Monday, October 1, 2012


Once upon a time -- a very long time ago -- baseball was my favorite sport in the world.

This is when I lived in Paducah in the 1970's.  I was a Dodgers fan, and the Dodgers were always in contention.  And for an obsessive fan like I was, baseball just gave you so much more than the other sports.  There were only 14 NFL regular season games, and UK only played about 32 basketball games.  But baseball went on for 162 games -- plus the playoffs.  Baseball's history was much longer and richer than the history of any other sport.  And baseball had the best tabletop games.

So I became a rabid Dodger fan.  In my own, western Kentucky way, I loved the Dodgers just as much as all those guys who wrote memoirs about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940's.  And how the Dodgers made me suffer.  By the time I was 13 years old, I had seen the Dodgers lose three different World Series without ever seeing them win one.  No kid should have to go through that.

But I remained loyal to the Dodgers, and they finally came through for me, winning it all in 1981 and 1988.  In 1991, I got married in August, and I checked the Dodgers scores throughout my honeymoon -- because they were in yet another pennant race.

It turned out to be quite a race.  With 10 games left in the 1991 season, the Dodgers had a 2-game lead over the Braves, and I thought the Boys in Blue were going to wrap up another division title.  (I had previously seen them win the division in 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1988).  But the Braves won their last eight games of the season to nip the Dodgers by one game on the last day of the regular season.

I was devastated (of course), but I figured the Dodgers would be back.

They weren't.  In fact, something big and terrible happened to the Dodgers about this time, and the organization has never been the same.  They've never won another pennant, and they didn't even get back to the NLCS until 2008 -- and by that time, lots of stuff had changed.  I had moved to Washington, had four kids, lived through a baseball strike, a Yankees dynasty, years of ludicrous steroid use, and the addition of "wild cards" to my beloved MLB playoffs.  For a stretch in the late 1990's, I almost stopped watching baseball altogether.

But then everything changed again.  Contrary to what you hear about young people, my kids prefer baseball above all other sports.  And in 2005, Washington got its own team.  I broke with the Dodgers and decided to start rooting for the local club.  For seven years, the GoHeath's have enjoyed the traditional East Coast summertime experience of hot dogs, cotton candy, and Cracker Jacks.  It's been a lot of fun -- just like all those New Yorker articles said it was.

It wasn't true fandom, however.  The Nats were terrible, and at no point did they play a game after July 4 that really mattered to anyone.  At one point, they lost over 100 games in a row in back-to-back seasons.  Faced with such a team, the only way to keep your sanity was to attend the occasional game, enjoy the hot dogs, and watch your kids have fun.

This year has been different.  The Nats had Davey Johnson, who is a serious, old-school manager.  They had two young hot shots in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.  They had depth and they had pitching, and they started to win.  At first, it was funny to see them near the top of the standings.  But by July, it was clear that the Phillies probably weren't coming back, and that the division was ours for the taking.

So the last few weeks have been agonizing for me.  It's been 21 years since I had a rooting interest in baseball this late in the year.  Instead of using October as a nice warm-up for college basketball, as I usually do, I was terrified that the Nats would blow their lead and lose the division to the same Braves that got me back in 1991.

I haven't missed caring about October baseball, to be honest.  With college basketball, they go out there and play and you have a result in a couple of hours.  And then you have a few days between games.  Baseball goes on and on, and you have a game almost every day.  I could -- almost -- handle that much worrying when I was 12 years old and didn't have that much else to worry about.  Now I have a job and a family, and baseball is almost too demanding for my middle-aged self.

Nevertheless, there I was tonight, sitting in my office at 10 P.M., listening to the Pirates' announcers as they called the last inning of Pittsburgh's 2-1 win over the Braves.  And when the game ended -- and I knew that the Nats had finally won the division championship I had been waiting for since 1991 -- it was all worth it.  I had been so nervous about the pain of losing that I had forgotten how much fun baseball can be when you win.

So now I get to analyze the playoffs, work out pitching rotations, and generally geek out over the post-season -- just as I did as a kid.  It's been a long time, but I'm ready.



  1. Spare a thought for Douglas Wallop, who wrote "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" in 1954. Wallop was a lifelong Washingtonian who was 13 years old when the Senators won the pennant in 1933, and who never saw his beloved home team return to the spotlight -- except in his own fiction. In fact, the Senators left town for good when Wallop was 51, and he died in 1985 without ever seeing another Washington game. But his book was one of the first "grown-up" novels I ever read as a kid, and it was one of the first I ever read to SmartGirl. So he's still helping to make Washington baseball fans to this day.

  2. Good for you, and good for the Nats.

    ESPN put up a thing on the screen last night when it was showing Washington highlights that said it was the first postseason trip for the franchise "since 1981," and it took me two or three seconds to figure out that wasn't a mistake and that--oh, yeah--this team is the transplanted Montreal Expos.

    In the late 1970s, when the Expos had Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson and Gary Carter and the A's had turned horrible for a spell, I decided that Montreal was going to be my second-favorite team. It didn't exactly take, but I did always kind of root for them.

    The A's, incidentally, beat the Rangers and clinched a playoff spot last night, and two more wins over Texas in Oakland would win the A.L. West. MLB kept cutting in to the Oakland game for live shots, and every so often they showed this one fan with a sign that read, "WE WERE SUPPOSED TO LOSE 100 GAMES!" What an odd message to lead with.