MLB playoffs > NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs

It’s 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ division series against the Giants. I am excited to see my city’s team playing in October. And a little nervous. Nats 2014 postseason tickets

The 2014 postseason–the second the Nats have reached since coming to D.C. nine years ago, also the second for a Washington baseball team since 1933–may end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or it may end in the kind of soul-crushing loss that leaves one staring blankly into space until 4 a.m. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that baseball’s postseason–the difficulty of reaching it, the unpredictable outcomes allowed by a quick schedule and five-game division series, and the overall beauty of the national pastime–beats football’s, basketball’s and hockey’s. Let’s inventory what those other prime-time pro sports get wrong:

NFL: The impossibility of multiple-game playoff rounds in a sport as injury-prone/dangerous as football keeps the postseason relatively brief. But teams with a regular-season losing record can get in. And the hype about the Super Bowl–should I call it the “Big Game” to avoid annoying the NFL’s control freaks?–irks me to no end. Get over yourselves already.

(I have other issues with the NFL, but I’ll save those for later.)

NBA: By bloating the postseason to four best-of-seven rounds and then further padding out the schedule with a travel-dense 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA ensures that its playoffs regularly welcome teams with losing records and then grind on for almost two months. Wrong. And then the same handful of teams dominate the Finals. Boring.

NHL: Hockey, too, lets losing teams into its postseason. But my major gripe with the Stanley Cup playoffs–aside from the Caps’ helplessness in them–is the nearly two-month duration that ends with the absurdity of a sport born on frozen bodies of water being played in June.

(As for soccer: MLS, your postseason is fine by me, especially with D.C. United in it.)

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Heartache and hard lessons

Thursday night, I saw the greatest game of baseball ever played at Nationals Park. Friday night, I witnessed its saddest contest: a nightmare of a Game 5 loss that saw the Nationals turn a 6-0 laugher into a 9-7 termination of the season that sends the Cardinals to the National League Championship Series and leaves Washington counting the days until pitchers and catchers report.

It hurt to watch in person–to see the wheel ratchet from “we’re running away with this” to “we’ve still got this” to “three more outs” to “just one more out” to “we need another walk-off win” to “oh, no.”

Like many Washington-engineered calamities, this one was built by committee. Gio Gonzalez lost his command in the fourth and fifth innings, coughing up three runs. After the initial six-run onslaught, we went four innings without pushing another run across the plate. Davey Johnson somehow summoned our fifth-best starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to pitch in relief in the sixth, leaving lights-out reliever Ryan Mattheus on the bench; we were lucky to only surrender one run then. From our unimpeachable perspective in section 319, the umpires squeezed us on the strike zone. Tyler Clippard made one mistake pitch in the eighth that left the ball in the Nats bullpen. St. Louis forgot to quit, even when behind by a touchdown. And then Drew Storen couldn’t get that last strike, three times. Game over.

In an alternate universe, I might have tuned out most of this. I grew up so far in the sticks in New Jersey that going to games in New York or Philly was something confined to the very rare day trip. ( The first one I remember was seeing the Phillies at the Vet, which by itself could turn anybody off of baseball.) My dad, maybe as a result of a childhood in the Cleveland area, didn’t make much of a habit of watching games. My mom grew up in the Bronx but was never enough of a Yankees fan to pass that on to me either–to my lasting relief. This beautiful game that we invented was just another thing on TV.

Despite the occasional night out at Camden Yards after college and my annual fleeting interest in the postseason, the baseball gene did not get switched on until 2002. That was when, after too many trips to see my brother in Boston that hadn’t included a stop at Fenway Park, I decided to see what I’d missed. I paid too much on eBay for two tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game that ended in epic form–a blown Mariano Rivera save and a game-winning home run over the Green Monster.

That got me paying attention to standings and box scores, and a year later the game rewarded me with the horror of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

Some gangs initiate new recruits by beating them bloody. This was my initiation to baseball.

And yet the next year, it paid off when I watched the Sox win it all.

I hope the Nationals’ story in 2013–when we’ll have Stephen Strasburg all season, Bryce Harper will have a year of seasoning, and Storen won’t be be recovering from elbow surgery–plays out along those lines. But you never know. Seven years of going to games at RFK and Nats Park, more lost than won, have taught that lesson well. Tonight pounded in a few others: That you can’t ease up while you’re ahead or give up when you’re behind–even far behind. That counting on somebody else to fix your problems doesn’t always work. That expecting luck to operate one way never does.

I’m not going to say that this habit is the most rational use of my time and money, or that it exhibits the most balanced outlook on life. But if I wasn’t going to risk the heartbreak of last night, I wouldn’t have been around for the ecstasy of Thursday–or the magical first innings yesterday when it looked like we were walking into the NLCS. Like Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

A game 7 or 79 years in the making

Today, I’m going to the first postseason baseball game I’ve ever attended. Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals will also be the first major-league postseason game to take place in the District since Oct. 7, 1933.

I didn’t quite allow myself to think that we’d reach this moment in the middle of July. Going back to a chilly April night in 2005, I was just happy to have a team with my city’s name on its jerseys.

Now? The next few days or weeks may send this place into delirious enthusiasm or push it off a cliff into a level of sports-induced despair I haven’t felt since the horror of the Grady Little game, or maybe Georgetown’s Easter Sunday gut-punch loss to Davidson in 2008. Yeah, I’m kind of a mess right now.

So if anybody needs me, I’ll be at the ballpark this afternoon. Go Nats!

Our baseball team

The Washington Nationals a) exist, b) aren’t in last place in the National League East, c) have a winning record, d) lead the NL East, e) have the best record in the National League.

Each of those statements would have been exponentially more improbable at this point in 2004. By then, we’d long since gotten sick of parsing the mumblings of MLB suits about the chances of the Montreal Expos being rescued from their death spiral (no thanks to MLB’s absentee mismanagement) and transplanted to fill the baseball vacancy in the nation’s capital.

So after MLB finally acknowledged the obvious and moved the Expos here, my wife and I joined a group of friends in buying a 20-game partial season-ticket package.

In the Nats’ improbable first season in the District, we saw the team somehow dance around the flaws of a staff of aging veterans and trash-heap signings to reach the All-Star break first in the NL East, second in the NL. But then the wheels fell off the bus and the team scraped its way to an 81-81 finish.

(Barry Svrluga’s National Pastime remains the book to read about that season.)

Six straight years of losing followed, and we’ve renewed that 20-game plan for every one of them. The great thing about baseball is that even an awful team can show flashes of brilliance against a good one: I have never enjoyed watching a sports event more than when I was in the stands at a sold-out RFK on Father’s Day of 2006 to see Ryan Zimmerman beat the Yankees with a walk-off home run after Mike O’Connor and Gary Majewski had somehow limited their offense to 2 runs.

D.C. baseball has developed its traditions along the way, like Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes at RFK and Nats Park, the Presidents’ Race in the middle of the fourth, and having the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” ring out after a home run. And Metro is crowded with people wearing Nats caps and shirts on game days. That’s all I really wanted, after my city went 34 years without a team.

Now we’re getting something extra: a team that’s good. Really good. This is a new experience. The last time a baseball team in Washington had a winning season was 1969, when Ted Williams guided the Senators to an 86-76 record and I was -1 years old. For that matter, no major sports team in D.C. has gotten close to a championship since my Hoyas reached the Final Four in 2007.

I don’t quite know what it would be like to watch the home team playing deep into October. But I’d like to find out. Go Nats.