Everything about the first season of the Washington Nationals has been true to baseball, even if it has not always been true to our wishes. In fact, that is what has been best about this exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating, satisfying and complex season.
Washington has not encountered some fantasy version of baseball in which instant gratification carries the day or success comes as an automatic reward for a 33-season wait. This hasn't been "Field of Dreams" with ghosts in cornfields. It's been "Bull Durham," where you play hurt for months, dream big but end up losing as often as you win (81-81) and, above all, show up every day like a hardball professional until, finally, the only words left are, "Wait till next year." Then you pack up, shake hands, go home to heal, from knee and shoulder to heart and soul, until you show up for spring training to do it all again.
That fascinating 162-game process, chockablock with low comedy and high character, broad theater and telling personal details, has finally been returned to Washington after a third-of-a-century absence. So how does it feel when such a season, which has some of absolutely everything the sport offers, but not enough of what you want most, finally comes to an end?
"It's sad," said Chad Cordero after a 9-3 loss to Philadelphia before a crowd of 36,491 that elevated the Nats to 11th in major league attendance (33,728 average).
Sad because the Nats were 50-31 on the Fourth of July, then finished the season exactly the opposite, 31-50? Sad, perhaps, because you watched your team get worn down by injury, clubhouse friction, sparse starting pitching and more gifted foes?
"No," said Cordero, "it's sad because we won't see each other for five months. And we won't see the fans, either."
So after all they've been through, the coast-to-coast flights and the weeks on the road, the losses that seemed to wreck a season and the victories that resurrected their chances time after time, the real loss for the Nationals on Closing Day is being deprived of the game itself. Even if, everybody always promises, it returns in the spring.
Sometimes, the game speaks. This was a day for the players to have their say. From the time they showed up hours early until they had signed endless balls, tossed hats into the stands and given away their bats to the crowd -- why didn't anybody think of that sooner! -- the Nats wanted to unburden themselves of their gratitude, disappointment and excitement for the future.
"We ran the whole gamut of emotion," said backup catcher Gary Bennett. "We fed off these fans all the way."
"The excitement of the first half was incredible," said pitcher John Patterson. "The second half was like somebody punching you in the gut."
"This city has been great to us," said Brad Wilkerson. "It's been a love affair. I hope it's not just a honeymoon."
"I have found a real home here. After the things I have been through in other places, I take it to my heart," said Jose Guillen. "I still owe something to these fans. This didn't end the way we wanted."
"The end was like everything this season," said Marlon Byrd. "Bittersweet."
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Nationals team is that, to a man, it viewed 81 wins with something approaching undistilled gall. Odd indeed. The Expos won only 67 last year. On Opening Day, you could have cleaned out Las Vegas if you'd been willing to bet that Washington would win more than 71 games. What kind of team is semi-furious at such obvious success?
A team, in all likelihood, that is managed by Frank Robinson and has Jim Bowden as a general manager.
Both saw an opportunity to establish the ex-Expos franchise that had been entrusted to them in a new and rich town. Since both are almost crazy competitive by nature, they slammed the pedal to the metal in tandem. From Bowden's offseason trades to Robinson's spring-training demands, a "win now" attitude was instilled. Yet, in retrospect, not a single personnel move seems to have sacrificed the future.
Once the team got hot, both Robinson and Bowden were instantly on the same page. Working on one-year contracts, they grabbed for the brass ring -- in Robinson's case, perhaps a last such chance. Both men acted in April, May and June with a daring, bordering on recklessness, that most people in baseball save for the urgency of a pennant race. The result was a team that burned white-hot, ignited the enthusiasm of an entire region and, perhaps inevitably, incinerated itself with its own passion.
"Wilkerson, [Jose] Vidro, [Vinny] Castilla and Guillen -- they all should have been disabled and given more time to get healthy. But what are you going to do?" Bowden said. "We said, 'Buckle it up, boys. Strap it on. This is our shot to win. We're better with you at 70 percent than anybody else we've got at 100 percent.'
"And until that Saturday in San Diego [in the season's 149th game], we were still within two games of the wild card. What they did has proved vital to the [fan-support] foundation that was set here this season."
If any new owner removes Robinson and Bowden, the Nationals risk losing this culture of commitment. Through free agency and trades, as well as better minor league development, the Nats will probably soon reach a point where a veteran like Castilla does not need to limp for 100 straight games or a Livan Hernandez does not lead the majors in innings despite needing knee surgery since May. Presumably, both Robinson and Bowden could gear back their demands to meet their level of talent.
Yet both men clearly believe that their futures in Washington are hanging by a thread because of their second-half slide.
"If it's the end, I enjoyed it. It was a blast," Bowden said. "I sat on the White House lawn and heard the president say, 'I'd like to introduce my good friend Jimmy Bowden.' "
After his performance here, Bowden will have more teams to run, though he'd prefer the name on the shirts say "Washington." It is the 70-year-old Robinson, whose fire ignited the city's baseball interest, who runs the risk of being sacrificed because his team failed to do deeds that -- until he came along -- no one in baseball dreamed they could do.
"Our record should have been much better," he said, once again applying standards that only he set. "But they couldn't have touched this in Hollywood if we had pulled this off. We were always trying to put somebody out there for somebody who was hurt. It caught up with us in the second half. The harder we tried, the worse it got."
Robinson walked out, saying to reporters in his typical sardonic manner: "I hope Santa Claus brings you what you want. I'm too old to believe in Santa Claus."
After everything Robinson did for baseball in Washington this year, flaws and all, Santa ought to come to his house one more time.