High Highs, Low Lows and Brothers-in-Law
I have been to some remarkable sporting events in my life. Every May for more than twenty years, chills run down my spine as the best racehorses in the world roar past me down the stretch at the Preakness, the middle jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. I have twice seen the best golfers in the world compete for the U.S. Open title. I sat courtside, first row, and watched Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. I have screamed myself hoarse at NHL and NBA playoff games. I sat in the upper, upper deck of RFK Stadium and watched the great Walter Payton almost single handedly knock my Redskins out of the playoffs in 1984, and more than two decades later with thousands of other fans I ran onto that very field after the very last Redskins game there, an epic trouncing of our rival Cowboys. And, just a few days ago, I went to the first postseason baseball game in Washington since 1933, shown above. But I’ll get back to that.
I freely admit that baseball is not my sport. I’m an NFL guy. But I’ve been to a few Nationals games here in DC and many Orioles games in Baltimore, first long ago at Memorial Stadium and then later at Camden Yards. There is a home run marker at Camden Yards, a Mickey Tettleton blast that landed right in front of me as I walked along Eutaw Street. Full beer in one hand, sausage in the other, I was powerless to think or move quickly enough to scramble for the ball, but I look for that plaque every time I’m there and smile. A connection forever to that place, to the game. But live baseball has always just been about the day, spending time with friends, being out at the park, drinking too much, eating too much and spending too much on souvenirs I don’t need. The game itself never really clicked with me. Part of that is because even though Baltimore is almost exactly equidistant to where we live than Washington is, I grew up just outside of DC, it’s my city to the extent that I have one. I am home in Washington, I am a visitor in Baltimore.
Even the Nationals games I’ve gone to, though, have lacked something. At Camden Yards I felt like I was in someone else’s city. And at Nationals Park I still felt like I was visiting someone else’s sport. But when Brian, my brother-in-law, called me the other night to see if I wanted to go with him to the game the next afternoon, I immediately told my boss I would not be making it to work.
The Nationals were never in that game, and lost 8-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals. But it was historic. And despite early signs the game would not go well, the atmosphere was absolutely electric. Brian and his friends are huge Nats fans, and spending the day there with them I learned a lot about the game and this team. And the next day when I watched the players I had gotten to know and had grown fond of the previous day, I realized how vested I was in their success. I was nervous as the 1-1 tie went late in the game. Jayson Werth stood at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, quickly down two strikes after two pitches, but battled back to a full count. Then, on the 13th pitch, jacked a home run to left field to tie the series. I celebrated in my living room like I was in the bleachers.
The deciding game of that series was last night. The momentum of the previous game carried the Nationals to an early 6-0 lead. But St. Louis has been here before, St. Louis knows how to win the Big Games. And with a late, heartbreaking rally the Cardinals crushed the spirits of Nats fans and ended their magical season. Twice the home team was within a strike of advancing to play the Giants for a shot at the World Series, but it was not to be. I felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of me. And it wasn’t until I found myself wishing I didn’t care so much, that I realized I cared so much. Something about being at that game a few days earlier, surrounded by true baseball fans in that historic, electric atmosphere, sealed the deal for me. I think this postseason series has done more than make me really love the Nationals, it made me finally see what so many have always seen in the game of baseball.
Which, and I apologize for rambling on, brings me to one final point. I have two brothers-in-law. The other is named Fred and he is married to my sister. He, too, is responsible for shaping my life as it relates to sport. On a Sunday in April of 1986, the family was gathered at my Mother’s house. Fred, a golf professional at the time, was in the den watching golf, a sport I never played or thought anything about. He came into the kitchen, grabbed us a couple of beers and said, “Hey. Come watch this with me. Something really special is happening.” And there in the house I grew up in on Buchanan Street, I sat with my brother-in-law as he patiently explained the game, how tournaments worked, what ‘majors’ were and what it meant for Jack Nicklaus, at age 46 to shoot a 65 – including a back nine 30 – to win the Masters. That was the day I became a fan of golf. That was the day, even though I did not yet own golf clubs, I became a golfer.
So as the wind that got knocked out of me last night slowly builds back up in my lungs today, I fondly reflect on the glory and torture that is being a sports fan. Imagine the jubilation the fine folks of St. Louis are feeling today! That intense, uplifting high – and I’ve felt it before and I WILL feel it again – can only exist because of one reason: the lows are equally low. But sport isn’t life, and life goes on. As does the ageless mantra: We’ll get ’em next year.