Ask Me If I Care

Time is running out for the Nats.
Time is running out for the Nats.

It began so innocently.

I was working on a book in which softball figured prominently in the plot. As far as I knew, there weren’t many rules. I had no experience with the game, aside from a very brief attempt at playing on the girls team in high school, and the only games I’d watched as an adult had been casual field games in rural Virginia in the ’70s when rules were made to be bent.

Anyway, I thought it might lend some credibility to the book I was writing if I learned a thing or two about baseball. So I turned on the TV and found the Mariners game and started watching. I don’t remember anything about that particular game, but the next day there was another game on, so I watched that one too. And then the next day …

I hadn’t planned to become Mariners fan, of course. It takes a special kind of person to root for a team that loses a lot. A lot. But there wasn’t much else on TV, and I got into the habit. I became addicted to the soothing sound of Dave Niehaus’s voice. I didn’t know then that Niehaus, the announcer for the Mariners for 33 years, was already in the Hall of Fame. But I instantly appreciated the warmth and generosity of his on-air manner. From him I learned what a can of corn was, and also a grand salami. My oh my.

By the time I left Seattle it had happened to me. I had somehow become a baseball fan. The obsession might have ended when we returned to D.C. had it not been for my brother Bill, who took a job at the Nats’ ballpark in 2008. Talking about the game became just another thing we did.

In many ways the Nationals are a very different sort of team from the Mariners, but the most jarring distinction to me is the catchphrase “Natitude.” The Mariner’s current phrase is “True To The Blue.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Natitude.” But the way it’s framed in the team’s marketing suggests a kind of pugnacious sense of entitlement. I appreciate the important of confidence in sports. You can’t play if you don’t think you have a chance. And belief is a powerful thing. But there’s a world of difference between quiet self-possession and noisy boasting.

This season has been particularly tough for the Nats, who started out at the top of many lists of likely playoff contenders. Now they’re eight games back from the surging Mets, and only the diehard crazies are still clinging to the hope of a mathematically possible miracle for a post season.

There was a time I wouldn’t have known or cared what any of this meant. I’m not even sure I care now. But I have learned a bit about baseball since that first Mariners’ game. I understand the infield fly rule and the ground rule double. And I know what will happen when the Nats get the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning and they’re trailing the Marlins by four runs and there are two outs and Ian Desmond comes to the plate. I sit on my couch and mutter, “He’s going to strike out and I don’t care.” This is called defensive indifference.

I could care. But it’s only a game, right?

Et Tu, Anthony?

"The Big Train,"pitcher Walter Johnson led the Washington baseball team to the championship in 1924.
Baseball has its own history. Walter Johnson led Washington baseball to the world championship in 1924.

There is history, and there’s History.

Lower case history tends to be personal. It happens to all of us as we go through our little lives. Upper case History more often involves the rise and fall of nations, civilizations, great leaders and vile despots. Such history generally relies on a  fair amount of hard facts and reliably recorded data.

Hard facts have always been a stumbling block for me. I’m inclined to step around the side of any fact and imagine how it would look without its makeup. It’s my firmly held belief that perception influences data. At least that’s how it seems from my angle.

This aspect of history baffled me throughout my academic years. I struggled to get through every history class. The sheer volume of history was just too discouraging.

However, as we learn if we give History a chance, Time changes everything. Including history.

Television has dramatically enhanced the way history is shared. Ever since Ken Burns began making his engaging documentaries about defining events such as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, and World War II, as well as his inspiring films dealing with social and cultural topics such as Prohibition, Jazz, and The Brooklyn Bridge, history has escaped from the quiet pages of books. In Burns’s films the soul and passion of history are revealed.

As may be apparent from the gushing, lately I’ve come around on History. While reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thrilling Team of Rivals I was enthralled by the wisdom, the patience, and the sheer goodness of Lincoln. Now I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating The Great Bridge and learning  things about Brooklyn I’d never known, in spite of the fact that my Dad was born and raised there.

Admittedly, history may never grip the general population the way reality TV apparently does. But I’ve been delighted to learn that history buffs come in all sizes and uniforms. As regular readers of this blog may be tired of hearing already, I am a baseball fan. I have my favorites among the teams and certain players whose skill and style lift my mood. One of these is the National’s Anthony Rendon, who shines wherever they put him on the field.

