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Nationals: Making Sense of What Happened

(Photo courtesy Jeff Roberson, AP)

A few days have passed now since Washington suffered its collective sucker punch and watched its beloved young team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  There are two keys to healing and getting over it.  One has to do with understanding the element of time.  The other has to do with recognizing not what happened- but how it happened.

It’s About the Long Haul

Baseball as a sport goes against all we currently value in terms of instant gratification.  It requires the longest vision of any sport; 162 games are played over six long months. But it is actually much longer than that and this is the key perspective to understand.  Especially for a young team like the Nationals, this is not about one season.  It is about many.  Look at it at more like a game that will be played over the span of a decade.

The Atlanta Braves in the 1990’s ran off a string of 11 consecutive NL division titles.  They captured exactly one World Series.  They only appeared in two in that span.  Washington Post columnist, Tom Boswell points out the Braves have lost 7 division series since 2000.  Even the Yankees have dropped 5 since 2002.

Baseball playoffs are a complete and total crap-shoot; especially with the new one-game wild-card format.  And the divisional best 3 of 5 format is too short to really tell the tale of a team’s depth and talent.  The regular season does tell that story.  And no one in their right mind would have ever thought that in 2012, the Washington Nationals would finish atop the NL Eastern division, much less with the sport’s best record.

That was one full year ahead of schedule.  Remember this is the task of a decade that lies before us.   That’s an extra year of playoff and playoff-style pressure the players now have experience with.  And you know the Nats may well be favored to win it all next year with Strasburg pitching a full season and with a whole winter ahead of Mike Rizzo with much more leverage than he’s ever had before in making deals to make the club even better.

This is a long-term proposition.  We’re not used to thinking this way.  But even in baseball terms, we have more hope for instant gratification than just about any other team in the sport.

How We Lost

I remember the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers played a season finale at Memorial Stadium in 1982 that would determine the winner of the American League East.  No wild card that year.   Someone was going to end up out of the playoffs having won 94 games.  It was possibly Earl Weaver’s last game as the Orioles skipper. It was Cal Ripken’s rookie season.  The stakes were enormous.

The Brewers crushed the Orioles 10-2.  As an Oriole fan at the time, I remember being disappointed but not hurt.  The Baltimore fans that day were generous in spirit.  They stayed long after the drubbing to offer their final cheers to Weaver.  In the young Cal Ripken they sensed a bright future.  The Birds would win it all the following season.

I think our collective psyches would have been much better preserved if the St. Louis Cardinals had beaten us 10-2 last Friday night.  Yes, we would have the same overall disappointment, but I bet the fans would have stuck around for awhile to thank the team and pretty much just hug each other for the incredible season they had all witnessed.

But, instead, on 5 different occasions, the Nats were a single strike away from victory.  To lose under those circumstances is cruel fortune, indeed.  But how do you suppose it felt when almost the same scenario played out for the poor Texas Rangers last year?  They were a strike away on at least three occasions- from winning the World Series.

Things are relative, my friends; in both time and occasion.

As for our decade of excellence that is to follow- an incredibly important brick was added to the foundation of this franchise in 2012.  The bitter taste that lives in us is especially acute in the players.  They will live with it through the winter, through their surgeries and workouts.  And the bitterness will mix with the optimism of spring.

It is my belief that the events that transpired on that fateful Friday night, hurtful and as frustrating as they were to so many, will be the very reason this young, talented bunch of ballplayers coalesces even more as a team.  What I think we will see, is a steely determination; first-class athletes and competitors motivated to the core by a failure, that to be fair, was only so immense because of how unexpected their rise to the top was last season, to begin with.

No- this pain will subside and give way, as human sentiment so often does, to hope.  Fortunately for fans of the young Washington Nationals, we have ten years ahead of us to savor, enjoy, and yes, occasionally suffer through.  After all, over that decade, each year, 29 teams will walk off the field of their last game with a loss.

But, should anytime over these ten years, we become the team that walks off the field of that last game with a victory- it is all the pain and sorrow and joy and ecstasy of the arduous path we took to get there that will help us truly understand the magnitude and the rarity of the greatest achievement in sport.

Welcome to disappointment, to pride, to love- to Baseball.

  1. Walter
    October 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    That ’82 game was the most excited I’ve ever been going to a sports event.

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