On May 24th, the Washington Nationals are 19-31, twelve games below .500. They are no hits, no runs and all errors. With injuries piling up as fast as losses, I confess, there were several evenings I just had to turn the game off because I couldn’t watch the bullpen implode one more time: self-flagellation’s not my style.
Yet, the very next day I would turn the game on again. Come on, Nats! Every game’s a new game! New pitchers. New field. 0-0 score. Let’s go!
But really? Did I ever give a second’s thought to this team making a run into the post season? Hardly. A moment of consideration to a run through post season? Not a chance. WIN the World Series? Come on, man, whatchu smokin’? These are the Washington Nationals, we’re talking about. Full of talent that takes us to highest precipice, where the air is thin and the view is fine, just in time to let us fall with a thud that reverberates throughout the region.
I thought it was just me who was icing my bruises from seasons past until a random fly-by interaction in the grocery store, specifically in the produce section, near the bananas. The guy pushing his cart toward me was sporting a Nats hat and, as the team’s fortune of late had taken a decidedly upward turn, I hazarded a, “How ‘bout those Nats?” Expecting a fist bump or at least a thumbs up, I got an eye roll instead. “Plenty of time for them to let us down again,” the man said, rolling past the bananas.
Funny to sport a hat from the team you expect to disappoint you, I thought. Yet, I had to admit that Banana Man’s logic felt familiar. He reminded me how this team had dashed our hopes in many seasons past; jeez, not only dashed, they had stomped them and mashed them into the ground just to be sure they were extinguished. Why should this year be any different?
Ironically, I had made it all the way to August without letting that thought slip in, mostly because the Nats early season performance had been so pitiful there weren’t many highs to fall from. But, in the span of a produce-section moment, there it was suspended in mid-air. Don’t let your heart hope; these guys will only break it. I felt so sad for Banana Man and the duplicitous me, then. I mean, not only did this mindset defy post season possibility, it put a pall on today’s good play. Not only did it rob tomorrow of its hope, it stole today’s joy.
So, thank you Banana Man, keeper of dark times past, you stood me up straight right there in the Publix produce. How often do I fail to celebrate the genuine good of the day in order to protect myself from the worse that may lurk around the bend? How easy it is to listen to the voice that says, Don’t get too giddy because it can’t last. Don’t be too proud because someone’s better. Don’t risk believing because it’ll make a fool of you … That’s its slippery mantra, the commentary it seems to insert into every genuinely hopeful notion.
Funny thing, though. In spite of the doubt, nay-saying and my occasional faltering fandom, the Nats kept up their winning ways. They moved on up the standings, overtaking their nearest competitors and, against all odds, landed themselves a Wild Card spot in the post season.
Hope was alive! — although holding on by its teeth. Defying the odds-makers who had them as underdogs in every contest, this team scraped up runs where there were none in every winner-take-all-loser-go-home contest, almost as if there was some divine intervention involved.
Game by game, those Nats made a believer out of me, though I cannot say I held doubt at bay. Nope, it lolled and lingered into the late innings most evenings, requiring me to distract myself with Sudoku puzzles to quell the apprehension. Blessedly, I got a brief respite from the tension in the league series against the St Louis Cardinals, so I could shore up to endure the wild mood swings ahead in the seven games against the Astros. “Dare we hope?” I texted a fellow fan. It all felt like a good dream I didn’t want to wake up from.
But wake up we did, and those Nats were still World Series Champions. The team that had been buried under doubt in the spring found resurrection in October. So here I stand before the greatest upset, the greatest comeback(s), the greatest lovefest, the greatest postseason, and perhaps the greatest World Series win of all time, with a handful of clichés and a heart full of memories. How much this team taught us. Heck, how many pep talks can we adopt from this team?! They just roll …
- If you stay in the fight, you’ll give yourself a chance to win it.
- As long as you’ve got a swing, the game’s not over.
- Improbable is not impossible.
- When you’re in a slump, nothing picks you up better than a kid’s song.
- Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get em in.
- Go 1-0 today. Then go 1-0 tomorrow.
- The weight on my shoulders is way lighter distributed 25 ways.
- Let the bad call go so you can put the next pitch into the bleachers.
- Guts alone are rarely enough, but sometimes they’re just enough.
- Dance like there’s no one watching, even on national tv.
- Sometimes bumpy roads do lead to beautiful places.
But the one thing the 2019 Washington Nationals taught me comes as a confession, courtesy of Banana Man. I had my doubts, all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, but that doesn’t make me an unbeliever. Belief leaves room for doubt; it just doesn’t rent it a room. Hardships, losses, strikeouts, blow ups, injuries and the doubt that arrives with them … this season would have been nothing without watching — no living — those first. Those formed the stairway we climbed together all the way to wake up day.
Yesterday’s doubts are what makes today’s belief real.
On the morning of game 7, with the series tied at 3-3, (and the scheduled starter, the ace pitcher, newly emerged from a neck brace!) I found it really tempting to say, “You know, whatever happens tonight, it’s been a great season.” (which it certainly had!) But no championship team has ever uttered those words before taking the field for a deciding game. Me and my Cracker Jacks, we were All In.