However, Rendon ruffled a few feathers recently when, in answer to a reporter’s question about whether he would be watching the All Star Game during the break, he replied that he didn’t like to watch baseball because it was too long and boring. And that he preferred to watch The History Channel.

The way the media fell all over themselves analyzing this shocker was good for a few laughs. You would have thought he’d insulted the Pope. Some fair-minded reporters suggested that perhaps he had been kidding.

Well, all kidding aside, I’d like to think Rendon enjoys The History Channel from time to time. I mean, Ken Burns made a great documentary about baseball, too. What’s not to love?

Hit It Here

One of the greatest hitters of all time and a true hero besides, Ted Williams played for the Boston Red Sox for 19 years.
One of the greatest hitters of all time and a true hero besides, Ted Williams played for the Boston Red Sox for 19 years.

I never watched a Home Run Derby before last year. I had always thought, what’s the point? If there’s no game on the line, it all seemed kind of, I don’t know, silly.

How silly of me.

As a relative newcomer to the world of baseball, I still have a lot to learn about the strangely addictive game. I can’t pretend to know much about it really. But I have come to my own way of thinking about baseball, and it goes like this: Baseball is like art, in that you don’t have to understand it to know what you like when you see it.

Which brings me to article two in the playbook: Breathes there a soul so dead who doesn’t like to see a well-struck home run?

I think not. There’s something in that sound, the solid crack of the bat and the collective gasp of the crowd that triggers a Pavlovian surge of satisfaction. No matter who is batting. We all admire a heavy hitter. Even if some of them aren’t all that admirable outside the ball park.

There are plenty of skillful hitters who manage to scrabble hits out of lousy pitches. There are patient batters who can wear pitchers down, fouling off the junk until they get something they can drive. There are bunters and choppers and steady swingers who somehow always wind up on base. But the hitters who light up the nights and take us right out of our seats are the home run hitters.

I defy anyone to watch Giancarlo Stanton launch one into the sky and not feel something akin to awe.

The Major League Baseball Home Run Derby has been going on since 1985. Before that the American League and the National League each held their own championships. The Derby brought the two leagues together to crown one overall batting champ.  This year they changed the format, supposedly to make it more interesting or something. When something’s not broken some people seem driven to add features to “improve” it. I could go off on a computer tangent here, but seriously, I watch baseball to get away from that stuff.

And so what if the Home Run Derby has devolved into a corny pageant of childish delight? So what if marketing strategies and team politics sully the purity of the contest? It all comes down to a guy standing at the plate with a bat and another guy throwing the ball toward him, and thousands of fans enjoying the moments.

A home run arching into the upper decks perfectly symbolizes the trajectory of all hope. Time slips loose from its clockwork and slows as we watch a ball sailing into the sky, where all dreams fly, never to come down, and for a brief transcendent moment we become one nation, soaring on a home run hit out of the park.

Playground Earth

Rock falls in ultra slo-mo beside the tumbling Lower Cascades.
Rock falls in ultra slo-mo beside the tumbling Lower Cascades.

The slabs of stone curve impossibly high above the ground, looming like some silicate tidal wave about to crash.

We were hiking in Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, North Carolina, where lime green buds swelling in the damp spring air lit the forest with a glow of energy. I had come to see a few of the state’s multitude of waterfalls. We visited three in the short time we had earmarked for outdoor exploration, and each one offered a different note in the music of water flowing over stones.

Yet though I was delighted by the waters, I was astounded by the stones. Hanging Rock State Park occupies some 7,000 acres in the Sauratown  Mountains, sometimes described as “the mountains away from the mountains,” a range east of and apart from the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Ancient quartzite rocks worn down through millions of years frame every view with dramatic weight.

Blue Ridge haze to the west.
Blue Ridge haze to the west.

The beautiful oak and pine forest is interwoven with dark swathes of Canadian and Carolina hemlock. Groves of wild rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel and galax flourish in the damp understory. We were there too early for the blooms, but the promise of spring was abundant and intoxicating in every direction while massive rocks chiseled by time into impossible sculptural forms and graced with the delicate tracing of lichens, moss, and ferns kept me spellbound.

