I checked the schedule the other day to see how my fall wedding travel plans would conflict with the Washington Nationals’ potential playoff games. Let me say that again — I am actually factoring in baseball into my plans for my own wedding. (My poor fiancée. She’s already had to contend with the uncertainty of college football schedules.) That’s what the Nationals’ amazing start has done to me.
In case you missed it, over the weekend, the Washington Nationals went into Fenway and swept the Boston Red Sox. They now have the second-best record in Major League Baseball and they’ve done that with several key players spending weeks out with injuries. This Nationals team has a very good shot to be the first one to make the postseason and the World Series actually seems like a legitimate possibility.
The last time I felt any excitement for baseball was 27 years ago. When I was 10, the Kansas City Royals won the 1985 World Series and it was awesome. In the days when a players’ Topps trading card was more authoritative than ESPN and before the days of steroids and Deadspin, baseball players still seemed like heroes. And that ’85 Royals team had a lot of them.
Unfortunately, that was the last time the Royals were any good. For most of my life, Royals baseball has been no more a sport than bear-bating. Other than 2003, when the Royals finished four games above .500, the team hasn’t had a winning season in 20 years. How is getting relentlessly beaten game-after-game, season-after-season, for two decades still continued sport?
So baseball became an experience, not a sport. You went to the baseball game, drank some beer, ate some peanuts, and just enjoyed the game as a diversion from the real world. That’s how it was with Royals games post-1980s and how it’s been since.
For three years, I went to Durham Bulls games every day and I still have fond memories, but those games didn’t mean anything other than watching some up-and-coming talents separate themselves from minor lifers. I then moved to Colorado, where I went to Colorado Rockies games every day in the summer for four years. The Rockies were somewhat more competitive than the Royals but never really contended while I was there. But Coors Field (like Durham Bulls Stadium) is a great place to see a game, so I went game after game after game.
Meanwhile, I have always cheered for the St. Louis Cardinals because my father was from St. Louis and was a big fan. Every season, long after the Royals were irrelevant, I’d turn my attention to the Cardinals. My Sunday conversations with my father were a mix of Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and politics. After his untimely death a few years ago, the Cardinals began to mean something much different. I felt a deeper connection to the team, but I also didn’t follow them as closely in part because I couldn’t discuss the Cards with him anymore and in part because well, I couldn’t discuss the Cards with him anymore.
My emotional connection with the Cardinals became stronger when I met my bride-to-be, Carolyn, who grew up in St. Louis. But while she’s a Cardinals fan, she’s not a huge sports fan in general (though being engaged to a professional sports fan is having an effect) so we don’t have regular conversations about them. Still, we both followed the Cardinals postseason last year closely and obviously, World Series Game 6 was the best baseball game I have ever watched. The Cardinals winning Game 7 meant a lot to us, to her family and to my family.
Since I moved to Washington five years ago, I’ve been going to as many Nationals games as I can. And for most of that time, there was little to cheer about. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was always a rock, but other than him, no one really stood out. In 2010, we got our first taste of what the future holds when pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg dazzled in his first start and several more after that. But then a serious shoulder injury took him out for all of last season. Still, I went to game after game after game because tickets were easy to come by and because nothing beats baseball in the summer.
Then came the 2012 Nats, full of “Natitude” and determined to Take Back the Park. Never until this season have I actually followed a team as closely as I have this Nats team – hanging on every win or loss, every injury, every lineup change, every single pitch. It’s that feeling that is so unique. The feeling that every game actually counts. What a fun feeling.
The Nationals have the most solid pitching crew in baseball and their bats are finally starting to heat up. And then there’s the kid. Since he arrived, Bryce Harper has played with so much heart and fire, he’s actually inspiring his older teammates and silencing his critics. And man, he’s so fun to watch.
So in case it’s not clear, I love this Washington Nationals team. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them. Fortunately, my fiancée does, too, or at least she loves me enough to indulge me. At least until I skip out on any wedding duties to catch any October Nats games…