Charles Krauthammer, who died Thursday at age 68 after a lengthy battle with cancer, once wrote that God created baseball as a relief from politics. For the last 10 years of his illustrious career, the conservative columnist and TV personality often found relief at Nationals Park, which was seven minutes from the Fox News studio in D.C. where he spent many of his days. “If the winds are fair and the Third Street Tunnel is clear,” Krauthammer wrote in 2012, “I can get to my seat by the bottom of the first, in time to see Bryce Harper’s first at-bat.”
Every so often since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005, Krauthammer would devote his column in The Washington Post to the city’s nonjudicial nine. The Nationals honored Krauthammer, a season-ticket holder, with a moment of silence before Thursday’s game, and described him as “one of baseball’s greatest fans.”
Krauthammer’s fandom was a roller-coaster. His childhood interest in baseball waned as a teenager, but he fell back in love with the sport and became a Red Sox fan after watching Game 6 of the 1975 World Series while living and working in Boston. Following the Red Sox’s “Great Buckner Collapse” in the 1986 World Series against the Mets, an older and wiser Krauthammer resolved that he would no longer live and die with the success of a baseball team. He wrote that he was “almost purged of all allegiance” and “watched with near-indifference” when the Expos relocated to his adopted hometown in 2005. Krauthammer’s indifference wouldn’t last, as he explained in an April 2005 column titled “Suffering a Relapse, and Loving It”:
The Washington Nationals are born. I do not know a thing about them. I do not know a single player on the team. I have no residual allegiance to them — even though I grew up in Montreal and remember well their opening 1969 season at absurdly chintzy Jarry Park — because I never cared about the Expos.
But it is a new home team. And I am a bit curious. So I’m listening to their second game, a come-from-behind win in which no-name center fielder Brad Wilkerson hits for the cycle. Next day, a nifty comeback: Jose Vidro hits a game-winning homer in the 10th.
I’m beginning to ask the Butch Cassidy question: Who are those guys? Then another comeback, another game-winning dinger, this time by Jose Guillen, a refugee from the Anaheim Angels, shipped out after, let us say, an altercation with his manager. And then yet another surprise victory against the fearsome Atlanta Braves, a ridiculously impossible comeback with two outs in the ninth.
Presto. It is 1975 all over again. I begin to care. I want them to win. Why? I have no idea. I begin following day games on the Internet. I’ve punched not one but two preset Nationals stations onto my car radio. I’m aghast. I’m actually invested in the day-to-day fortunes of 25 lunkheads I never heard of until two weeks ago.
This is crazy. I’ve relapsed, and I like it so much I’ve forsworn all medication.
The Nationals didn’t do much winning in those early years, but it didn’t matter; Krauthammer couldn’t quit them. He managed to find joy in the losing, and described Nationals Park, which opened in 2008, as his “own private paradise.”
“I go for relief,” Krauthammer wrote in 2010, with Washington in the midst of a 93-loss season after two consecutive 100-plus loss campaigns. “For the fun, for the craft (beautifully elucidated in George Will’s just-reissued classic, ‘Men at Work’) and for the sweet, easy cheer at Nationals Park. You get there and the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids’re romping and everyone’s happy. The joy of losing consists in this: Where there are no expectations, there is no disappointment.”
Krauthammer could sense that the Nationals’ fortunes — and perennial standing in the basement of the National League East — might soon change. Pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft by Washington, was turning heads and making opposing hitters look foolish in the minors. During spring training, a few of his future big league teammates nicknamed him Jesus.
“But now I’m worried,” Krauthammer wrote in 2010. “Even before Strasburg has arrived from the minor leagues, the Nats are actually doing well. They’re playing .500 ball for the first time in five years. They are hovering somewhere between competent mediocrity and respectability. When Jesus arrives — my guess is late May — they might actually be good. They might soon be, gasp, a contender. In the race deep into September. Good enough to give you hope. And break your heart. Where does one then go for respite?”