The Hidden Falls slip down stone stairs centuries old.
The Hidden Falls slip down stone stairs centuries old.

I had been keen to see some of North Carolina’s waterfalls after reading about them in various online guides to the state. But my itinerary wasn’t limited to natural sights. There was also what some might call the baseball agenda.

In my growing passion for the game, I’ve begun to branch out, adopting a kind of when-in-Rome policy. Thus, when we learned that the local Class A minor league Greensboro Grasshoppers would be playing the Delmarva Shorebirds while we were in town, I was determined to see a game. It did not disappoint.

The Hoppers currently rank number 2 in the Sally League, but I had a feeling that no matter what happened on the scoreboard I would enjoy the experience because of Babe and Yogi.

Nice work if you can get it.
Nice work if you can get it.

Babe and Yogi are two frisky black labs who work as batdogs for the Grasshoppers. They retrieve the bats at home plate efficiently and cheerfully, and add charm to the easy-going minor league atmosphere.

Even though there was a light mist falling throughout the game, the fans lingered and cheered, especially when the game went to extra innings and Grasshoppers pulled out the win in the 11th inning with a walk-off hit.

And then there were fireworks. Not just fizzling little streaks of colored light either. Booming rockets of exploding color for five solid minutes. Totally awesome, even if it was minor league. It was an up close and personal experience, like getting close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray on your face, or climbing hundreds of steps carved in massive stone old as the planet.

Tomorrow is another Earth Day, and we celebrate once again the miracle of our lovely planet. Sometimes I think it’s funny that it’s called Earth, when that substance is such a small part of the whole. The precious earth which provides our food and the trees that keep our air breathable occupies only a thin layer above the dense stratum of solid and molten rock that make up most of the planet. Yet each year we pave and pollute more of it, as if we thought that more earth can be manufactured. Humans can be such short-sighted beings.

On Earth Day, and every day, I am grateful for the trees and the rocks, the dogs and the waterfalls, the fireworks of life.

And still hoping for an 11th inning miracle for us and our season on this planet.


Pink is a state of mind.
Pink is a state of mind.

Summer dropped into town for a quick visit this past weekend.

Weather mood swings are part of the landscape around here, but this particular bounce coincided with the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin, and the parade to celebrate same.

These events draw mobs of tourists even during years when the weather’s cold and dreary and the blossoms either refuse to cooperate or open early and vanish before the first eager visitors step off the metro. It can be a frustrating experience to travel hundreds of miles only to find the star attraction down for the count.

Nothing says D.C. like the iconic view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.
Nothing says D.C. like the iconic view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.

But this year the blossoms stayed under wraps longer than usual, due to our Winter Without End. And as a result, when the temperatures climbed into the 80s on Saturday, a perfect explosion of blooms drew a perfect explosion of visitors. Local media went wild posting pictures of the spectacle, and the spectacle of people admiring the spectacle. It was a real love-fest. Sort of like Woodstock but without the music and the mud. Record crowds rode bikes, pushed strollers and took the metro to join the throngs shuffling around the narrow walkway beneath the famous trees. Yay! Right?

However, you just can’t please some people.

Today The Washington Post ran a story about the trash all these visitors left behind. The much larger than usual crowd naturally left in its wake a much larger than usual amount of empty water bottles, food containers, etc., so much that the usually hyper efficient National Parks maintenance crew was unable to stay ahead of it. They had difficulty even getting access to the trash cans because of all the people. And, it must be said, the trash was neatly piled. There was simply too much, too fast, to be removed quickly.

It’s unfortunate that some visitors may focus on this minor glitch in what was otherwise one of the most spectacular cherry blossom displays of recent years.

It’s human nature to get overexcited when things get off to a great start. The sun shines, the blossoms open, the mood is Aquarian and full of goodwill to all. And then, oh well. Into each life some trash must pile.

Baseball fans get this. The Nationals, who were off to a glorious 7-2 start before the weekend, had their noses rubbed in the dirt in Atlanta in three wish-we-could forget-them games. And to add injury to insult, Ryan Zimmerman got his thumb broken in the middle of it. There was no comedy to the errors either.

But, unlike the Cherry Blossom Festival, which lasts only a few weeks, the baseball season lasts six months. At least. There’s plenty of time for the Boys in Red to regroup, take out the trash, and play some great ball.

