I went home last weekend to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. It was a great party, in a loving, warm house, in a quiet suburb of Washington. I couldn’t help but reflect on how our home is dotted with baseball artifacts: my mom’s pictures with Willie Mays and Cal Ripken, autographed baseballs, my Little League trophies – baseball is just all over our house.
My father was a long-time businessman – he loves the numbers, the probabilities, and the gambling end of the game. For him, the thrill is less about having a rooting interest and more about knowing the odds and rolling the dice. My mother comes from a line of fanatical New York baseball fans. I would say she is more of a narrative, or storytelling, type of fan. Advanced numbers interest her, but they are not necessary for her to enjoy the process of out-getting and run-scoring.
I began to think about why I care about the Washington Nationals, as well as how I care about the team. I realized I love the analytics, like my dad; and like my mom, I love the storytelling – I love the drama. I have taken both of their ways-of-being in equal measure and made them my own.
I address baseball as a series of nine-inning plays, and I have come to treat this wild, unpredictable, untamable game with no less seriousness than any art critic. I probed my own knowledge of the team and realized that it isn’t just that I know the bench players. I know the minor league system pretty well, too; I spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down highlight reels on YouTube of guys we just drafted (Dane Denning could be a real coup, by the way). A player’s sister favorited a few of my tweets and I was giddy for days. I refer to the team as our or us or we.
I went to two games last weekend. I live a long way from Nats Park. Walking in felt like I’d made a kind of secular pilgrimage, like I belonged there in a church-like way. I swore that Gio Gonzalez would not turn me into a raging pessimist, and he didn’t! (It probably helped that the Nats scored 13 runs that night.) I had a brat from Ben’s Chili Bowl – I found it hilarious there was a Peet’s coffee stand – I just soaked up this “home” stadium that is 2,500 miles away from me, and it really dawned on me:
I am a for-real, by-God fanatic. And I’m not alone! There are others!
Two of my mom’s cousins pulled me aside last weekend and told me that baseball fanaticism runs deep in our family. I was informed that in the beginning there were three teams — the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the New York Yankees; that my mom’s side was basically split amongst them; that the divisions were as intense as any gang rivalry or neighborhood division; and that the ultimate way to infuriate one’s parents was to root for the other.
This type of growing up is entirely alien to me.
I was a suburban, latch-key type. Don’t get me wrong: my childhood was as close to idyllic as reasonably possible. I played Little League and was terrible. I did all the extracurriculars I could squeeze in – I had a tremendous résumé going off to college. In sum, I was entirely banal. Growing up, Orioles baseball was in our house. We had season tickets. We saw Ripken break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak, we watched Brady Anderson hit 50 homers, we huddled in front of the television as Cleveland walked us off in the 1997 playoffs.
But Baltimore was never my home; it’s not especially close to my home; and while I have fond memories of Camden Yards, it was never mine – Camden Yards was simply the closest thing I had. And that was good: for me, as the type of kid who memorized baseball cards, who can recall who steals and busts in fantasy drafts, it was absolutely better than nothing. I enjoy Jim Palmer as a broadcaster; I love Boog’s sandwiches; I like the team itself, even though I reserve a special grade of contempt for the ownership.
I like the Orioles and I always have – but I do not love the Orioles. I do not buy GameDay packages for them. I do not go into mourning over their losing streaks.
Orioles fandom was nothing like what my mom’s cousins described to me. The quasi-religious fundamentalism, the frothing, demanding, and frankly outrageous style of New York baseball fan – it just wasn’t there. My aesthetic of Orioles fandom was distant; it was as polished and smart as was my tree-lined suburb; comfortable, not visceral.
I remember as far back as middle school hearing rumors of a team in Northern Virginia. I remember my ears perking up because I wanted a team in my backyard. It would be the Expos – a franchise that had, through little fault of its own, fallen onto down times. Attendance had dwindled, the budget was nearly nil, the team was just not competitive, though its farm system continued to churn out future star after future star. I became, let’s say, fixated on the club.
The first jersey I’d ever owned was not for an Oriole but for an Expo – I wore Vladimir Guerrero’s name. (He was hands down the best player I’d ever personally seen play, until Bryce Harper came along.) I traveled to Olympic Stadium in the last year of the Expos’ life to report on the fans and the stadium and the team for the Reston Times. Expos fandom became part of my being.
Eventually the Nationals did come to town, and I’d love to say that suddenly all was right in the world, but all wasn’t right.
I wasn’t living in near-D.C. any longer. I’d gone to the University of Missouri for college; the footpaths and booming town center of my home were long in the rearview mirror. My young-manhood was mainly late-capitalist wandering rootlessness. I ambled through a stream of scattered, transplanted, half-assed jobs for quarter-assed paychecks in out-of-the-way locations. I was mired in loneliness and deep, sullen, angry depression. I often struggled just to show up to work. Suffice it to say that I didn’t think much at all about baseball. The Nationals were either mediocre or simply awful. Time passed, and baseball passed, too.
And then came Stephen Strasburg in 2010, Harper and Jayson Werth shortly thereafter. I’d found a permanent home in Los Angeles. I determined that what I needed to be, at all costs, is some kind of writer; and slowly, my fandom re-awakened. I felt those kid-like embers again; I thought about how eagerly I’d awaited for news on whether a team would come to Washington. I remembered how in the dial-up, pre-Google days, I’d spent hours trying to track down information on the Expos roster, so I could know who were going to become our players.
I began listening, mostly, and reading other people’s work, and then posting commentary myself. I found myself getting immersed in the years I’d missed, reading old box scores of random games from franchise history, poring over FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. I found myself co-administering a Facebook group.
The 2013 and, famously, 2015 Nats both came up well short of expectations, and I have no trouble admitting those were brutal slogs to get through. What I realized in those two years was that the pain was not ironic or distant; it was real and genuine and I wanted it that way. I cared about how the team fared. Perhaps I cared too much. I did not need to sit silently through dinner after a brutal loss. But how much more ironic detachment does the world really need? What is wrong with earnest investment? A friend of mine who is a Mets fan told me that seasons like Washington’s 2015 disaster are ones that build character in fans and fan bases, and as much as I hate saying it, I agree.
When I pull for the Nationals through thick and thin, I feel I am in a real sense saying that I have principles. It is true that I am a capitalist, a cold-hearted analyst who believes in numbers and performance – but I am not a mercenary, either. I stay.
There’s a scene in the 2015 movie “Brooklyn” where Ellis, a young Irish immigrant, listens to her future husband, Tony, tell her that he won’t let his kids grow up Yankees fans – they’ll be Dodgers fans. He’s half-kidding – the line delivered with a glint – but the point is, baseball is serious. It means something. It meant something to immigrants looking for shared identity in a new country. When I pull for the Nationals, I not only feel connected to my cross-country hometown, my neighborhood, my family and friends who are all still East Coasters, but I also get a ancient sense of my own family’s New York-immigrant-American roots, too. My passion reminds me of the passion that my ancestors may well have felt about their own new lives and communities. It gives me a sense of continuity; it gives me a relationship with the past, present and even the future.
The 2016 Nationals are a deep, strong team. The club has its flaws, but top-to-bottom, this is a profound, talented roster that plays an admirable, high-character brand of ball. I look forward to following these guys – my guys – all the way to the end. Whatever the results are, I’ll be grateful that I have a team – logos, colors, a history – to call my own.