Washington Nationals, as one of MLB’s best are guaranteed . . . almost nothing

Correction: In a previous version, this column stated that the Atlanta Braves won 14 National League East titles in a row. The first three of their 14 straight divisional titles were in the National League West. This version has been corrected.

After winning the NL East in 2012, the Washington Nationals are coming into the year with a cacophony of hype. But Thomas Boswell says focusing on this year’s potential is missing the point. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 8, 2013

The Washington Nationals are not going to win the World Series this season.

Maybe they’ll lose the Series or the NL Championship Series. Or maybe unforeseeable, unholy mishaps arrive and they’ll miss the playoffs or, gulp, finish under .500. Such things happen. In the past 50 years, 11 teams won as many or more games as the 2012 Nats yet were losers the next year.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

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.

The NBA Finals have had 44 most valuable players. Forty winners (91 percent) are in the Hall of Fame or will be. Michael Jordan won six times. Of 47 Super Bowl MVPs, 32 are or will be in Canton. That’s 68 percent.

Since ’81, just seven of the 34 World Series MVPs are or will be in the Hall of Fame. We could debate a few borderline players. But it doesn’t change the trend. Who does dominate baseball’s “world championship?” Here are six of the last eight World Series MVPs: Jermaine Dye, David Eckstein, Mike Lowell, Edgar Renteria, David Freese and Pablo Sandoval.

So, if you’ve tied your dreams to the Nationals, you better hope that Danny Espinosa or Kurt Suzuki wins the ’13 Series MVP because something that odd is usually essential to being a baseball champion. A player on that level has been the key man twice as often as a Ryan Zimmerman.

How did the Giants win two of the last three World Series? Yes, great starting pitching was the bedrock. But Marco Scutaro and Cody Ross were the MVPs of the ’12 and ’10 NLCS. Both were midseason pickups. If the Nats win the NLCS this year, their key man may not even be on the roster yet.

Lifelong fans know the drill. Some sports are all about, or largely about, the winning. Baseball is about the winning, too. But it is also, to a significant degree, about “everything else.” If you don’t love that vague “everything else,” 162 times a year, the game will wear you out. Partly, it’s beer in the bleachers or seeing the arc of every career, not just Strasburg’s but Goon Squad boys, too. But, most novel, it is a new region-wide summer cuisine.

For generations Washington has dieted on awful baseball with brief tastes of mediocrity, minus 33 years of starvation. Now the Nats are a feast, and fun, too. However, in a sport where eight teams trace their lineage back to 1876 to 1884, the basic nature of the game isn’t going to change for us.

If you don’t hope for the best, “World Series or Bust,” you aren’t a fan. Maybe you aren’t even technically alive. But if you don’t understand the true odds, if you don’t internalize the infernal difficulty of the thing before opening day arrives, then you are not in touch with the element of mystery, of factors and actors undreamed, at the center of almost every baseball title.

The game runs on two tracks. The regular season offers a ridiculous range of pleasures, from watching a star develop to the granular level of strategy. There are several novels’ worth of plot, too, if you care to indulge.

The other track is a chilly tunnel that runs through October. It’s thrilling. But the beckoning light at the other end, which glints like a bright trophy, is usually, though thankfully not always, a very large train.

The crashes are amazing. We already saw one last year. But no one ever really dies. Someday, you want that trip to end in glory. But never forget the one plan that always works, that never fails: Enjoy the ride.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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