The redemption of a beautiful October run

Decades of pain cleansed in Nats’ World Series championship run

We hadn’t even settled in our seats on a cool October night at Nationals Park to watch another deciding Game 5 playoff game with about 4,000 other hardcore fans when a familiar, dreadful feeling hit deep inside.

The Dodgers had jumped out to a 2–0 lead in the first inning and extended that to 3–0 the following inning. That was a little different from three other winner-take-all Game 5’s the Nats had participated in during the 2012, 2016, and 2017 postseasons. Those were all at Nats Park; we could merely watch the 2019 game as it unfolded in LA on the jumbo screen at the park, not live. In those other games, the home team had jumped out to an early lead. Maybe this one would be different.

Baseball fans are superstitious like no other. By the second inning, we noticed many fans getting up and moving to new seats, as if that would lift a voodoo-like curse that seemed to grip the franchise and other D.C. MLB teams since another that many called the Nats —a combination of NATionals and SeNATors — won the 1924 World Series. That was the last time a D.C. MLB team had even won a playoff series, though there were 33 years without a team so that 86-year string is misleading.

I often wonder what attracts me to such events. Perhaps it comes down to going to D.C. baseball games with my dad as a kid, with that being one of the happier childhood memories amid remembrances of attending funerals for my older sister and JFK. Dad played baseball in high school himself and was such a big fan that the day my older sister was born and Mom told him her water broke and it was time to go to the hospital, he waved her off, pleading to watch one more pitch of a baseball game on TV. Try doing that these days and see how long you remain married.

The Senators — who were officially called the Nationals between 1905 and 1956 , while most media and fans continued to call them the former name — stunk, but I was too young to care. Dad didn’t seem to care on the surface, though I sometimes heard him yell rather loudly at umpires. He had grown up a New York Yankees fan, used to watching that team play into October. For me, it was an exciting event, fun, and our time to bond. That’s what I mostly cared about.

When we moved to Dallas about the same time the Senators did, we embraced that team, the Texas Rangers, unlike most fans who remained in D.C. Losing a team is worse for many than suffering through continual heartbreak and nonsensical events. I was too young then to understand why rooting for the Rangers was a sin to most former Senators’ fans. But I understand it now, and I approve.

New Nats banish the ghosts

I ended up moving back to the D.C. area, and soon afterwards, the franchise that started in Montreal in 1969 and only made the playoffs once moved to D.C. It was weird how our moves coincided, not planned on the surface, but maybe in some odd, subconscious way, they were.

I took my kids to numerous current Nationals franchise games — more so than other teams since you could get tickets for $5 each. We met players like Strasburg and Rendon and Zimmerman and Soto. A photo I took in 2011 of the kids with Strasburg, shown at left, remains one of my favorites. They were brief encounters but meant something, especially to kids. The players were nice, cool, and talented. But before this year, some labeled them losers just because they came up one run short in deciding playoff games.

What had happened to the Nats in previous playoffs I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. It was cruel and vicious and nonsensical. My son, who has played baseball and football at levels surpassing anything I did [though he has a ways to go to match my bball level], said he held back tears watching the final moments of the 2017 Game 5 NLDS loss.

I knew how he felt and couldn’t watch the last moments of that game against the Cubs, as I couldn’t against the Dodgers in 2016, the Giants in 2014, and the Cardinals in 2012. I listened to those games on the radio like I used to do for so many Senators and Rangers games as a kid. Many former Senators fans like Dad would have given a substantial part of their earnings to watch their team participate in the postseason. It was harder then to make the playoffs in that era. I should have enjoyed the moment more. But I couldn’t.

So when the Nats were down to their final six outs in the eighth inning of another NLDS winner-take-all game in 2019, losing by two runs against one of the best pitchers in the game, things looked bleak. But this year has been different. In the blink of an eye, luck changed, fortunes changed, curses exploded. Rendon and Soto took Kershaw back-to-back, tying the game. Kendrick provided the winning margin with a grand slam for the ages in the tenth inning. Maybe when you keep hoping for, and working towards, a dream, eventually your luck changes. The relatively few remaining fans at Nats Park drowned themselves in euphoria. It was a moment many won’t soon forget.

Then came the sweep of the Cardinals in the NL Championship, as the Nats claimed their first NL pennant in franchise history and first for a DC baseball team since 1933. The celebrations in the bars and neighborhood surrounding Nats Park continued well into the early-morning hours. Strangers hugged, slapped hands, bumped fists.

And when the Nats won the franchise’s first World Series championship about a week later, the celebration was beyond belief. Beyond the pure joy was relief, not just that this relatively young team had overcome a hump, but it had banished the ghosts of D.C. baseball past that had haunted the nation’s capital since 1924.

I often tell myself not to take these games so seriously. But that’s hard because it becomes more than a huge entertainment business, more than a mere game, when you invest yourself into it. That’s the danger and the joy of following a local sports franchise. You find yourself caring more about what happens in these games than some might think is healthy.

I don’t want to go into a long explanation here on how the sports entertainment industry has grown with the TV and Internet ages to rival the Hollywood cabal. But suffice to say, I prefer to watch Strasburg strike out another batter on a wicked, disappearing change-up or John Wall fake out two defenders and jam the ball over another, to most other forms of entertainment available. You can say the players are overpaid, but so are the characters on Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory making $1 million or more per episode. They are reality TV stars, much more interesting to me than anyone on Survivor or Big Brother.

Baseball holds a special place to me because it was how I first really bonded with Dad. Dad never got to attend a scene like I did after the Nats won the World Series, after he followed them since the 1940s.

My son — a better high school and Little League player than me — had long said that when the Nats reach the ultimate pinnacle and a World Series-winning parade ensues, he would go to Dad’s grave at Arlington Cemetery — not too far from Nationals Park — and celebrate there.

The day after we attended the parade, we did just that. The air was clear and crisp as we located the grave. We draped the headstone with a Nats rally towel, sign, and World Series pennant.

I spoke about how Dad had long followed the old Nats team to a frustrating degree since the closest that team ever sniffed the World Series between 1946 and 1971 was fourth place in the league. We poured some water and dirt from the World Series watch party on the grave. It might have been a silly gesture, but the symbolism of erasing decades of futility wasn’t lost on those in attendance.

A day later, Kurt Suzuki and other Nats spoiled the celebration somewhat by helping Trump turn the quick White House visit into an impromptu MAGA rally, and thus avenge the Game 5 boos. But even that couldn’t ruin what had been accomplished in October. Professional sports may largely be big, political, entertainment businesses, but just for a few moments in time, inside the diamond in those Nats baseball games, exists art, some beautiful stories, and redemption.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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