Were he still here today — Opening Day of baseball season — I have no doubt he would have graced this page with a column about his beloved Nats, what baseball’s absence has meant to us these past months, and what its return should signify in these anxious and troubled times.
I wish I knew what he would say. And I know I’m not the only one. When the Nationals won the World Series last year, I received a flood of messages — more than at any time since my father’s passing — from his friends, colleagues, and so many readers and viewers who only knew him from afar. Even Astros fans wrote to say they were celebrating in Charles’s honor.
I was overwhelmed. I had kept my father’s season tickets, and I went to every home game of the playoffs, as I know we would have done together. I watched Game 7 of the World Series from our family home, in the same spot we had watched hundreds of games together. I had tears in my eyes as I watched the postgame celebrations. I saw newscasters and bystanders alike cry out how this win was for their fathers, how much they loved their dads and were thinking of them that night. So was I.
“More than any other sport, baseball is youth, an exercise in memory,” my father once wrote. It connects us to those whose love we felt so strongly when we first learned the game. His memories were with his brother. Mine are with him. He taught me to bat in our backyard. He was there at every Little League practice. And he took me to more Major League ballgames than I can recount.
But baseball is more than just a Rosebud talisman of forgotten childhood. Why do we retain our devotion to the game? Why do we root for professional teams long into adulthood? “Why,” as my father wrote, “should I care about these tobacco-spitting, crotch-adjusting multimillionaires who have never heard of me and would not care if I was dispatched to my maker by an exploding scoreboard?”
The question is even more poignant today. On one level, it’s obvious the game doesn’t amount to a hill of beans given the issues our country is contending with. Yet still, I feel moved at the prospect of baseball’s return. Why do I care? Why does it matter if baseball goes on?
For my father, the answer was simple: The “why” isn’t important. We should be “concerned with how it is done, not why,” he wrote. “The why comes of itself.”
He did not try to convince others to appreciate the game as he did. In fact, he often made a point of how positively inexplicable his obsession was. He did not intellectualize or sentimentalize the game, or rationalize his love for it. “The best baseball writing does not prattle on about the beauty and poetry of the game, but delves into its nitty gritty,” he held. “Don’t tell us that something is great. Show us.”
Show us he did. In column after column, he expounded with delight and humor and an expert’s understanding on the best and most absurd and most striking parts of the game. And especially those of his Nats. “I go for relief,” he wrote. “For the fun, for the craft . . . and for the sweet, easy cheer of Nationals Park.”
He went to every game he could. Even when he was ill in the hospital, he insisted on buying the full postseason package. When I went to Nationals Park last year, I was struck by how many people — fellow fans, ticket ushers, parking attendants, hot dog vendors — approached me to say how much they missed saying hello to my father each night, as did his friends, who often walked by his old seats just to check on them during big games.
That is the mark of someone who persevered in the deeply human embrace of being a fan. My father fell in love with the Nats when they first moved to Washington, and he stuck with them through thick and thin, through every heartbreak.
It was a similar perseverance that my father admired in those who played the game. His childhood hero was Mickey Mantle, who, my father wrote, “played hard and never complained. He was not just a great player. He was the greatest wounded player that ever lived. That made him mythic.” And in one of my father’s most profound columns, he recounted the story of Rick Ankiel, a young pitcher whose career suffered a spectacular collapse, and who then spent grueling years reinventing himself as an outfielder before finally making it back to the majors in a phoenix-like resurrection. In his story my father saw “redemption. And a touch of glory.”
Perseverance, redemption, a touch of glory: Watching the Nats fight their way to the championship last year, those words echoed true. The 2019 Nationals started the season deep in the hole and fought their way back with grit and determination. They came from behind in five different elimination games during the postseason, when it seemed all was lost. They simply kept going.
Baseball is not life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find inspiration in it. We are a wounded nation, struggling with loss and dangers all around. But it is not the easy times that define who we are; it is the most difficult ones. “Catastrophe,” my father wrote, “awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.”
Why should we endeavor to keep going in the face of the daunting challenges before us? Why did Mantle, or Ankiel, or the Nationals? Why did my father? That question is always, in some deep sense, unanswerable. And in the end it is not what’s important. The inspiration is in the doing. In how to live life. Not why.
“The why comes of itself.”