The Nationals showed signs of progress in 2011, finishing one game under .500, and Krauthammer derived joy from the team’s gradual transformation.
“When you live in a town with a great team, you go to see them win,” he wrote in September of that season. “When you live in a town with a team that is passing rapidly through mediocrity on its way to contention — the Nats have an amazing crop of upcoming young players — you go for the moments.”
Krauthammer marveled at third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s ability to field a soft grounder on the run, rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa’s range and veteran outfielder Rick Ankiel’s cannon of an arm, among other things.
“Yes, I know that the world is going to pieces, and that the prowess of three gifted players doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Krauthammer wrote. “But I remind you that FDR wanted baseball to continue during World War II. I make no claim that elegance and grace on any field will ward off the apocalypse. But if it comes in summer, I’ll be waiting for it at Nats Park, Section 128, hard by the Dippin’ Dots.”
In late May 2012, two days after the Nationals defeated the Phillies to take a half-game lead in the division, Krauthammer declared the transformation complete in a column titled “The joy of winning.”
“Between now and October, the Nats are my vice,” Krauthammer wrote. “I started going when they were bad and once celebrated in this space ‘the joy of losing,’ under the axiom that if you expect nothing, you’re never disappointed. A very serviceable philosophy when your team is terrible. But I need a new philosophy now. The Nationals are good: young, swift, exciting — and in first place in the National League East.”
The Nationals would remain in first place all season and clinched their first postseason berth as division champions. In August of that year, on an episode of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Krauthammer predicted the Nationals would win the World Series.
The Cardinals would eliminate the Nationals in the National League Division Series, overcoming an early 6-0 deficit in the decisive Game 5 one night after Jayson Werth delivered one of the greatest moments in Nationals history. As Krauthammer recalled in “You Gotta Have Heart,” Frederic J. Frommer’s history of Washington baseball, he left Nationals Park in the fifth inning of Game 4 for a television appearance. Before going on air with host Bret Baier, who was in Danville, Ky. for the vice presidential debate, Krauthammer was mic’d up and doing his best to follow the game on a studio monitor when Nationals Manager Davey Johnson called on Tyler Clippard to preserve an eighth-inning tie.
“Now I’m kind of a nervous Nellie when it comes to Clippard, ’cause I’ve been there for two of his meltdowns,” recalled Krauthammer, who said to no one in particular as he waited for his cue that night, “I think I’m going to be the first person on live television to have a heart attack on the air.”
Baier heard this in his ear.
“He says, ‘Charles, are you alright?'” Krauthammer told Frommer. “I said, ‘Bret, they just brought in Clippard, it’s a tie game.’ So he thought I was going to have a seizure on the set.”
Clippard struck out three of the four batters he faced. With Drew Storen on the mound, two outs in the ninth inning and the game still tied, the Fox News producer gave Krauthammer a 10-second warning.
“So I said to the floor manager, ‘Turn off the monitor,’” Krauthammer said. “’I can’t possibly watch with two outs, top of the ninth, while trying to make a coherent statement on television.’ But I said one other thing to him: ‘In the next five minutes, if I ask for any updates, lie to me. I don’t want the truth. Just tell me Storen’s got the side out.’”
Storen got Matt Carpenter to pop out to retire the side and Werth took care of the rest in the bottom of the inning.
In 2016, Krauthammer described Bryce Harper as “our own Mickey Mantle” and urged Nationals fans not to worry that Harper might one day “end up with the money-bag Dodgers or Yankees.”
“So be it,” he wrote. “By 2019, we could all be underwater or living under Sharia law, depending on whether your doomsday is of the Democratic or Republican flavor. In the interim, I’m going to eat, drink and watch Harper.”
And in one of his final columns about the Nationals, published last June, Krauthammer offered a conjecture about sports in general.
“In sports, the pleasure of winning is less than the pain of losing,” he wrote. “By any Benthamite pleasure/pain calculation, the sum is less than zero. A net negative of suffering. Which makes you wonder why anybody plays at all.”
Read more on the Nationals: