In this case, I was wrong in another incarnation. When I was writing long, reported essays for The Washington Post Magazine many years ago, I caught the assignment to welcome a new Major League Baseball franchise to Washington. What I produced was, on reflection, a jaded and — despite its length — dismissive account of baseball at its worst, which was, I thought, appropriate given Washington’s dismal history in the major leagues.
The previous MLB franchise here had slunk away to Texas after its last home game in the capital ended with a riot by surly fans and an ignominious forfeit. The franchise before that one — the sad sacks who inspired the famous line, “Washington: — first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” — were relocated to Minneapolis by an ungrateful owner who blamed his departure on the city’s African American population. Which was not only racist but rich, given the fact that nearly all the best ballplayers in Washington history played in the Negro Leagues.
My facts were fine (all right, I probably gave short shrift to Senators Hall of Famer Sam Rice) — but I missed the aspect of baseball that has Washington feeling warm and happy this week despite the miseries of the city’s leading industry. Simply put: It can be a lot of fun.
Now and then there’s a team so dominant that its march to the World Series seems ordained, but more often fickle fortune chooses one team among many for an autumn fling. It’s joyful and exhilarating to be rooting for that star-dusted squad. Random chances start breaking with delightful frequency in your team’s favor. When it matters most, the slicing drive that normally curves foul instead clangs off the foul pole for a go-ahead home run. The ground ball that bounces on the first-base bag hops pliantly into your fielder’s glove instead of caroming wildly. Your team hits lazy fly balls that find imperceptible outfield gaps, while your opponent’s every sharp liner seems laser-guided into your team’s gloves.
It’s not luck, exactly, because so much talent and study and practice is involved. But baseball is undeniably a game of breaks — good breaks and bad breaks — and while these breaks are probably random over time, they aren’t evenly distributed. Why does a city become enraptured by a lucky club? The same reason a crowd gathers to cheer a gambler who gets hot at the craps table: It’s fun for a moment to think that blind fate has met its match, that the genie has been conjured from his lamp.
The languor of baseball, which runs perilously close to boredom, gives time for the team of fate to gather latecomers to the fun. People who in June couldn’t name three players by October know every nickname and superstition. It’s the Jubilee — the year of forgiveness, when sins and debts are laughed away; every slump is but the prelude to a heroic comeback; every error simply sets the table for the great play that redeems it. By the end, you’re high-fiving strangers. Maybe hugging them.
I enjoyed such a year with the 2015 Kansas City Royals,
and it washed away my cynicism. I learned how good it is for a community to be swept away not by fear or sorrow or outrage, but by delight. It makes the hard stuff of civic life seem a little easier, expands the realm that feels possible. Should we be so swayed by a group of young men throwing and catching and hitting a ball? Yes, we should.
I’m glad that Washington has proved me wrong, because this delightful World Series championship could not have come at a more needful time and place. For those in the capital who act as if life is politics and politics is life, may the joy of this moment be a reminder of shared values and loves and delights. And for those who treat our nation’s future as a hard and cutthroat game, let this delineate the profound difference between governing and play.
To pursue the nation’s business as a matter of two teams competing for a single trophy is, to borrow from philosophers, a category error. You can tell just by looking around. If politics were a game, it would make the spectators happier.