First pitch of the sixth inning against the Angels last week and some guy named Brian Schneider, a relatively unknown catcher for the Nationals, cold-cocks it over the right centerfield fence. It turns out to be the shot that ensures the victory. From day to day, there is no telling who is going to win it for the Nats.
The selfless, seamless teamwork and starlessness on display this season by the Nationals remind us that winning doesn't always come from fizz and flash. It also springs from smart athleticism, glory-sharing and deep-reaching within to be the best.
"What you are seeing is something so old-fashioned," says Jane Leavy, author of "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy." A successful pro sports franchise without a marquee player is "something we haven't seen in forever. It is an idyll."
And, she says, "it won't last."
It won't last because over the years the role of the professional athlete has shifted in American culture. Where we once looked to the pros to inspire, we now look to them to entertain. We think of sports greats as performers, not transformers. As playahs, not exemplars. The professional game is no longer a metaphoric batch of life lessons, but simple, mindless divertissement. Many of the athletes sound like circus clowns.
"We're entertainers," San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds told reporters this spring. "Let us entertain."
That ethic permeates professional sports. You can find the entertainers just about everywhere. In Major League Baseball, the National Football League and, perhaps most of all, in the National Basketball Association, which is on the verge of a lockout because the entertainers want even more Hollywood-style money.
You've known the entertainers over the years. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming, Jason Williams -- the list stretches back through Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. It extends to other sports, footballers "Neon" Deion Sanders and Jeremy Shockey, baseballers Jose Canseco and John Rocker, pro boxers such as Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, golfers such as Lee Trevino and tennis greats Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe.
"We're entertainers," Billie Jean King once said. "That's our job, always to give the best show we can, no matter what the situation."
This Era of Entertainment is a far cry from the inspirational days of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson.
When it comes to the blurring of pro sports and entertainment, it all goes back to television. The first professional sporting event televised in America was a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939. Later that year, the NFL broadcast a game. After World War II, professional sporting events became some of the most-watched broadcasts on television. The first televised NBA games were in the early 1950s. In person, the athlete was a head-to-head competitor, gutting it out, looking loss in the eye. On TV, the athlete was a cool, sexy superstar.
With superstardom came super-money. Sports historian Susan Cahn says the money is what has made professional sports less noble and athletes less mythical. Astronomical salaries, she says, are "something that most of us can't aspire to."
Sonny Werblin, a Hollywood super-agent, saw the showy possibilities of professional sports when he bought the New York Titans of the American Football League in 1963. He rechristened them the Jets and in 1965 made big noise about paying Joe Namath around $425,000 -- celebrity-type money -- to be his quarterback. Namath was a very good athlete, but he was a great entertainer. He wore white shoes on the field. He owned a Manhattan nightclub. He was surrounded by beautiful women. He endorsed all kinds of products, from corn poppers to pantyhose. Joe DiMaggio may have been married to a movie star; Broadway Joe Namath was a movie actor himself. Namath flamboyantly predicted that his new-school Jets would beat the old-school Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. And they did.
In 1966, Los Angeles Dodgers pitching aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, both represented by J. William Hayes -- an entertainment attorney -- refused to play for less than $1 million, to be divided between them equally over three years. They settled for less.
In the ensuing decades, the chalk line between sports and entertainment became fuzzier every year. Showboats such as "Pistol Pete" Maravich and Magic Johnson turned up on more NBA teams. In a USA Today story, Johnson -- referring to the scads of celebrities who swarmed around the players -- was quoted as saying: "They want to be us and we want to be them."
The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) debuted in 1979, leading to SportsCenter highlights that accentuate hot-dogging and overlook heroic slogging. Municipalities began charging pro sports teams an "entertainment tax."
And then, in 1984, Jordan, the quintessential performance artist, started to light up the NBA. "He was the consummate entertainer," according to the Sporting News.
In the early 1990s, Barkley and other pros eschewed the notion that they were role models. "We're entertainers and we come to entertain," the Los Angeles Lakers' Michael Cooper said.
Los Angeles Dodgers hurler Orel Hershiser once said: "We're entertainers in the same sense that Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen are."
When Bonds became the highest-paid player in baseball in 1993, he told a reporter, "We're entertainers, dude. . . . The sports world entertains people more than anyone."
On a recent noonday in the office of the Washington Wizards, who are run by a company called Washington Sports and Entertainment, Coach Eddie Jordan is jawing with his staff. With a smile, he recalls getting his first paycheck as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings more than a decade ago. It was issued by a "sports and entertainment" company, and he says, "that was the first time I had ever really thought about basketball being entertainment."
Jordan's assistant Mike O'Koren, who played seven seasons for the New Jersey Nets during the '80s, says, "You always felt like you were a ballplayer. I never really looked at it as entertainment." He was there, he says, for the competition.
Competitors may occasionally be entertainers; entertainers, on the other hand, do not always compete for the sake of the sport. When Arnold Palmer narrated a TV documentary on superstars for CNN in the late 1990s, he said, "The real heroes of sport, the idols of the game, are more than just entertainers. Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis gave us a barrel of thrills, but there was more. Their exploits showed us that any goal was possible if we'd reach far enough and work hard enough. Their stories are about dedication, camaraderie, being the best and, oh yes, the sheer fun of playing the game."
Today entertainment is a way of life in major league sports. Music blares during timeouts. Performers put on halftime shows. There are lights and horns and fireworks and exploding confetti machines. The NBA championship series has almost been entirely subsumed by entertainment. On-court play often takes a backseat to off-court antics. Will Smith and Stevie Wonder perform at the games. Players cut rap records and allow themselves to be portrayed in video games.
There are occasional attempts to recapture the old days. Retro jerseys, for instance. Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. in Philadelphia specializes in throwback sports clothes. President Peter Capolino says, "Today, the bulk of our jerseys are bought or worn for inspiration." Among the bestsellers: the jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig and running back Jim Brown.
Teams lacking big-time entertainers, such as the Wizards, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oakland Athletics, often draw decent home crowds and critical praise but comparatively lousy TV ratings.
Sports historian Cahn says professional women athletes can still inspire. "Women athletes are much more role models than the men," she says. "Fans, especially young girls, are encouraged by seeing their hard work ethic, their morals and their commitment to the sport and the team."
Sometimes, Cahn says, "women's sports is talked about in sort of nostalgic ways, in ways that men's sports used to be." She's not referring to Anna Kournikova.
Eddie Jordan thinks that professional athletes can still inspire by outstanding athletic performances and smooth, focused team play.
The Washington Nationals are just such competitors.
At the moment, says Jane Leavy, who is working on a biography of Mickey Mantle, the Nationals have the same winning aura of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. That's bound to change, she says. "They'll start to bring in big-name, high-salary players," Leavy says. "Some of the guys who are now playing for bupkis, they'll want to 'test the market' " she says, and ask for more money.
Eventually, the Nationals will need to do what every other pro sports team does: Create some brand-name superstars who will take the place of the Brian Schneiders and make mounds of money and stress entertainment over inspiration. After all, Leavy says, entertainers put folks in the seats.