A. Bartlett Giamatti said it best.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.
Giamatti – the former president of Yale and the great commissioner of baseball who banned Pete Rose for life and then died of a heart attack 8 days later – was writing about an earlier Red Sox loss on the last day of the season many years ago. But the “breaking your heart” line applies in all sorts of baseball situations.
Friday evening, on the last day of my summer vacation before heading back to work, the MLB-worst Washington Nationals played the division leading St. Louis Cardinals like they were equals. Young Nationals “ace” John Lannan matched recently acquired and crafty veteran John Smoltz pitch-for-pitch through a well-played ball game that took only a little over two hours – the perfect length for a baseball game. Lannan was virtually unhittable and baseball’s best hitter, Albert Pujols, could only manage three little dribblers off him that barely reached the pitcher’s mound. When chisled Elijah Dukes rocked a double down the left field line in the 7th and then came in to score on another double by the hobbled Josh Bard, Lannan looked on his way to a complete game victory that would move the Nats closer to catching the Kansas City Royals and thus getting rid of that “worst in baseball” tag.
But baseball is designed to break your heart.
In the 8th, a pinch hitter with a bad haircut – Khalil Greene – hit a Lannan mistake for the tying home run. The Nats let a few scoring opportunities slip through their grasp. And when manager Jim Riggleman pulled Lannan in the 9th after only 91 pitches instead of letting him face Pujols again, one sensed trouble was on the way.
Nats TV announcer Ray Knight had barely gotten the words “If you throw this guy a slider, throw it in the dirt” out of his mouth when reliever Jason Bergmann, whose best pitch is a fastball, threw a 1-1 slider. It was not in the dirt. The mighty Pujols – so glad not to be facing Lannan again – strode into that fat, middle-of-the-plate slider, and the ball game was over. As Crash Davis might have said, “Man that ball got outta here in a hurry. I mean anything travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it, don’t you think?”
A great game. But a heart breaker for Nats fans.
So one of the best games of the season takes place with your home town team, and where does the home town newspaper play it? On page 3 of the sports section. Because the almighty Redskins are playing a meaningless exhibition game against the New England Patriots, and by God the Washington Post – clueless in so many ways as to what really matters in life – has to have two huge pictures, the game report, and TWO columnists write about that meaningless exhibition game on page 1. As one of those columnists, Thomas Boswell, wrote in an earlier era, “Some people say football’s the best game in America…. Some people are really dumb.”
So, back to Giamatti:
It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
More to come…