The sound I’ll be listening for is that telltale kaboom, when you know it’s leaving the park. That’s the sound of summer, when it’s here to stay.

Hit It Here

Take me out to the ball game.
Take me out to the ball game.

Spring fever affects people in different ways.

For some the sight of a robin on the lawn in late February is enough to touch it off. Others thrill to the appearance of the first crocus, nudging its way through the icy crust of the most recent snow.

But for a great many people, nothing says spring like the crack of a bat, the thwock of a ball in a glove, the warbling rendition of the National Anthem.

Yes, Virginia, Opening Day is one week away, and even though the Nats will be springing into action at an away game this year, there’s no denying the spring in our step as we finally reach the end of this trying winter just in time to Play Ball!

The Nats were taken down a few pegs last year, floundering in a sea of unrealistic expectations and dark soul searching following their 2012 meltdown, blowing a 6-0 lead in game five of the National League Division Series.

This year the sports chatter has been a bit less giddy, less wild speculation about far off October, more focus on getting the job done on a day to day basis. Keeping the engine tuned, the tank filled, the tires properly inflated. We’ll see how far we go.

But even with our pent-up enthusiasm throttled, we can’t help feeling happy just to have another season to unwrap. Mmmm — that new season smell. Essence of fresh cut grass, oiled gloves, honest sweat, beer and popcorn. I am so ready.

I don’t know how many actual games I’ll manage to attend. Life is complicated.  Other demands, events and obligations inevitably trump a day at the ballpark. And that’s okay. There are things far more important than baseball.

But that’s exactly why humans need baseball, or something like it, in their lives.

Life can be so overwhelming. We humans require respite from the relentless tragedies and strife that demand our attention. A good book or movie, a gathering with friends, a walk on the beach perhaps, all these can be restorative. But for me, there’s nothing quite like the buzz in the ball park, rain or shine, win or lose, when the pennants are snapping in the breeze and the balls are soaring into the upper stands. Yeah. Sometimes a great moment.

Rounding the Curve

Got to keep your eyes on the ball, at all times.

I watched Trouble With the Curve over the weekend. The Nats were having a night off, but at this point in the season my mind is so tuned to the rhythm of baseball that I fill in the off-nights with something game-related. Thus the recent Clint Eastwood film came to the plate.

And I enjoyed it. It’s always nice to watch a story where things work out the way you want them. Where players don’t get left on base inning after inning. Where closers close. Where fluke bobbles and bad hops don’t turn what should have been a close game into a rout. But such is real baseball. Sometimes it’s painful to watch.

The love-suffer paradox of baseball is something every fan understands. Everyone loves to watch their team win. Only the true believers can stand to watch when the wheels fall off and the wagon hurtles towards the collision.

Such has been the story for much of the Nats season this year, a year that started out with understandably inflated hopes and perhaps more than the usual illusions of grandeur. After winning a National League East title last season, this year the Natitude was writ in bold print, with all the drama of prize fight hoopla. Yet now, with more than two-thirds of the season behind them, and the humbling list of injuries and missed opportunities still growing, the team is struggling to climb back to .500. A wild card would have to be pretty wild for them to qualify for the kind of thrilling post-season they gave us last year.

Last week, after a drubbing from the Mets, Bryce Harper delivered a public plea to his team to pull themselves together and play with “heart.” At 20 years of age, Harper is still so young. I wonder if he ever saw “Damn Yankees,” the classic musical in which a fan makes a Faustian deal with the devil in order to secure a winning season for his team, which, as it happens, was the Washington Senators. The song “Heart,” sung by the entire team to the young phenom Joe Brody, claims that talent and smarts are fine as far as they go, but without heart, no team can go all the way.

I would have loved to hear Bryce break into song. But that would have been a clown move. Not his style.

But I applaud him for trying to remind his team, including the managers and handlers, that all the talent in the world can only take a team so far. Luck and heart—or call it crazy determination if you like—is essential to get through the grueling 160-game season, the ups and downs, the curves and swerves.

