Baseball is America’s “National Pastime.” At least it used to be. For while it’s still called that, the phrase has become a wish in hope of redemption. Baseball has been overcome in popularity in recent decades by football and probably basketball, and maybe by now by soccer, too. One reason for this is that professional-level baseball pretty much has to be played, or have been played in younger life, to be truly appreciated.
For that reason, probably, it’s not as obviously appealing as a spectator sport as football, because while football is modeled on military principles—taking, holding, dominating territory by brute force and maneuver—baseball is far more a head game, between battery and batter, baserunners and fielders, manager and manager, and more besides. To appreciate it as a spectator thus requires an inner knowledge that you project into the heads of those on the field. The action really doesn’t speak for itself; it demands a level of interpretation simply not necessary to watch football.
And watching baseball requires far more patience than watching football, soccer, or hoops. It’s undeniably a slower, less telegenically kinetic game, certainly than football. Even huddles don’t really slow football down; they’re just breaths taken between collective spasms of violence, called “downs,” I think, for a reason. Watching baseball can even be relaxing in a way that watching football just isn’t. That’s why it’s played on a diamond in a field, and not in a colosseum suitable for gladiator contests.
Baseball is also more philosophical a game than sports defined by finite space and a ticking clock. Baseball is infinite in time and space. If a team is not ahead at the end of an inning, the game can, in theory, go on forever. If a ball is put in play between the first and third baselines, it is a fair ball that can, again, in theory, roll all the way to and beyond the Andromeda galaxy and still be a fair ball.
That’s why gentle aphorisms like “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains” fit the feel of baseball in a way they could never fit the feel of football. Baseball has Berra-isms; football has never produced anything more enlightened than the quotable verbal brutalities of a Bear Bryant or a Woody Hayes, a coach who once ran on to the field during a game to tackle an opposing player to prevent him from scoring a touchdown.
These characteristics of baseball, I think, explain why America’s “National Pastime” has been eclipsed in popularity by more vulgar and violent spectacle-friendly sports. Patience is a virtue, but patience is in increasingly short supply in a society sped up to distraction by frenetic TV cut-shot editing, and more recently by a plethora of accelerative screen addictions. Subtlety is intrinsic to true art, but subtlety has no place in a public culture that looks ever more like a random episode of the Jerry Springer Show. Can anyone imagine staged “in your face” crassness taking pride of place in an episode of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It to Beaver”?
We have gone from Bedford Falls to Pottersville in less than two generations as life has predictably imitated very bad art. We are as a society more vulgar and spectacle-mesmerized than ever. How else could a man like Donald Trump ever have been elected President? It is therefore no coincidence that baseball’s nadir has moved in lockstep with that melancholy journey. When Paul Simon wrote the lyric, presumably in 1967 in time for the soundtrack of The Graduate, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you?” did he realize the stunning predictive power in that line?
But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. (Thanks, Yogi.) We are not toast, and no one should be picking up forks to stick anywhere in particular just yet. We still have baseball, even Major League Baseball, weakened though it may be by greedy owners, avaricious agents and lawyers, spineless commissioners, and increasingly questionable umpires and proposed rule changes. And baseball, you must understand, is powerful. Baseball can save us.
We Americans need more patience, and baseball teaches patience. We need teamwork, and baseball is all about teamwork. We need hope, and baseball exudes hope because in baseball even a weak team can beat a strong team on any given day—far more often than is the case in football or basketball. We need to understand that a society thrives from diversity and that everyone can play a positive role, and in baseball people of all heights, sizes, and shapes can excel; you don’t have to be a looming hulk or a pituitary freak to fit in or even to be a star.
Baseball isn’t just a sport. It’s a metaphor for a life well lived. It’s a beacon for a society unified in pursuit of virtue. And if you can suspend critical judgment for a moment and take on the sheer magic of Susan Sarandon’s skills, it’s a church. If we build baseball anew, the people will come, and they will be doused in the champagne of victory.
