Whoever said suffering is good for the soul never rooted for the Washington Nationals. The team is a punishment, a tribulation. It is the Attila the Hun of sports organizations — a scourge of God.
Five years ago, when baseball returned to the nation’s capital after 35 years in the wilderness, the fans were treated to a mediocrity playing in a stadium that looked like the set for a zombie movie. Good enough. The crowds were large. The place was rocking. It was fun.
Then the happy monopolists of Major League Baseball sold the team to a local family, who wouldn’t stand for a half-bad team. They insisted on the whole thing. They probably felt we fans deserved it, for our sins. And who knows? Maybe we did. After all, we had been foolishly thrilled by mediocrity, misled by the illusion of an American Dream in which things could only get better. We needed to be taught a lesson.
Now, I love baseball. When the old Washington Senators — who gave mediocrity a bad name — left town, I decided God must be dead. It happened around the time the vice-president quit and left the city after praying (or was it pleading?) nolo contendere, and the president had also quit and departed even though he said he wasn’t a crook, but I took those losses pretty calmly. When they took away Frank Howard, however, they destroyed the very fabric and logic of my universe.
Conversely, my most sublime spiritual experience was to watch Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off home run off the Yankees’ Chien Ming Wang in a packed RFK Stadium on Father’s Day. There was a moment — after the hordes of Yankee fans had been stunned into silence, before the Nationals’ fans could rise in loud and universal cheer — which contained, in its deep silence, the riddle of life, and seemed to say, “Look on my works, ye Yankees, and despair.”
The Nats are still here physically. But last year, in an almost biblical way, they transcended the game of baseball and played in a different realm, one in which score is kept in units of horror, pity, penance, and despair. Inaugurating a beautiful new stadium, the team lost 102 games. They couldn’t pitch, hit, or field the ball. The crowds dwindled, but those of us who remained still thought things could only get better.
We hadn’t learned our lesson. We still swelled with arrogance and false pride. Like sinners in the hands of an angry Commissioner, we were hurled to the nethermost circle of baseball hell, otherwise known as the Nats’ 2009 season. Words fail in the face of such awful punishment: the misery of April and May would make the greatest poets of the English tongue choke to speechlessness.
Baseball knows two poles of performance. The pole of excellence is represented by the 1927 Yankees. That of wretchedness is awarded to the 1962 Mets, who lost 120 games — an almost impossible feat. Of this team, the manager, Casey Stengel, uttered the prophetic words, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
The 2009 Washington Nationals are on a pace to match the 1962 Mets. With a little luck, they will become the historical byword for badness in their sport.
By now, the stands at Nats Park are empty except for a Remnant. How should this group behave? What should it do or say? Confronting the abomination of desolation, baseballwise, what’s the proper attitude for a fan?
Since this is a blog about morality, the proper answer should be that we fans must display strength of character. We should look on triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same. Unfortunately, that’s nuts. The word “fan” comes from “fanatic.” There’s a really good reason for that. We want to win. We can stand mediocrity. But when matters reach apocalyptic levels of pain and humiliation, we start to go a little haywire.
Nats bloggers give their blogs names like Fire Jim Bowden and NationalsFanboyLooser. The message boards follow a predictable pattern: someone says “they stink” or “rock bottom” or “fire Manny Acta,” then someone else writes, “you’re an idiot” or “I wanna drink beer.” Mayhem ensues. Members of the tormented Remnant haunt Nats Park with a dazed, angry look in their eyes. Strangers gaze on one another with disgust and mutter a single word: “Brutal.”
I too have failed the character test. Let this stand for a confession, my own nolo contendere. I know the Nats will lose, yet every night I rage when they do. I shout obscenities at the TV. My family tiptoes around me, worried and afraid.
I even booed the team at the ballpark once. A friend told me this was acceptable behavior, but afterwards I felt dirty and revolted with myself. I knew where this was headed. There is a hell beyond hell, a baseball place where friend and foe alike are punished viciously regardless of merit or guilt.
Some small, defiant shred of hope clings to my unrepentant soul — and for this violation of the divine order, I will be forced to watch in horror as I metamorphose into a Philadelphia Phillies fan.