WASHINGTON — It was our much-anticipated quarterly lunch with Tim Kurkjian, baseball analyst extraordinaire, wherein George Will and I bathe in a constant flow of obscure statistics, Kurkjian oddities and ribald anecdotes, like the one about the Red Sox beat writer who accidentally walked in on a players’ prayer meeting and was greeted by the burly right fielder, newly born-again and not yet practiced in the language of Christian fellowship, bellowing “Hey! Can’t you see we’re having f—— chapel here?”
After which, Kurkjian asked us about our daily reading habits. I confessed that during baseball season I give the front page of the morning paper about 90 seconds before going right to the box scores.
To which Will deadpanned, “Why waste the 90 seconds?”
True story. (You can look it up. It’s in Kurkjian’s book.) Of which there are two things you should know: (a) Will was only half joking. (b) He turned out to be prescient: Last Wednesday, I crossed over. I went straight to sports.
It was an important personal milestone, though the circumstances were extenuating: I’d missed the previous home game. You see, on weeknights I’m normally at Nationals Park, it being exactly seven minutes from Fox News’ Washington studios, where my workday ends at 7. If the winds are fair and the Third Street Tunnel clear, I can get to my seat by the bottom of the first, in time to see Bryce Harper’s first at-bat.
Except that the previous game was a day game. I may be an addict, but I do draw the line somewhere. If I find myself at the park at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday, it’s time for an intervention.
I know my weaknesses. I tread with care, having found myself in March recording spring training games for later viewing. That’s bad. Not even players’ wives do that, Kurkjian confirms.
So during the season, I exercise prudence. No day games. No weekends. No checking scores — by hand signal from a confederate in the audience — while giving public speeches. But these are about the only lines I have left.
Between now and October, the Nats are my vice. I started going when they were bad, and once celebrated in this space “the joy of losing,” under the axiom that if you expect nothing, you’re never disappointed. A very serviceable philosophy when your team is terrible.
But I need a new philosophy now. The Nationals are good: young, swift, exciting — and in first place in the National League East.
They’ve got an electric 19-year-old, the aforementioned Harper, who runs the bases like Pete Rose on steroids (so to speak) — with joy and abandon. After being deliberately drilled in the back by an opposing pitcher, how does the kid retaliate? By stealing home. Nobody does that anymore. Not since Jackie Robinson, anyway. This kid does it on national TV in the first inning of Game Eight of his career against a former World Series MVP.
The Nats also have the best starting pitching in the game. They not only throw harder and faster than any rotation on record; they throw with purpose and precision. They lead the world in ERA and strikeouts. Better still, four of the five are 26 or younger. The grizzled veteran is 28.
If precision is not exactly your thing, they have a closer, Henry Rodriguez, who throws 100 miles an hour with no idea where the ball is going. This induces terror in the opposing batter, morbid excitement in the stands and acute anxiety in the home dugout. He was finally yanked — mid-batter, no less — by Davey Johnson, his preternaturally patient Yoda of a manager, after hitting one backstop too many in Philly. Rodriguez has since been demoted. Had to be done before he blew another lead or killed a mascot.
Young, brash and dangerous — how can you not like these guys? True, they could very well go south tomorrow. But what a ride. Even the omens are good. When the wizened Johnson, asked about a recent epidemic of injuries to key players, suggested that perhaps a chicken be sacrificed, a bunch of fans promptly showed up at the park for the exorcism.
The beheading was clean; the chicken, rubber; and the results, pleasing: no major Nats injuries in a week! No entrails were read, but I’d say: The outlook is quite brilliant for the Mudville Nine this day.
Just to be sure, however, I’ll check with Kurkjian.