So imagine, then, what it’s like to be a long, long-time Washington baseball fan, looking to Opening Day the season after the Nationals brought a World Series to town for the first time since 1924. I don’t have to imagine what that’s like, because that’s me. My father was a 19-year old Washington native in 1924. He told me all about it when I was a boy, often, sometimes with tears in his eyes. These things pass along, you know. (It kills me that my kids were all born in Philadelphia, and so became Phillies fans against my pleading, but that’s their problem too, isn’t it?)
Imagine what it’s like to remember, scene by scene, almost word for word, the 1958 movie Damn Yankees, with Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, and Ray Walston. I can, because I saw it more times than I could possibly count as a kid—I was 7 when it came out. And imagine Damn Yankees playing in muted descant in my head all last season, growing ever louder as the Nats inched and then leapt toward the championship.
And now this: Now this damned pandemic. Now this aborted Opening Day. Now this intolerable disruption of sweet enlightened normality at a time when we need it most. Now this delayed gut punch from outer space, because it’s from outer space that viruses, like most of the water on the planet, probably came from. Remember Michael Crichton’s first book, The Andromeda Strain? Maybe a baseball long ago rolled there and played the role of the proverbial fluttering butterfly wing…
But I digress. I spent the end of last season, including playoffs and World Series, in Singapore. I obviously couldn’t get to any of the games, or really even watch them. Embassy Singapore, to my regret, made no provisions for baseball fans in the Red Dot. After the last out of the seventh game in Houston, I ran down the hallway of my office looking for someone to embrace. The best I could do was latch on to a Canadian, a lapsed Blue Jays fan, who wasn’t even aware that the Series was being played. You might say I was a socially distanced fan.
I just had to do something to celebrate, and that something could not require proximity to a baseball diamond—since I’ve not seen a single one on this island. So I wrote a poem. Here it is. I hope you like it, today of all days, as a partial substitute for an Opening Day that should’ve been.
It will help you to like it, I think, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Washington baseball fan. It will help especially if you are not a Yankees fan. It will help if you know the game from having played it. But if none of that describes you, well, sorry: Three strikes, you’re out. Hey, it’s OK: There’s always tomorrow.
Ode to the Nats of 2019
[in gratitude, to Ernest Lawrence Thayer]
The prospect wasn’t bright at all for the Washington Nats in May;
Their record stood at 19 and 31, with 112 gruesome trials to play,
Turner he got injured, and ‘ol Zim he turned up lame;
Despondency settled upon the hometown fans, again and again and again.
A faithless few their precious season tickets went to pawn,
But most just sighed with wistful longing, their hopes cruelly smashed and torn,
They thought that if only their pathetic bullpen could finally come around,
The pall of desperation would at least be lifted from the mound.
They blew so many saves we despaired of keeping track,
Of hit-and-run and sacrifice bunts there certainly was a lack.
They bobbled grounders, overthrew first, and dropped innocent pop flies,
You’d have thought the guys were trying to play the game with ‘baca plugs glued upon their eyes.
Our heroes stumbled through a maze of ghastly springtime torpors;
At one point losing five games straight, even getting swept by them New Yorkers;
“Fire the manager!”, the disgusted minions insistently demanded.
As if that would have made any difference, to be perfectly candid.
At last faint embers of diamond life slowly began to glow,
In early June they finally managed to win four games in a row;
The bats all at once seem to jump, their Louisville sluggers did thrive,
The pitching improved significantly with a revised rotation of five.
Little by little they strove to turn their season right around,
By the All-Star Break they’d mostly healed and felt pretty gosh darn sound,
Before long they passed up the Mets, then swiftly dropped the Phillies,
Waving back to Bryce as they gave chase for Atlanta willy-nilly.
They never did catch ‘em, their goofy tomahawk chop to still,
But they played good enough to climb high enough upon the standings hill,
To wild card their way into the lustrous postseason playoffs,
Finishing the regular season with a win streak that handsomely paid off.
