All the harbingers of the season — cherry blossoms, the city of trees alive with fresh buds, Easter and the end of March Madness — have already come and gone. But the coming of spring really means nothing until the baseball season has begun.
More than any contemporary sport, baseball still relishes its association with hope and the season. The traditional retort “Wait until next year” follows the failure to make the playoffs or win a division flag or the World Series — not an NBA title, a gold medal, the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup. It ignores not only a losing season but insane salaries, drug tests and bad behavior, instead savoring the spirit of Ernie Banks, who said: “Let’s play two.” Ernie never complained (and never won a World Series).
Baseball fans — old and young, past, present and future — go against the modern grain because they trail with them, more than fans of any other sport, the baggage of yesteryear. It’s not just statistics, though baseball fans and sports writers are probably more obsessed with data than hedge fund managers, inventing new categories (see Wins Above Replacement) of achievement or failure every year. It’s a kind of tribal memory that blankets every city worthy of having a team.
For years, for instance, the Boston Red Sox lived not only in the shadow of the New York Yankees, but also of the Curse of the Bambino, whereby Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest power hitter in the history of the game, was traded by the Red Sox to the Yankees. For decades, the Sox remained without a World Series title. To collector of mementos of good fortune and misery alike, whisper the name Bill Buckner and see what happens.
The Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004 (in improbable fashion, trailing the Yankees 3-0 in the playoffs, winning four in a row, then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals). But the Chicago Cubs haves not been so fortunate, having failed to win a World Series since the first decade of the last century.
Guess who’s favored by many to win the World Series this year?
The Chicago Cubs.
This is not necessarily a good sign. Guess which team was favored by many last year? The Washington Nationals — who suffered a strange, inexplicable collapse after the All-Star game and failed to make the playoffs.
But baseball hope springs eternal. At least one Sports Illustrated writer has the Nats winning the World Series, and a number of others have brash outfielder Bryce Harper, who sports a millennial beard and haircut, repeating as NL MVP. (If those initials mean nothing to you, you should perhaps stop reading.)
The Nationals, who brought baseball back to Washington, have already built up enough history to create a tribal memory of sorts, one of per-usual expansion-team defeats, but also of never-fulfilled expectations. That is the way of baseball. These things hurt in a way that knowing Dan Snyder still owns the Redskins does not. The Nats already have a history of two playoff losses that defy explanation, wound the heart and survive as bar talk. In today’s world, there are as many explanations of how the Nats lost those games as there are regional beer brands, which is a lot.
Like no other game, baseball has the beauty of endless hope. It has no clock, and therefore anything can happen and quite often does. Time is not an enemy and not a friend; it barely exists except as a backdrop where things like a 22-inning game can occur deep into the morning, where a kid brings a glove to the game in hopes of being the one — out of 30,000 people — to catch a home-run ball.
If it’s one hit by Bryce Harper, it will be a treasure. Harper, who will be playing on a team that also includes relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon, who very nearly strangled him in the dugout last year, is one of the game’s superior two young naturals (the other being the much more well behaved but equally lethal Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels).
Anything can happen at a baseball game. Two years ago, I was present at an opening-day game in which often wounded pitching ace Stephen Strasburg pitched a shutout and Harper hit two home runs — the kind of game which, if it had been the seventh game of a World Series, would have made many fans feel that they could die and go to heaven right then and there.
Hope springs eternal. Come next Thursday — the exhibition game doesn’t count — it starts all over again.