The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The joy of sports can’t quite be explained, but you can happily spend a lifetime trying

A stadium, a team and a player rejoice after Gerardo Parra homers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In mid-June, Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, hoping to electrify an offense with less life than a collection of body parts stolen from a morgue, decided to put the 230-pound player who most resembled Frankenstein’s monster — in a good way — as his leadoff man.

In his second game hitting leadoff, Kyle Schwarber homered in his first at-bat. Starting then, he has hit 16 homers in 18 games, including seven in the first inning, jolting the Nats from last place to second in the NL East, three games behind the New York Mets.

About 99 percent of fans will never see a hometown player have a binge akin to Schwarber’s 12 homers in his past 10 games — it’s only been done once before (by Albert Belle). Coincidentally, Frank Howard of the 1968 Washington Senators, with 10 homers in six games, is one of the few in this gasp-athon competition. But during these recent Hulk Days, other edge-of-disbelief scenes hit the Nats.

Last week, Philadelphia Phillies Manager Joe Girardi asked umpires to frisk Max Scherzer for foreign substances in the middle of an inning. A disgusted Scherzer took off his belt and began to pull down his pants for umps to exonerate him.

That farce led to a Scherzer staredown of Girardi, then a long mockery of Joe from the dugout by Max — see my hat, my glove; want to rub my hair, too, Joe? Finally, a mock-mad Girardi pretended he wanted to meet the Nats behind home plate — to discuss hair products?

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“Hold me back, hold me back,” yelled Nats pitching coach Jim Hickey, imitating Girardi’s lame attempt to act like a 56-year-old man anxious to duel with a penknife.

Also, Nats rookie Paolo Espino, 34, — after 1,800 innings in the minors and winter ball — got his first major league win. Days later, with the bullpen bare of available arms, Espino got his first MLB save, too; that 13-12 Nats-Phillies slugfest was the first MLB game in which both teams hit a grand slam and a three-run homer, too.

On Monday, with the rotation depleted, the Nats needed Espino again — against those Mets. Again, he threw five scoreless innings for win No. 2. If the Red Porch runs out of beer, can Paolo pull 20 kegs out of his hip pocket?

I never thought I’d see any of those things. Yet they all came within a small slice of time, in events involving just one team in one sport. They weren’t scripted. Fiction rarely dares to go where the reality of sports constantly lives.

Our games shock us constantly with improbabilities, such as Schwarber’s leadoff homers. Or preposterous plot twists, such as every major league pitcher handing his hat and glove to umps — and sometimes unbuckling his pants — because hurler cheating has gone exponential. Or, best of all, a tender story appears, as warm as Espino’s smile, with those wins in the books by his name forever — after 14 years almost entirely in the bushes.

Or, I forgot: Gerardo Parra, Baby Shark himself, returning to the Nats and doubling on the second pitch he saw to remind a standing, chomping Nationals Park crowd of a World Series win — against odds that fried my pocket calculator.

Next up? Schwarber. Result? Home run, of course. When the Nats came home Monday, Parra made ’em crazy again with a facing-of-the-second-deck homer and a double that almost went out. Nats can’t bite twice, right? When “Jaws 2” came out, it was the highest-grossing sequel ever.

Surprise and amazement live next door to delight — or dejection. Maybe it’s all just brain chemistry, and sports merely monetize our dopamine roller coaster. But love is ignited by and lives on dopamine. Who fights that?

Small wonder so many follow sports for enjoyment, for a sense of community or for a few hours of release from our personal cares. For the old, ill or idle, sports can fill long hours many times a year, or just when needed.

As little kids, when “play time” makes us squeal with joy, until we are old and cherish the pleasures that we have not lost yet, games meet us near the high and low points on our emotional spectrum — and are a gift either way.

The Nats’ recent antics illustrate the dual role of sports; in childhood, they are born as pure fun and are played best in that spirit by adults, too. Yet they must, to reach their full emotional punch, be played as fierce, cut-to-the-quick-of-personality competitions, too.

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That is why, from our own sports experiences at whatever level we reach — up to the pros or Olympics — we are magnetized by a desire for intense competitions that combine “fight” and “fun.” Maybe some species are just hardwired that way — for instance, ours.

Economically, sports are probably smaller than many think. The addressable global sports market this year is estimated at around $440 billion, which sounds like a lot, except the retail market for groceries is 26 times as big. As a result of its big-picture status as a niche industry, sports’ impact on the public weal is modest, except to entertain those who find joy in it. So we get another odd combination of qualities. Where else do play and passion meet, without dire consequences to any, but with the possibility of parades?

Part of the good fortune of sports is that we know it means a lot to many of us, and in many ways. But luckily we can never quite explain it, never surround it, tame it or tie an “ism” to its romping free-range lyric tail.

This column’s examples of the shock and pleasure of sports are confined to a tiny corner: the Nats in June. Multiply those pleasures by all the comparably exciting highs and lows, feats and follies, of the playoffs in the NBA and NHL, the recent U.S. Open in golf and French Open in tennis, the Olympic trials and the College World Series.

Then, get your microscope and look down to the realm of small college, high school, junior high or even elementary school sports and you’ll find many millions (like me) who still remember their trivial wins and errors. The intensity of those memories is its own message about where sports stand in our hearts — how they inform our view of many things and many people. And about why someone might write on such a subject for 52 years.

A retired friend emailed me this week about his old 1961 baseball glove and whether to restring it, make it healthy and whole again. I wrote back that, like his mitt, my 1960 Rawlings G775 Dick Groat model still resided near my desk, but I chose to grant it the dignity of death, letting it lie in state with all of its memories. He agreed. We’ll leave our gloves, with their humble histories, just as they are, somewhat unstrung by time and use, like us.

In closing, I’d like to thank — everyone. Martie Zad hired me. Bill Elsen made me a reporter. Don Graham anointed me a baseball writer. George Solomon sent me everywhere. Matt Vita kept me youngish and added sweet years to the title-witnessing end of my career.

Thanks also to the best, deepest Post Sports staff of my time. I’ll constantly be proud to revisit my lifelong home — the Sports section.

Thanks most to you, the readers. Zad said, tapping my typewriter: “All that matters is what comes out of there. It goes straight to the public. They decide.”

In the beginning, readers decide, by their reaction to your work, whether you get to stick around at all. In the middle, they hang with you as your writing changes over the decades — as you change. And, in the end, they buoy you with encouragement you never imagined. That relationship, you realize, was what lasted and mattered.

Read more from Thomas Boswell:

After covering everything for 52 years, it’s time to see what I missed

The World Series has framed my life. After 44 straight, I’m sitting this one out.

Cal Ripken’s record streak is 25 years old. Its meaning, and magic, have endured.