Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Newcomer's Reflections on the Great Game

I grew up in a football family. As far back as I can remember, I've cheered on the men in burgundy and gold on autumn Sunday afternoons (and have, of course, gotten very used to the feelings of optimism and subsequent defeat, since the Redskins have been mediocre for just that long). I played all of the requisite sports as a child--soccer, basketball, t-ball--but abandoned them at a pretty early age because I was fairly incompetent at anything athletic. Baseball I especially loathed, since it was so incredibly boring, especially compared to the excitement and physicality of football.

Fast-forward to college. I was still a devoted Redskins fan, but I started running into an obnoxious number of pretentious baseball fans (including my eventual best man) who would acknowledge that "football was fun and all" but that "it doesn't hold a candle to the majesty of the greatest game on Earth, America's past-time, the thinking man's sport, etc." Talk about a bunch of insufferable snobs. My opposition to baseball was only strengthened. (It didn't help that both of my area teams, the Orioles and the Nationals, had been terrible for about as long as the Redskins. It's hard to get really engaged with a perpetual loser without any family ties.)

Fast forward again to life after graduation. The year was 2012. I'd just gotten married to a wonderful woman and the world was bright and shiny and new. I decided that situational awareness for my area teams would be a good thing to have, so I subscribed to ESPN ScoreCenter alerts on my phone for the Nationals, Orioles, and Tigers (my wife's family's team). Suddenly I was getting score notifications every night, and around July I started to realize that all three of these teams were doing fairly well for themselves. In fact, they were all winning a good number of games. Especially the Nationals.

I started reading the Washington Post sports section to try and learn more about this surprisingly good team. I started hearing names like Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Ryan Zimmerman, and they started to mean something to me. I started to care about the Great Strasburg Shutdown (I still think it was a good decision, for the record), and then I got ridiculously excited when they finished the season with the best record in baseball. The other two teams I was following also managed to make the playoffs in very exciting, last minute fashion (the Tigers after a late-season nose-dive by the White Sox, and the Orioles squeezing into the Wild Card game and then knocking out the Rangers). Suddenly baseball was exciting, and my team was the best in the league, and I couldn't get enough.

I still remember sitting in the kitchen on my computer watching MLB GameCenter update pitches for Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cardinals because I didn't have TBS in my cable package. I remember the tension watching Jayson Werth foul pitch after pitch in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 1-1 and the Nationals in a win-or-go-home situation. I remember dancing around the kitchen like a maniac when he sent his walk-off homer over the left-field wall on the 13th pitch. I wasn't even watching the game, just a box score on a computer screen, but I was totally in--hook, line, and sinker. I was riding high.

I got a few friends to go out to the Greene Turtle sports bar with me to watch the Orioles and the Nationals play in back-to-back Game 5's--winner takes all, loser goes home. The Orioles game didn't go so well--CC Sabathia pitched a complete game and shut them down. But my Nationals were riding high on Werth's homer, and started the game off in resounding fashion: 6 runs in the first three innings, an insurance run in the 8th.--domination. Even in the top of the 9th inning, when the Cards had closed the gap to two runs, I was totally confidant. The Nats were on their way to the NLCS to face off with the Giants. Time to start packing up to leave.

And then the unthinkable. Drew Storen, our rock-solid closer...failed to close. With the winning out one pitch away at five different moments, he gave up four runs...and just like that the game, the season, and all of our wild hopes were at an end. Cardinals 9, Nationals 7--the whole bar was dead silent. No more postseason. No more Nationals baseball. I was heartbroken.

In hindsight, there was no better way to make die-hard baseball fan--pure elation followed by heart-wrenching sorrow. I had just experienced, in the course of 24 hours, the very best of what baseball has to offer. All I could do was put on my Nats cap, walk out of the bar, and start thinking about next season.

This year, I followed every game. I read every article the Post wrote about the National. I played fantasy baseball. I checked out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baseball from the library so that I could learn the nuances of the game. I sent taunting texts to my Orioles friends during the Battle of the Beltways. And I was so sad when the season ended with a loss against the Diamondbacks. Now I'm cheering on the Tigers as they try to come back in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. And I've never been happier. 

So here I am. I still love my Redskins, but now I love my Nationals too. And it turns out the two loves aren't mutually exclusive. I still watch every Redskins game on Sunday afternoons, but now I listen to baseball while I do the dishes every night, or while I drive home from work. 

I had to learn a few things, coming to the game as a football fan. You can't treat a baseball game like you treat a football game. They don't lend themselves to straight undistracted viewing for 3 1/2 hours in the same way football does. It's a perfect sport to have on in the background sometimes, to tune in for just a few innings, to watch while you do something else--and sometimes, to sit riveted while Tigers pitchers flirt with a combined no-hitter well into the ninth inning. It's a sport to watch and think about all of the careful decisions being made--which pitch to throw to which batter, whether to steal a base and when, how to lay down the perfect bunt--and then go crazy for those brief fifteen seconds when Denard Span makes an unbelievable over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning. 

It's a beautiful game. And I'm so glad that the Nationals drew me in and showed me how beautiful it was. 

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