So it was that the Nats came face-to-face with the Milwaukee Brewers,
In a winner-take-all single game, fans’ nerves jangling as if on skewers
Scherzer fell behind early, three big runs to zip,
The lineup looked utterly punchless, not one batsman connected with a rip.
Strasberg came in to relieve Max, for his very first relief stint ever,
And shut down Milwaukee’s mighty crew in a masterful endeavor;
Then with but six outs between them and cursed oblivion,
The eighth inning became at last a friend, and started us a-singin’.
For Taylor got plunked (maybe), and Zim cracked a solid single,
Rendon then walked to fill the bases, and Soto solidly delivered ‘em.
Three runs came home before the dust had settled, their first lead of the game,
Then Hudson came in to shut the door, and the town went totally insane.
“Beat LA!” the crowd then chanted, but that demanded gallantry;
The mighty Dodgers had won 106 games, and the Nats a mere 93,
The first game was a six-zip shutout, things did not look at all good.
But the Nats won the second 4 to 2, they knew in their hearts they could.
Game 3 was an unmitigated full-frontal home field disaster,
LA scored ten runs and our faces turned to alabaster,
Now down two games to one in a short best-of-five series,
Our breathing went giddily shallow and our attitude turned quite leery.
The guys pulled out game four 6-1, to even the series two and two,
But back to LA they had to go for the crucial deciding set-to.
They fell behind again, three-nothing after two,
Exactly as in the Brewers game; hmm, could that be a clue?
They tied it in the eighth off Kershaw, the poor bedraggled fellow,
Rendon and Soto dinged him back to back, and we felt oh so mellow.
Then Howie Kendrick slammed the Dodger door shut in the tenth,
After which Mr. Excitement Sean Doolittle one-two-threed a breathless heaven-sent.
Then came Saint Louis for to joust the coveted NL Pennant,
This was to be no ordinary series, and we really truly meant it.
For oh how cruelly had the Cardinals crushed us back in 2012,
Erasing a 6-run Nats lead in game six, dropping us straight down into hell.
The Nationals were taking no prisoners this time around,
They chewed up the Red Birds, flung them hard down on the ground,
Plucked them but good they did, winning four games in a row;
No one believed the Nats could sweep ‘em; it only goes to show.
And so came the World Series, the Nation’s Capital exploded
With joy and rapture and mirth; some folks even got loaded.
Off to Houston the victors then made for to travel,
As serious underdogs surely, most thought, bound quickly to unravel.
But we whooped ‘em twice in Texas, ‘twas hard even to conceive!
Our spirits were buoyant, you bet your sweet life we believed.
Houston was supposed to be down in the great state of Texas, doc.
But the Nats left that city reeling in a total state of shock.
Not so fast countin’ your chickens, said the Astros, we ain’t done yet.
Then they won three straight in DC; d’ya think we got upset?!
Now down three games to two, and facing two more on the road,
The odds-makers smirked, the Nats’ll flush right down the hall-of-shame commode.
But we pulled out the first one 5 to 4, forcing a deciding game seven,
On the day before Halloween no less, we were jumpier than a flea in denim.
The guys got down two zip with but a measly nine outs to give,
It seemed that maybe, just maybe, the boys had finally run out of fizz.
But that’s not how it ended, I’m oh so glad to tell,
The guys sliced clean through the Astros bullpen pell-mell;
Howie lined one off the right-field foul pole; Houston sunk down in pain.
How he even hit Harris’s low outside sinker at all, no one could explain.
In the baseball dome of heaven dugout angels rejoiced on high,
The Big Train looked down on where Griffith used to be and plaintively cried,
Huzzah and hosannah, shouted Saint Kenesaw Mountain Landis,
Not since Calvin Coolidge was President have I seen anything so marvelously outlandish.
So hats off to the Nationals, true champions of baseball lore,
Bringing the Nation’s Capital its first Series win since 1924.
We even booed the President, and some held out snotty hankies.
The only way it could have been better? Had the Astros been the goddamn Yankees.
Adam Morris Garfinkle, Nov. 2, 2019