Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pitchers and Catchers

One hundred twenty-three days.

For some things, it’s not really that long. For other things, like when there is no baseball and you are 7 years old, it’s a very long time.

We are Washington Nationals fans. We’ve been Nats fans since the day they arrived (with apologies to my hometown Philly fans). I traveled to Washington's first game (in Philly) to watch Termel Sledge hit the first Nationals homer in a loss to the Phillies. In 2010 I took the boys, then 7 and 4, to spring training to see Stephen Strasburg pitch. He gave up two-homers and struck out everyone else. At least that’s what I remember. We go to games. My older son has learned how to keep score from his grandfather, my father-in-law, and even keeps score when we watch on TV. Like I did, my boys play little league. We have a pitch-back in the backyard and neighbors painted a home plate in the street where we play wiffle ball.

We love baseball. It is our family sport.

Game 5: Cardinals v. Nats, during happier times.
Here is D.C., we are still figuring out certain things about life with baseball. Like, don’t schedule things in October. This used to not be such a problem. The night of game 4 of the playoff series with the Cardinals I had to go to an event with Lori. I assumed someone would think to have a TV, but no. This was the game where Jayson Werth clobbered a walk-off homer in the 9th. Nowhere could I find the game except on my iPhone with the MLB app. I was huddled in the corner with a friend and we went crazy with the win and, in an impulse, decided we HAD to go to game 5. I clicked on the Stubhub app and within about 10 minutes had 4 left field tickets.

What an amazing and gut-wrenching game. I’ve told others that in the future, my boys will tell their friends they were there. They were at that game. They’ll tell the story in their own way. The experience of being so close to victory and then having it vanish into the cold, dark night. To go from a peak moment of anticipatory joy to the valley of sudden defeat so quickly. It’s still hard to fathom how our team lost that night. But they did. In a stunning and historic fashion.

After Ryan Zimmerman’s pop out to 2nd base to end the game, as the Cardinals rushed the field in celebration, we sat there, along with the others, stunned. What had just happened? This must be a bad dream. It was incomprehensible.

But it wasn’t. It was real. And I sat there with Lori and the boys and reached over to hug them as they buried their heads in their arms to hide their tears, which soon became hard, full sobs. Then tears filled my eyes. Fans began their slow, zombie like walk of despair up the aisle to the concourse behind us. A few would look up and see us now alone in our row except for our misery.  A couple men came over to offer condolences; tried to share a few words of encouragement: “tough loss boys, it was a good year, though.” That sort of thing. One man, early 60's, in full Nats gear, jacket, cap, came over. Misty eyed he looked down at the boys and explained that he’d lived his entire life in Washington. Grew up a Senators fan, and said, “I know just how you feel.” Choking back tears, he turned and walked away.

And that’s how it is. Some get lucky like I did. I came of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s as a Phillies fan. Those were great years. Our team won it all! But some aren’t so lucky. They are born in the wrong town in the wrong year. Their team never wins.

Still in shock and disbelief we shuffled with the remaining others to the metro stop. “It was a good year,” I tried to convince myself. But it doesn’t work that way. There is always one more place to go. One more level to reach. Until you win everything there can be no true satisfaction with having just a “good year.”

The escalator took us down to the platform and we slid into the next train car with the others. A few Cardinals fans were slapping each other. The rest of us just stared at the floor or our reflections in the black windows. Some leaned against each other too exhausted to sleep as we waited for our train to leave.

After a minute or two my younger son broke the silence: “Dad?”
“Yes?”
“When is the World Series?
“Well, they still have to play the League Championship Series, then comes the World Series. So in about 10 days or so.”

“Dad?”
“Yeah?”
“How much time do the baseball players take off before they start playing again?”

I looked up and caught the eye of an older man sitting across from my son. He looked at me and we gave each other the slightest of smiles.

“Well, son, pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training sometime in mid February.” My son looked down at his fingers and started counting.

And there it was: No matter the outcome, at least in baseball, there is always next year.

That was 122 days ago. Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow, on the 123rd day since we last had baseball.

And I like our chances.

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