimore, or Philly -- or anywhere when the fans know just how fickle baseball can be -- such a decision would have been met with vociferous opposition.  In those towns, they understand that you trifle with baseball at your peril -- and that everyone (even the lowliest fan) has to do his part to help the home town club.  But in Washington -- where we regularly accept studies that appear to defy common sense -- the notion that we would enter the playoffs without our best pitcher caused almost no controversy.

And for a long time, everything went well.  The Nats did win the division, holding off the Braves and actually clinching home field advantage in the playoffs.  They won a 3-2 nailbiter in St. Louis to open the series.  And after they were hammered 12-4 and 8-0 by the World Champs in games two and three, the Nats won game four on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.  Today there was a strong feeling in town that the Nats were playing with house money, and that we would all be happy however tonight's game turned out.

Well, my guess is that most Nats fans are not happy now.  Baseball, as Bart Giamatti famously wrote, is designed to break your heart.  And tonight, for the first time in a very long time, that's what baseball did to Washington.  The Nats jumped out to a 6-0 lead after three innings, and they still led 7-5 with two outs in the top of the ninth and only one Cardinal on base.  And then it happened:  two walks to load the bases, a single to score two runs, a single to score two more runs, and that was it.  The Nats had one more chance in the bottom of the ninth, but their batters could only flail at the ball like enraged teenagers trying to kill flies.

When it was all over, the Nats saw their season end -- after midnight -- at home -- before the largest crowd in the history of Nationals Park -- in a 9-7 defeat.  All the visions of an NLCS against the Giants -- gone.  All the hopes of meeting the hated Yankees in the World Series -- gone.  All that fun office conversation about strategy, and personnel, and parking, and atmosphere -- gone.  No more baseball.  No more summer.  Nothing left but the Redskins.

So after trying so hard to simply have fun with baseball, Nats fans find themselves dealing with hideous and unexpected pain.  I have no doubt there are 12-year-olds crying all over town (because, by special intervention of all the powers of evil, this game happened on the one night that Washingtonians would let their kids stay up late).  In short, Nats fans suffered a grave loss.

I think, however, they also gained something.  Cynics like to say that sports is merely entertainment -- but of course it is not.  Whatever feeling Nats fans are having right now, it's not the feeling of being entertained.  Sports allows you to experience a sense of belonging to a cause and a tribe bigger than your own.  It means opening yourself up to the possibility of great suffering in order to experience great joys.  It's a chance to live in a brighter and more beautiful world of good and evil than the drab, workaday world of grays in which we so often find ourselves.  So yes, we lost a playoff series.  But we gained a legend -- or even a series of legends:  the Year We Benched Strasburg, the Year Storen Blew that Game Against St. Louis, the Year We Had the Best Record in Baseball and Couldn't Get Past the First Round.

After all, those are the sorts of memories that real baseball fans have.  The Cardinal fans are celebrating tonight, but they weren't celebrating after the World Series in 1968 or 1985.  I've seen the Orioles blow a 3-1 lead in the World Series.  I've seen the Phillies lose three straight years in the NLCS.  I've seen the Braves lose Game 7 of the World Series in 10 innings.  I've seen the A's lose in the ALDS four years in a row -- with every loss coming in Game 5.  And even the Yankees -- the lordly Yankees who enjoy pleasures allowed to no other American sports franchise -- are the only baseball team ever to lose a best-of-7 series when they were up 3-0.  This type of suffering -- this type of pain -- is an inevitable part of baseball.  It's the psychic fee you must pay in order to be a real fan.

Baseball season will return to Washington -- it's already less than six months away.  When it gets here, it will find a wiser and more passionate group of fans.  And to me, that's almost -- but not quite -- worth what happened tonight.