Eastwood’s baseball movie has a simple, satisfying conclusion, but the plot also touches on serious issues such as aging, gender discrimination, ethnic prejudices and bias. It’s an old fashioned movie about values. It doesn’t rely on an overly dramatic sound track or special effects (though Amy Adams’ hair could qualify as a special effect—it has enough curve, curl and movement to confuse any hitter.)

But the point of the movie goes beyond baseball. Like a good pitch, life comes at you pretty fast, and your at-bat can be over in a blink. So it’s important to make the most of every moment. And to watch out for the curves, because soon enough we’re all headed round the bend. Enjoy the game while you can.

I think that’s what Bryce was trying to say.

My Back Pages

The Library of Congress has room to read and no end of books.

My resolution for this new year is simple: less time on Facebook, more time with real books.

It’s not that I hate Facebook. It’s more a mild sort of cringing from the whole leap into the virtual social pool. Inside, you see, I’m still that shy nerd I was at age six, 12, and pretty much always.

I’ve learned to mask it, of course. One can’t function in the push and shove of modern life without developing a crust of some thickness. But, given a choice between entering a room full of laughing talking humans or a meadow full of sky, I would head for the sky. Space. The final frontier, as the fellow said.

Actually, I’ve never had the slightest desire to go to space. I’m an earth sign, after all. Even if I give no credence to astrology, I enjoy the poetic symbolism of its design. But I’m more a burrower than a flyer. And nothing completes the cozy burrow like a shelf of books. Or a wall. Perhaps a room. Or two. It could be a long winter.

Libraries are my spiritual home. The hushed atmosphere of a reading room seduces me. It was one of the many, many, things I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – how so much of the story took place in the library, and how Giles, the librarian, was heroic, geeky and adorable.

But I digress. The point is, the task of keeping up my Facebook appearances – liking this, commenting on that, posting proofs of my existence to the universe – is taking away from the time I need to read, write and daydream.

Daydreaming is a key component of the writing thing for me. I need that staring into space part of each day. Although sometimes a baseball game works almost as well – there’s something mesmerizing about watching a ballgame. Anyway, that’s the kind of space to which I do relate – the kind in my head. Without it I begin to feel trapped in ye olde burrow.

Books are a wonderful way to create space inside your mind. But sometimes you need to step out of the page and into a world of your own.

So that’s my plan for the New Year. How long will it last? Well, it’s only a hundred days till opening day. I think I can make it. After that the sky’s the limit.

Words cast a timeless spell.

One of a Kind

Unforgettable Ichiro

Being a Mariners fan just got a little harder.

Ichiro Suzuki changed his uniform yesterday.

The longtime “face of the franchise” turned in his Seattle Mariners number 51, trading it for the Yankees’ number 31.

The deal went down so quickly that many teammates and most shocked fans never saw it coming. Since he first arrived as a rookie for the Mariners in 2001, the year they made a run at the American League championships and Ichiro earned both the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards, the Japanese outfielder has established himself as someone unique in a sport where flashy, brash and outspoken characters tend to hog the spotlight.

Quiet, methodical, graceful and uncannily gifted, Ichiro won the hearts of fans in Seattle and Japan through his amazingly consistent play. For ten years running he had more than 200 hits a season, won the Golden Glove award, and was named to the All Star team.

Yet the Mariners haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2001. In fact, during the six years I lived in Seattle, we considered it a good year if the team came anywhere close to a winning season. For a couple of those years the Mariners and the Nationals both languished at the bottom of their respective leagues.

Now, suddenly, the Nats are contenders. The Mariners, not so much.

So it’s easy to imagine why Ichiro would welcome the chance to play for the most bodacious, ego-loaded, winning machine in baseball. The Yankees, win or lose, are more than just a team of ball players. They are a team of superstars.

And Ichiro deserves the chance to shine with them.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play, and witnessed his signature routine at the plate – the bat held out like a painter sighting along his brush, the tugging at his uniform, the adjusting of his elbow strap – and his remarkable ability to create quality hits on pitches outside the strike zone. You could close your eyes and feel the whole stadium like a giant heart beating as the crowd chanted his name: “I-chi-ro! I-chi-ro!”

Will they love him with the same passion in New York? Somehow, I doubt it. After all, the Yankees are stuffed with talent. They may be jaded to superstars. But I hope they appreciate what just happened.

Ichiro is a Yankee. I’ll be damned.