Three thousand miles away in San Francisco, the Nationals are looking to keep their season alive for two more days and a Game 5 at home. I’m racing against time, hoping the Nats can squeak out a victory before the bartenders at the neighborhood bar decide to close down on a quiet Tuesday night.
As if welcoming me into the bar from the rain and the end of a middling first date, Bryce Harper deposits a 97-mph fastball from Hunter Strickland into McCovey Cove. And we’re all tied up in the top of the 7th inning.
From the corner of my eye, I see more than a Giants fan sitting a few stools down. I see me from two years earlier. October 2012 was supposed to be the magic carpet ride for Washington baseball. Facing elimination in Game 4 of that year’s NL Division Series, Jayson Werth delivered an emphatic walk-off home run to force a Game 5. A Game 5 that until the 9th inning looked like it would send the Nationals onto the next round. And then the bullpen imploded.
Clad in a plaid button down and alternative Giants hat, after the Harper bomb, his body language, and the alternating curses directed to the Nats and plaintive “Let’s Go” towards the Giants were instantly recognizable. When the moment we have no control of starts to slip away, the fact we can see it drift away and are powerless to do anything makes the sting that much greater.
Baseball engenders the superstitious. Some of its best players can’t shake the habit. Fans are no better. With so little control over what happens between the foul line, it is only natural to look for our own Jobu. I watched opening day at the very bar I found myself at – sharing the last excruciating innings of Game 4 with that Giants fan. The hope was that by returning to where the season started, I would help keep it going for my team. I wanted this stranger to feel the same pain that landed at my feet in, coincidentally a Bay Area-themed Brooklyn bar two years ago when what seemed like an invincible Game 5 lead against St. Louis evaporated into the DC night.
The box score at the end of Game 4′s nine innings is moot. I’m not one of the 25. I didn’t toe the rubber. I didn’t dig into the batter’s box with an inning on the line. I wasn’t the guy behind the plate for all 18 innings of the longest post-season game in baseball history. So the sting pales in comparison to the guys who spent all year working to the NLDS only to see a few pitches spread out over five days end it all.
The thing is, it still hurts. Born in March’s potential. Strengthened through the up-and-downs of the middle of the season, and affirmed by September’s standings. The belief that this is the year seems all but certain when the playoffs begin.
All eleven other months of the year, if forced to choose I’d want baseball to break my heart in October. But during these 31 days, when that is what happens, I see the silver lining of playing out the string as a team postmarked for last place by the All-Star Break.
Before the calendar flips to October, as baseball fans, we’re secretly rooting for the opportunity to watch our teams lose on the big, bigger, biggest stages. Our fandom and devotion means we are rooting for a chance to have our hearts broken on one hit, one immaculate catch, or one miscalled checked swing. As baseball fans, it is in our DNA. We stand, we clap, we talk to ourselves, we talk to the players who can’t hear us over the din of the crowd or from thousands of miles away as we stare at a bank of wide screen TVs in a desolate sports bar. Those fans who see their team walk off the field in front of a half-empty stadium on a balmy late August afternoon having been eliminated from playoff contention will tell you otherwise, but there is a tranquility to that fate. You see it coming. The playoff percentage shrinks. The first place team fades further into the distance. And despite that finality, there are still games to be played. The winners pack up and head to the airport. The losers head home for the night only to come back to the park the next day.
In October, the champagne, beer, and protective tarps over the lockers fade away like a cutter diving away from the batter for the eliminated team. One pitch ends more than a game. It ends a series. It ends a year. It ends that team. The book closes as the losing team trudges down the steps to their locker room and the home team crowd parties on, beckoned by the winners to keep the night going, knowing full well that another series, another battle with the unexpected awaits. Their eyes fall on the next team they face. Our eyes flip to the calendar and wait for the hope that springs with the words, “pitchers and catchers report.”
And the hope that the next meaningful rainy October night comes as fast as the baseball schedule allows.