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HELLER: Nationals wow long-suffering D.C. ball fan

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When friends recently invited us to join them for a weekend at their Bethany Beach, Del., vacation home in late September, I asked my wife, "Do they get MASN on the TV there?"

Kathy is a lifelong baseball non-fan. "Who cares?" she replied.

"Are you nuts? That's the last weekend of the regular season. The Nats could be fighting for first place, and you want me to be watching sand crabs and sea gulls?"

After all, marriages and friendships come and go, but a Washington baseball team hasn't been in a late-season pennant race since 1945. Priorities, anyone?

OK, I admit it: This native Washingtonian is hooked — and I'm entitled.

Way back in 1949, I more or less put aside childish things and began rooting for the original Senators -- a frustrating pursuit if there ever was one. Given the District's horsehide drought from 1972 through 2004, I'd spent 30 previous summers mostly following teams that not even a mother could love. So this entrancing, enchanting season seems more than a little overdue.

Since I discovered the greatest game ever devised by man, exactly two Washington teams have savored winning seasons (1952, 1969), and neither came close to first place. Newcomers to the local baseball scene may revel in the exploits of Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Harper, Gonzalez, Morse, Desmond, LaRoche, et al. So do I — but I also remember non-achievers named Dente, Kozar, Veal, Zipfel and about 100,000 other guys who should have been playing in bush leagues rather than the nation's capital.

I now divide family members, friends and acquaintances into two groups, fans and nonbelievers. When you ask somebody, "Did you see what happened last night?" and he or she says, "Huh?" you know you're talking to a person on the wrong side.

Hey, I realize that baseball (and any other sport) doesn't really matter in the greater scheme of things, but isn't it fun to pretend it does? That's the beauty of being a fan: You can live and die with your team, but its successes and failures don't really change anything. If the Nats win the NL East race or even the World Series, my life won't be materially better. It'll just seem better.

Probably this is only the first of many prime years for a young Nationals team masterfully constructed by Mike Rizzo and handled by Davey Johnson. A few such seasons might turn Washington into a super sports town instead of merely a place where the Redskins, good or bad, rule supreme.

Though baseball is my first love now, I grew up pledging allegiance to the all-white, mostly mediocre Redskins teams of the '50s. How many other folks can say they actually saw Sammy Baugh crank up that deadly right arm?

Over the past two decades, however, the arrogance of owner Dan Snyder and the incompetence of too many coaches and players have turned me off. I don't root against the Redskins, you understand, I just don't care if they win. Same thing with the Wizards, Capitals and D.C. United. They're just a bunch of people from other places playing children's games.

But those Nats — my Nats! Each morning it's fun to pick up the paper or go online and read about the game I saw last night. It's fun to look at the standings and marvel, wonder of wonders, that Washington is still in first place. It's fun to realize that this year, at long last, we might not have to say, "Wait 'til next year."

The best thing about baseball is that there's a game every day, so there isn't time to revel in victory or wallow in defeat. Just like in real life, you have to go out and get them tomorrow.

Bart Giamatti, the late commissioner and scholar, famously wrote of baseball, "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

But sometimes, for some teams, the fall and winter can be full of lovely results and memories. That's why we watch, and hope and pray over, a mere game that can seem so much more.

For more of the author's columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com.

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