Of Dreams and Thanks; Nationals’ Baseball

A Distant Mirror: Muddy Ruel scampers home with the Series-clinching win. October 10, 1924

There’s a sneaking suspicion that the turkey will taste better this year for Nationals’ fans.  They award a World Series Championship every year.  Washington baseball fans just had to wait out 95 of them to get the city’s second title.  There was no shortage of pain and suffering in the interim.  Sad and lengthy litanies of losing, watching teams leave, and then there were the 34 years spent wandering in baseball’s desert.  A new team was only a temporary salve.  What followed were 100-loss seasons. A promising ascent to relevance was capped with improbable and crushing playoff losses.  Prior to this World Series angst was always a core component of Nationals’ fandom.  If the fates were finally going to purge that bucket of bile it had to be done in spectacular fashion.  And, so it was.

Baseball fans can be sorted into bins of predominant interests.  There are the Prospect Whisperers who know the player population of the feeder systems.  They watch these youngsters like a farmer surveying tender plants in the field.  There are the Numbers crunchers who speak the language of performance metrics.  Long lists of other hoppers are out there.  But, they all share the common trait of dreaming.  Baseball is all about dreams.  No group of baseball fans understands that better than the Romantics.

The game has a certain integral beauty that resonates with the Romantics.  At a ballpark the green space is occupied by skilled and speedy young adults working in choreographed patterns.  There is stunning athleticism on display.  There’s time to talk about the present, reminisce, and share dreams, or just plain visit.  Sunsets during evening games paint the sky.  Players go through an abbreviated career life cycle in full view.  There are so many elements in baseball for Romantics to get excited about.  But, there’s none better than a good story.  And, the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals season is one hell of a story.

With the Series approaching a month in the rear-view mirror the long list of improbabilities that the Nationals overcame is well known.  Five times the team faced elimination.  All five times it was losing in the seventh inning.  All five times the Nats came back and won.  It closely resembled the old silent movie series, “The Perils of Pauline.”  For some reason someone thought it prudent to tie Pauline up with about 100 yards of rope and put her on a set of railroad tracks.  A speeding locomotive with its onerous cow-catcher raced towards Pauline.  Only the intervention of a guy in a white cowboy hat at the last second saved the heroine from a horrendous end.  The World Series was kind of like that.  The 1924 World Series was not all that different.  In Game 7 with the Senators losing Bucky Harris hit a routine grounder to third which should have ended the 8th inning.  Instead it hit a pebble in the infield, bounced over Freddie Lindstrom’s head and scored the tying runs.  That bought Walter Johnson into the game.  Four innings later rookie Earl McNeely hit another routine grounder to third which, again, took a bad hop over the Third Baseman’s head as Muddy Ruel scampered home for the Series-clinching run.  Somewhere on the left side of that infield was a rock wearing a white cowboy hat.   Little wonder that Juan Soto’s game-changing hit in the 8th inning of the Wild Card Game would find a sprinkler head for a landing spot.  The lines connecting the two Series wins 95-years apart are many.

The Astros’ Series was only a reflection of the Nats’ season in many regards.  This was a team with high hopes rendered to dead-and-stinking status before Memorial Day.  On the playoffs roster were a cadre of players literally plucked from baseball’s player disposal dumpster.  For that team to pull itself up, get key contributions from the reclamation guys, and win it all…that’s an American story.  A distant corollary was the Depression Era race horse sensation named “Seabiscuit.”  Foaled at fabled Claiborne Farms the horse had an uninspiring early career.  His owners gave up on him as a three-year old placing him in a “Claiming Race.”  For $6000 anyone could buy the horse immediately following the race.  No one did initially.  But, Trainer Tom Smith saw something in the Bay.  Seabiscuit went on to have an amazing career winning more career money than any previous horse.  His signature moment was a match race at Pimlico on November 1, 1938 versus War Admiral, a huge and highly successful Triple-Crown winning horse.  War Admiral was a heavy favorite.  In 17 races coming in to the match race War Admiral had won all but one.  The diminutive California-based Seabiscuit was dismissed as a lightweight in comparison by the Eastern establishment.   President Roosevelt stopped a Cabinet Meeting to listen to the radio broadcast.   In contrast to his typical style Seabiscuit jumped out at the start and walked away with a four-length win and a new track record.  A horse retrieved from racing’s dumpster had just turned the racing world upside down.  It’s a tale not only of redemption, but also fulfillment: Promise hidden in plain sight finally realized.

Seabiscuit leads War Admiral through the clubhouse turn at Pimlico, November 1, 1938

 

Dreams of all sizes get realized on a steady basis.  This championship was one of them.  It was always tenuous, always within an inch or two from coming undone.  Had Howie Kendrick‘s liner to the corner missed the foul pole to the right the 2019 Nats may have forever worn the adjectives associated with second place; plucky, pesky, and gritty.  “Those pesky Nats showed a lot of grit as their plucky play pushed Houston to the brink, but, Houston finally asserted itself.”  As in most sentences ignore everything before the “…but.”   Howie didn’t miss the foul pole, however.  And, the Nats didn’t miss their chance for glory.  They don’t award style points with the Championship trophy.  But, each champion has a story.  This amazing and seemingly impossible one will stand the test of time.

At the victory parade one person noted that his 13 year-old son had never known Washington to be without baseball.  It puts everything into context.  There truly is a lot a Nationals’ fan can be thankful for this unforgettable year.

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