The Nats know better than anybody that they may fail to meet their own high hopes this year. The Braves, bad hops, the Giants, slumps, the Dodgers, sore arms, the Reds and even Pete Kozma may worry them. But they are not fretting much about the Burden of Big Expectations. Those, they crave.
You can tell the difference between fans and athletes by the way they greet good news. The fan often throws up his hands to shield his face. Everything is an ill omen or, at the least, not exactly what it seems. Any show of confidence is seen as tempting fate. The athlete, on the other hand, takes reality at face value; he or she deals with it and adapts as necessary. But elite athletes do not see good developments as somehow perversely bad.
The Nationals are not annoyed that their manager, Davey Johnson, hung a “World Series or bust” tag on them. They want their manager to believe in them and go out on the limb of great ambition right beside them. Johnson played on teams that won 109, 108 and 101 games and he managed teams that won 108, 100 and 98 three times. He knows. He believes. So, say it. They embrace it.
Johnson welcomes the pundits’ picks of the Nats to win the World Series. “It’s a validation that we are going in the right direction,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Do not worry about the team. Take care of No. 1. Let me take care of the whole.’
“Baseball is 90 percent mental,” Johnson says. That sounds like a nonsensical Yogi Berra-ism, but Johnson believes it. Who accomplishes anything truly difficult unless they can imagine themselves doing it first?
That’s one reason why some teams reach critical mass to win titles and others never do — they amass a sufficient number of players who, when they evaluate themselves as a group, think: We’ll need some breaks, but we can do this. That’s why Stephen Strasburg is happy, not jealous, to see Bryce Harper across the locker room. Neither has any “fear of success.” Veterans feed off that youthful confidence and those head-shaking physical gifts.
Every pro athlete knows every bad thing that can happen to him or the team. They live it. They see it up close when Jayson Werth comes back to the dugout with a snapped wrist or Wilson Ramos blows up his knee, then cries tears of rage. Many remember the looks on Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann’s faces when they learned they’d miss a year each with elbow surgeries. They aren’t Polyannas.
But they also know that good news is not a trick. They welcome it. The Nats are delighted to come through spring training without a single major injury. They don’t superstitiously believe that dooms them to have seven players go on the disabled list this week. They’ll have injuries, but getting through seven weeks and 34 games in Florida intact is a concrete part of what can make an excellent year. It’s just one part. But it’s in the books.