There’s a joke in the office about how we all take turns writing A1 stories about the narrowest slice of the sports world: Washington teams having a chance to do something special in the playoffs and/or Washington teams failing to do something special in the playoffs. It’s a story we pass around, nurture to varying degrees — Barry Svrluga smashed today’s offering — and patch up to fit the latest circumstances to the extent the latest circumstances have changed. Which isn’t usually that much.
Anyhow, the joke is now something like eight years old. That’s an old joke. Old jokes stop being funny.
“Are you writing about the 74th time this has happened to a Washington, D.C., team?” a fan named Mike Bobys asked me around 1:30 a.m.., when I took out my laptop at the Big Stick and tried to write something about the Nats’ 9-8 loss but instead wound up staring into space.
Another fan named Ryan Clagett found us in the corner and sat down. He said what I knew he would say because it’s what everyone was saying, which is why none of this is particularly worth writing because you’re already felt it.
“I want to say disbelief, but, I mean, I expected it,” he said.
That isn’t the full story, though, because he also bought tickets thinking this time might be different.
“When we were up 4-1, that’s when I thought, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This might be it,’ ” he said. “And then … here we go again. It felt like 2012 all over again.”
That’s where I’m at. I was dangling from the same yo-yo. When the Nats beat up on the Cubs in Game 4, my very first thought was, “Wow, they’re setting up Washington fans for another inconceivable letdown.” Then I switched to thinking it just wasn’t possible for it to happen again, and that momentum and home-field and superior talent and the pity of the universe would be enough. Except then I thought that optimism was further proof that the most comical disaster awaited. And then I wondered how many times one city can flip tails in a row.
It was the same thing during the game. Gio Gonzalez was erratic in the first inning, and I was convinced the Nats would crater. Michael A. Taylor was heroic, and I thought something had finally changed. Max Scherzer and Matt Wieters did whatever that thing was in the fifth inning, and it was same-old Washington, to the point that a 39-year-old man approached me talking about the time I had interviewed him after he wore a paper bag on his head to a Redskins game, and then he poured out his ever-loving D.C. sports soul right in front of Shake Shack.
The Nats climbed back in it, and I started recording video of dang near every seventh- and eighth-inning at-bat, thinking of what I would type when I posted the video of fans celebrating a game-tying home run. “Bedlam,” I remember considering. “Insanity.” With Wade Davis running on bread crumbs and Gatorade vapors, it felt inevitable.
Then the rally came up one run short, and I immediately lapsed into that comfortably exaggerated self-pity, flinging out all those numbers of futility and the echoes of the past, and the sad photos of hollow-eyed fans staring at the wrong team celebrating. Everything about it was so, so familiar. Even thinking it was familiar was familiar; I did a full lap inside Verizon Center after the latest Game 7 loss in May, thinking how familiar that felt, and now I was remembering the familiarity of familiarity.
“It’s okay; it’s okay,” one of the last fans to leave the lower bowl told one of the biggest Nats fans I know a few minutes after 1, when the ushers started asking us to leave.
“No, it’s not,” he replied. “The same old [stuff] every time. Literally, it’s the same exact [stuff].”
Which is the crazy part because the specifics were not in any way the same. This was gobbledygook none of us had ever seen before: catcher interference, runs scoring on strikeouts, inning-ending outs via replayed pickoff moves, a veteran outfielder just whiffing completely on a line drive, 43 other things that made the game one of a kind.
It was one of the most unforgettable playoff games any drugged-out Strat-O-Matic player ever could invent — did Strat-O-Matic have catcher interference? — but it also slid seamlessly into a 20-year legacy of similar Washington losses. It was unique, and it was part of a stupefyingly consistent whole. It stood by itself, and it blended in. You expected it, and you didn’t, and then you did, and then you didn’t, and when it happened, you sort of did, even if you still couldn’t believe it.
“It’s like the same-old same-old. How many times can you do the same-old same-old?” Jenny Schwab asked. She said a lot more, too, and then she read over the words she had just said.
“Oh, this is so sad,” she said. “Godammit.”
It’s terribly sad within that narrowest slice of the sports world, in which you just want to see a Washington team succeed and just want to stop repeating the dumbest of all numbers. Sixty-nine straight seasons without a conference final appearance in football, basketball, baseball or hockey, easily the longest such streak in the country. Twelve times that such an appearance was just one win away; a record of 0-12 in those games. A record of 3-13 in the last 16 home playoff games with a chance to advance.
None of that makes sense, and it’s why people started sending me the sort of notes you shouldn’t send journalists after midnight.
Luis: “Why …Why does this happen. Why do I even email you at 1 am????….God what an awful loss. I hate baseball.”
Andrew: “I would argue that these sports teams have failed this population, and have violated their civic duty in doing so.”
Nick: “Why does this happen always and why do I care so much?”
Markus: “With each consecutive loss, I’m finding it less and less possible to reconcile the fact this causes me legitimate stress.”
And so on. I don’t begrudge anyone who feels that way. This has been a really unbelievable stretch: so much regular season success, so much tantalizing postseason promise, so many endings in that sickening silence.
But coming back for more isn’t much sillier than caring about any of this in the first place. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be furious over weird umpiring or strange managerial choices or mental mistakes or D.C. sports trolls or jinxy bloggers or exorbitant prices or familiar feelings or sickening silence. The thing about sports, though, is that even when you know your team is going to lose, you also sort of wonder whether your team might win. Even when it’s probably stupid to wonder that. Even after 69 straight seasons. And so the slightly more positive version of those post-midnight notes sounded just as convincing.
Mike: “I refuse to give up on these teams even though I know going in they will tear my heart out.”
Jimmy: “I’ve been alive for 24 years. Haven’t seen a championship in my lifetime. But it will happen.”
A different Andrew: “Drove six hours home to get to this game tonight. Heading back up tomorrow for college. Don’t regret it. It’ll make it sweeter when we make it.”
The guy pictured above, one of the last people inside the park: “Some day, man,” he said. “It can’t go on forever.”
Or Captain Obvious, the guy in the costume you’ve seen on MASN. I ran into him six months ago as the Caps were losing Game 7 at home, and I ran into him again on this Friday the 13th, after the Nats lost Game 5 at home.
“At some point it’s got to stop,” he said. “Law of averages. Some day we’re going to break through. Pretty soon we’re going to be sick of winning.”
He was joking. You don’t get sick of winning. You get sick of writing or living or reliving the same old story. But it’s not, actually, the worst thing in the world. It actually is just a game.
“Pretty sure I’m as mad as anyone, but I’m okay,” my friend Rudy texted me way after midnight when the Nats lost to the Cardinals in 2012, and I was being all similarly melodramatic. “We’ll live.”
This time he wrote to me at 2:55 a.m. Like every single other thing that happened over the last 24 hours, it felt familiar. Hey, at least D.C. has a trademark.
“I’ll say it again five years later: We’ll live,” he wrote. “Really wish fans didn’t beat themselves up so much when our teams lose. People feel stupid and get mad at themselves; then they get mad at everyone else, too. Why? It’s just entertainment. Enjoy the show, even if it doesn’t have a happy ending.”
And so even in that somber bar at 2 in the morning, when I was talking to poor Mike Bobys, I asked him what he wanted to read next.
“Not this,” he said. “I want to read about the Caps. It’s just always on to the next team.”
Sure enough. Now, someone let me know when it’s my turn to write the next A1 story.
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