You've Gotta Have Heart

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 28, 2006

It's a perfect night for baseball, and we're sitting in respectable, if slightly stratospheric, seats in the upper deck right behind home plate. We have a good angle on the action, and can see the game unfold in all its beautiful symmetry and timeless grace.

Pitch in the dirt. Our batter swings, a strikeout. The catcher fails to nab the ball, and it dribbles toward the backstop. The runner on first lumbers toward second, and the catcher, attempting to throw him out, hurls the ball over the shortstop's head. The runner on third, so slow he should be known as The Glacier, heads toward home. The center fielder dutifully throws the ball back toward home and, once again, past the catcher, all the way to the backstop. The Glacier scores. Eventually everyone stops running, and the ball is carefully escorted back to the pitcher, who presumably is instructed to hold it tight and not throw it over anyone's head.

Amid the cheering of the home crowd, my middle daughter, who came to the game thinking that baseball has four innings, says, "What happened?"

And I look at her and think: What happened is that I was too busy with my work to teach you how to recognize a play with a strikeout, a wild pitch, two throwing errors and a run. I failed to instruct you in the beauty of the game of baseball in such a way that you could appreciate its butchery.

Meanwhile, sitting in front of me is a man reading the New Yorker. Forget whatever is happening on the diamond: Check out the droll, arched-eyebrow prose in Talk of the Town! I'm mildly outraged. Also, I wonder if he'll let me borrow it.

At least he showed up, which is more than can be said for the untold hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who had the tickets for the excellent seats that remain vacant on the lower deck. I obsess over those seats the entire game. They are bright orange. They scream No Show. They scream Too Important to Come. They scream Fair Weather Fan. They are advertisements for a city full of law firms and media big shots and lobbyists and various other forms of egomaniacs who think that having a ticket for a great seat is more important than actually sitting in it. They don't put their butt where their money is.

When baseball returned to Washington last year, 33 years after the previous team, the Senators, was carted off to Texas, we were all ecstatic, and went to games, and watched our Nationals camp out in first place in July and remain in contention until the beginning of September, at which point Atlanta won the division for the 1,745th consecutive year. (The last team to beat Atlanta in the National League East was the Visigoths.)

This year the novelty's gone, and it's hard to avoid noticing that we're a mediocre team playing in an old stadium with terrible food. Will Washington have the patience to support a losing team? This is a town obsessed with poll results and approval ratings, a town in which one of the highest compliments is "electability."

Thirty-three years without a team hollowed out the fan base. And Washington is full of transplants who have no memory of Frank Howard hitting homers for the Senators.

So we have heavy lifting to do here. Fortunately, we'll have a new stadium in a few years, with the kind of amenities the average sports fan needs these days, like a luxury box and a tuxedoed waiter who will ask if you'd like Grey Poupon with that half-smoke.

And we have a new owner: Ted Lerner, a local guy with a billion dollars, which is enough to pay for three decent ballplayers, two superstars, or A-Rod. But Lerner needs to sell cheaper fluids. The good microbrews cost $6.50 a pop. At that rate, it's very hard, in good conscience, to drink four. Bottle of water: $4. For that kind of money I could have bought gasoline.

My friend and colleague Marc Fisher says I'm too cynical. "Over the next few years, this team will be in baseball's top 10 in attendance and profits, even if Washington remains cursed on the field," he says. "You need a refresher course in Washingtonians' love of futility. Rent 'Damn Yankees' and watch it with the kids. You've gotta have heart."

To be serious Washington baseball fans, we're supposed to know that song:

You've gotta have heart/All you really need is heart/When the odds are sayin' you'll never win/That's when the grin should start . . .

Maybe they'll play it during the seventh-inning stretch. What we lack in baseball nostalgia we can manufacture. We're good at manipulating reality here in Washington, and surely we can teach our kids to cherish the baseball memories we never actually had.

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