WASHINGTON — Among my various idiosyncrasies, such as (twice) driving from Washington to New York to watch a world championship chess match, the most baffling to my friends is my steadfast devotion to the Washington Nationals. When I wax lyrical about having discovered my own private paradise at Nationals Park, eyes begin to roll and it is patiently explained to me that my Nats have been not just bad, but prodigiously — epically — bad.
As if I don’t know. They lost 102 games in 2008; 103 in 2009. That’s no easy feat. Only three other teams in the last quarter-century have achieved back-to-back 100-loss seasons.
Now understand: This is not the charming, cuddly, amusing incompetence of, say, the ’62 Mets, of whom their own manager, Casey Stengel, famously asked, "Can’t anybody here play this game?" — and whose stone-gloved first baseman, Marv Throneberry, was nicknamed Marvelous Marv, the irony intended as a sign of affection.
Nor am I talking about heroic, stoic, character-building losing. The Chicago Cubs fan knows that he’s destined for a life of Sisyphean suffering and perpetual angst. These guys go 58 years without winning, then come within five outs of the National League pennant, only to have one of their own fans deflect a ball about to settle into a Cub outfielder’s glove, killing the play and bringing on the unraveling.
The fan was driven into hiding and the fateful ball ritually exorcised, blown to smithereens on TV. Sorry, that’s not my kind of losing. Been there. I’m a former Red Sox fan, now fully rehabilitated. No, I don’t go to games to steel my spine, perfect my character, journey into the dark night of the soul. I get that in my day job watching the Obama administration in action.
I go for relief. For the fun, for the craft (beautifully elucidated in George Will’s just-reissued classic, "Men at Work") and for the sweet, easy cheer at Nationals Park.
You get there and the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids’re romping and everyone’s happy. The joy of losing consists in this: Where there are no expectations, there is no disappointment. In Tuesday night’s game, our starting pitcher couldn’t get out of the third inning. Gave up four straight hits, six earned runs, and as he came off the mound, actually got a few scattered rounds of applause.
Applause! In New York he’d have been booed mercilessly. In Philly, he’d have found his car on blocks and missing a headlight.
No one’s happy to lose, and the fans cheer lustily when the Nats win. But as starters blow up and base runners get picked off, there is none of the agitation, the angry, screaming, beer-spilling, red-faced ranting you get at football or basketball games.
Baseball is a slow, boring, complex, cerebral game that doesn’t lend itself to histrionics. You "take in" a baseball game, something odd to say about a football or basketball game, with the clock running and the bodies flying.
And for a losing baseball team, the calm is even more profound. I’ve never been to a park where the people are more relaxed, tolerant and appreciative of any small, even moral, victory. Sure, you root, root, root for the home team, but if they don’t win "it’s a shame" — not a calamity. Can you imagine arm-linked fans swaying to such a sweetly corny song of early 20th-century innocence — as long gone as the manual typewriter and the 20-game winner — at the two-minute warning?
But now I fear for my bliss. Hope, of a sort, is on the way — in the form of Stephen Strasburg, the greatest pitching prospect in living memory. His fastball clocks 103 mph and his slider, says Tom Boswell, breaks so sharply it looks like it hit a bird in midair. In spring training, center fielder Nyjer Morgan nicknamed him Jesus. Because of the kid’s presence, persona, charisma? Nope. Because "that’s what everybody says the first time they see Strasburg throw," explained Morgan. "Jeeee-sus."
But now I’m worried. Even before Strasburg has arrived from the minor leagues, the Nats are actually doing well. They’re playing .500 ball for the first time in five years. They are hovering somewhere between competent mediocrity and respectability. When Jesus arrives — my guess is late May — they might actually be good.
They might soon be, gasp, a contender. In the race deep into September. Good enough to give you hope. And break your heart.
Where does one then go for respite?