The Sweet Madness of Pennant Race Baseball
The magic number for the Washington Nationals to win the NL East sits at five now. Most fans are beginning to put away the prayer beads and rubber chickens. But it has been a rough ride for Washington Nationals fans who have never been here before, never known the emotional highs of having the best record in baseball; never crashed back to earth as the team is swept in a three-game series at Turner Field.
The mood swings can drive you crazy. I had forgotten about that.
You win a laugher 10-2 and the playoffs seem around the next corner. The next day you lose on two fly balls lost in the sun and the baseball gods have put the whammy on any chance for home field advantage.
Last Thursday night was the first time that pennant fever manifested more than superficial symptons. The Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-1 behind Ross Detwiler and when the last out was recorded the team had clinched some kind of playoff spot. No one could unseat the Nationals for at least a shot at the Wild Card.
The fans had been counting down the outs during the final innings and when Drew Storen struck out the heart of the Dodgers lineup, getting Hanley Ramirez swinging for the final out, fire works erupted above Nationals Park for the first time all season. Fans high-fived their neighbors, the ushers, total strangers on the way out of the park. The scored board blared out the news, “Nats Clinch,” in loud red letters and finally it was really real and people danced out of the stadium on a cushion of air.
It has been so long since I cared about a magic number. When I was a kid I followed the St. Louis Cardinals with the devotion that only kids can have. I watched the box scores; I listened to the games on the radio when the signal sharpened after sun down. I knew when Gibson would be pitching again and could cross off the magic numbers for each of those games because a start by Gibby was almost surely a win.
That was a long time ago, before the War in Vietnam became a constant ringing noise in my ear. Then there were assassinations, bombings and riots in every city in the country and baseball became a small thing. History was being made in the streets and baseball no longer offered a safe harbor from the world at large for a boy becoming a young man.
Baseball worked its way back, but the conditions of my life never synchronized with the game in that magic way it had when I was younger. There were kids to take to games, but we never a pennant race to share. There was the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire show but the kids graduated and went off to college before baseball returned to DC and we had a real team of our own. How wonderful would it be to have this magic season in Washington to share with a youngster? To teach them the wonders of baseball behind a pennant race as you watch your team rumbling down the tracks with all the certainty of a steam locomotive on a five percent grade.
I have had to furnish my own inner child for this pennant race, but to tell the truth, it was not hard to find one. It was waiting there like a box of dusty memories in the attic. From perhaps as early as July I have been pouring through the contents as each game unfolds, and I have been lost in it ever since.
Now it is down to cases. Five games and counting. Davey Johnson announced the pitching match-ups for the next six games and I have them lined up up in my mind like the raisins my daughter used to pick out of her cereal to place along the back of our very patient and willing family pooch.
Strasburg?? No one here has the time for that now. Nationals fans are sooo far beyond caring about the Strasburg controversy. We are too busy sweating out each game, crossing off the outs in the sand of the desert island we have lived on for 79 years. And until we have clinched finally the NL East title–the first championship of any kind that this city has known since 1933–it will still have an air of un-reality to it.
But bring it on. It is a sweet madness, this pennant fever, and god how we will miss it when it is gone.