Washington Nationals provide a welcome distraction, not a cure

Columnist September 17, 2013

This was Denard Span before the first game of a doubleheader at Nationals Park on Tuesday, answering whether sports could provide a salve for the horrific loss of life just four blocks and 29 hours away:

“I doubt it,” he said. “I’m gonna be honest with you. There’s a lot of hurt families out there. We just want to try to do our part hopefully trying to help it. There’s nothing we can do to replace the lives that were lost yesterday.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Span spoke more than five hours before 4:10 p.m., when his meek grounder up the middle miraculously got through against the Braves, allowing the winning runs to score in a pulsating three-run, bottom-of-the-ninth comeback at Nationals Park, where a communal gathering a day after a tragedy ended in absolute euphoria.

And Span’s words still held up: A live sporting event can contribute only so much toward civic healing.

“Then you have to realize it is just a game,” said Steve McCatty, the Nats’ pitching coach. “So many other things more important in life than this, that trying to even play the game [Monday] was the not the right thing to do.”

The Post Sports Live crew tries to see meaning in the Nationals late season run even though the team is a longshot to make the playoffs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Walk out the back of the park, where the players enter, up First Street SE, right on N, left on Tingey and you’re there in about eight minutes: a few dozen yards from Building 197.

Go up Tingey and make a right on M and you’re in front of the Navy Yard’s gigantic anchors and black-iron gate, which was closed to most vehicles Tuesday.

Across the street is Lot W, a parking lot belonging to the Nationals and filled with satellite TV trucks and reporters and cameramen from up and down the Eastern seaboard. On Monday when Davey Johnson heard the news of family members awaiting news there, the manager knew the decision not to play was correct.

“When the families are using our parking lot, there is no chance,” Johnson said. “It’s just . . . unbelievable.”

Twelve dead, 12 lives ended by another sick, deranged man with a gun, the worst loss of life in greater Washington on a single day since Sept. 11, 2001.

And we’re supposed to move on, play the games, because we’re told that’s who we are, that’s what we do.

It’s not merely sports. We’ve become so conditioned to returning to our daily lives after mass shootings and tragedy, in general, we don’t allow time to properly grieve in this country anymore. Explaining to your employer that you need time to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket is almost easier than saying you need to process the fact that people you see at lunch daily were gunned down a few buildings away a day earlier.

“What’s weird is how things get back to normal so fast,” says Justin Mattingly, who works for the city’s department of transportation a few blocks away from the Navy Yard. “There’s a doubleheader for the game today, and it makes sense to have it, I guess. But these things become so commonplace, it’s almost unusual if things don’t get back to normal right away.”

On the walk back to the park, a young couple is poking at leftover ravioli from a plastic container. Asked if they want to be interviewed, they politely decline. It’s such an unavailing part of the job: stopping strangers on the street to ask them to explain senselessness that mental-health and law-enforcement professionals cannot.

I have stayed up all night in Atlanta, waiting for doctors to talk about the patients they operated on that were struck by shrapnel in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. I have been to Sean Taylor’s funeral and worked a supply tent a block from Ground Zero, done hundreds of stories about life and death and their connection to a particular athlete, coach or team. And the games never brought anyone back.

All they did was provide a diversion for the day, like telling the kids to go out back and play before you take the call that a family member has passed away.

The Saints’ return to the Superdome and their long road to a Super Bowl were about as emotional and authentic a civic healing as sports can provide. And yet after the confetti was gone in New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward was still hurting.

Moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean moving on.

Nearing the entrance to Nats Park on the walk back, a siren wails in the background as a disturbed woman yells profanities at no one. She is sitting on the steps in the back of the stadium.

“She might need a ride somewhere at some point,” the District police officer sitting in her cruiser across the street is told. The officer nods, yes, she might.

“I think sports here in America gets you to quit thinking about your problems and problems in the world,” Johnson said. “It keeps us sane.”

The day after so much pain and loss just four blocks from the park, here’s hoping something can put us in that place again.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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