Believe in what you’re doing today. Go ahead, go 1-0. (Thank you, Davey Martinez.) There will be plenty of time to be sad if you lose. Don’t let that expectation steal today’s joy. Today is the day you can do something about.
Nats, they had you down, but not out. They had you depleted, but not defeated. They had you on the ropes, but not without hopes. That’s when you flipped the script, and hoisted us doubters into the believer seats way up above the clouds where the air is rare and the view is oh, so fine. It may be a long way down, but somewhere along this rickety, risky, scrabbly climb with you through the 2019 season I seem to have lost my fear of heights.
Now I can go bananas!
I just love to compete! folks say to me, pretty much never.
I’m not the competitive type, they say, pretty much always.
And then they cut each other off in conversation. One-up each other in accomplishments. Go off about something on Facebook. Cannot believe that offending patron! Swerve around that maniac who is texting while driving. While on the way to run this place the way it should be run. Every day. Even on Sundays.
Not competitive, though. We’re above this. Don’t dirty my hands with that sort of thing. It will all work out in the end, they say. Always does, right? Let’s not keep score. That way, everyone wins. Everyone goes home happy.
Nope. Not the competitive type.
Watch out for these folks. Don’t let ’em fool you. Because last time I checked we were all doing the same thing: playing to win at a game none of us can avoid losing.
What these people who ‘don’t like to compete’ are really saying is that they don’t like to keep score. They don’t want to be measured, because measuring shows where we stand. It tells how we’re doing, how far we’ve come, and which direction we’re moving.
It shows us who is ahead which is, for now, who is winning.
Oh, but quantifying this makes it so cold and unforgiving, they say. Where is your compassion? your kindness? your empathy? Where is your humanity, woman?
Daniel Murphy just loves to compete.
As he strides to the plate we know his current batting average, his on-base percentage, his tally of homeruns, RBIs, and extra base hits. We know how well he does with runners in scoring position, how many times he’s walked, been hit by a pitch and scored. We know how many times he has faced this particular pitcher, how he’s fared, and therefore, how this particular match-up is likely to go.
We love measuring. we love predicting. we love evaluating the odds to see what the chances are. These days we know everything because we measure it. everything, that is, except what will happen this time.
The only one paying no attention is Daniel Murphy. He’s just looking for a hit.
He’s not thinking about the hours of preparation that brought him to this moment. He’s not worrying about the last time he faced this pitcher. He’s even immune to the boo’s from the crowd (which, may I say NY, is poor form?) which actually signify how well he’s done against his former team.
No. Murphy has one thing on his mind: this pitch. And with all of the wizardry he can muster and all of the artistry at his command, he is focused on getting his bat on this ball and putting it somewhere where no one can catch it. He’s looking to get on base. And then to get to the next base and the next and then finally home.
Daniel’s serious about this game. He plays to win it. And he seems to be having the time of his life!
Fast balls, curve balls, splitters, cutters and change-ups. Bring ’em high and tight or low and outside. Throw ’em all. The best in the game do, as the best in the game will. That’s what he knows will make him the best in the game. That’s the fun of it.
Who’d want to play a game where there was no winner? We’re made to measure.
The smallest children must rely on adults to supply all their needs, but soon, they learn how to get their own way. They want something they’ve been told they can’t have, and the wheels start turning. If Mom is decisive and consistent, she can withstand these forays. But, if she is the least bit equivocal, they plead and they whine. They cajole and convince. As soon as they sense Mom is wavering, they up their efforts. They can smell victory. Now, they’ve got her. What’s a few dollars to avoid a scene?
Kids hone these “negotiation” skills as they get older and the stakes get higher. No longer is it the My Little Pony or the Transformer toy, now it’s… Who can I hang out with? What am I allowed to say? How far can I push back curfew? Same kid, advanced version.
If Mom and Dad have discussed this child and agreed on the proper response to these onslaughts before the heat of battle, they can stand firm in the withering fire. But, if the child senses the smallest crevice between the two – perhaps Mom is willing to give a little while Dad is rigid and won’t discuss it (or vice versa) – the child knows this instantly. And plays it to his advantage. He approaches one without the other. He panders to one and not the other. He plays one against the other. Something inside of him knows, without ever having been taught or trained, how to drive a wedge between his opposition.
What is this inside us that seems to arrive with us, which convinces us we should have what we want or what others have and seeks things for our own good even though we aren’t old enough to know our own good? How is it that a ten or twelve year old knows that if she can set her opposition to arguing about their differences, she gets the upper hand? If she can sow distrust and division, perhaps even get them fighting among themselves, she can get away with whatever she wants.
- It’s born in us.
- It’s taught to us.
- It’s confirmed in us.
We are born with the desire to make our way. We are taught we should make our own way. We see that if we are very good at it, we can get what we want. In spite of, in the face of, in ignorance of, or in defiance of, the needs, wants and desires of every other being. That ‘good’ may displace the very humanity born in us.
We must guard against any desire we see in the other who seeks to set us at odds with our friend, our neighbor, our spouse, our child, or our best selves. It is a very clever force. When it senses wavering, indecision or dissension in us, it preys upon this. That’s how it gets its way. That’s how it wins.
It’s child play. And kids can be a holy terror, can’t they?