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.