I just thought you would like to get all that out of the way now so you could calm down and enjoy the return of D.C.’s best baseball team in 80 years.
Of course I could have written, “the Nats are probably not going to win,” and it would have been more accurate. Obviously, the Nats could win the World Series.
But it wouldn’t reflect my lifelong experience of covering pennant races and baseball postseasons. What the Nationals and their fans are about to encounter, not just this year, but probably for several seasons — and if they’re very lucky for even longer than that — is thrilling stuff. But if you obsess on winning the World Series in a particular year, you set yourself up, nearly 90 percent of the time, for a very rough experience, even if your team is excellent.
Every season I see the sad towns and disconsolate teams as summer hopes are blown away like sugar spilled on a picnic table on a windy day. What happened to the Nats in Game 5 of last season’s division series was an especially brutal example. But it is also typical. And no first-round exit is as hard to swallow as squandering a pennant or World Series. The Red Sox lost Game 7 of the World Series in 1946, ’67, ’75 and ’86, then Game 7 of the ’03 ALCS.
Note the next two paragraphs. Your April-to-October happiness may depend on it. Goals are essential. But they need to be based in reality.
In the past three years, which MLB teams have won the most games? The Yankees, Phillies, Rangers, Rays and Braves. What do they have in common? None has won a World Series. Only one, Texas, has even reached the World Series. That’s what being a tip-top team in a multi-year window ensures you: nada.
Fans know that the Braves won 14 division titles in a row but only one World Series. Well, how many should they have won? Those Braves were better than most playoff teams they faced, but not by much. In baseball, differences are small: Even accounting for differences in playoff formats, the correct answer is two!
In part, baseball is addictive because it combines apparent rationality with impenetrable mystery. You think you can calibrate it or come fairly close. You can’t. Trying to control the game makes you crazy. Letting go, enjoying baseball on its own terms (okay, not in October), makes you happy.
Players and franchises can’t do this. If they are top contenders, like the Nats, then only “World Series or Bust” or some such target is proper. The task has already started in spring training. Of course, the Nats know if they “fail,” they won’t explode. They just return, try again and get paid to do it.
Players, given a winter, can forgive themselves for almost anything. Why are they able to grip the game lightly, not try to strangle it into submission? Big leaguers feel to the bone what fans may miss: The best of them don’t define their most important games as often as stars do in the NFL and NBA.