In Games We Trust

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Alexander Ovechkin raises the Stanley Cup on the rally stage. Photo by Jeff Malet.

I was about to get out of the cab which had brought me home from a doctor’s visit when I heard the driver yell into his phone.

“I cannot believe this,” he was saying loudly. “Is something wrong?” I asked. “No, no,” he said and stuck his phone in my face. “Look at this!”

I looked. The screen showed me a headline: “Croatia 3, Argentina 0.” I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Holy s—!” “Right,” the driver, who was from Nigeria, said. “Can you believe it?”

This was a quick reminder of a number of things, one of which was that we were in the middle of the World Cup, the fight for the world soccer championship, a tournament for which the United States sadly had failed to qualify. Another was that Croatia beating perennial soccer threat Argentina was a little bit like a small school from Baltimore beating top-ranked Virginia in the opening round of the March Madness NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Oh wait. That really happened.

The key operating word here is “World.” Here in America, especially when we don’t have an immediate stake in the outcome, we forget that the human capacity for the total unreasonableness attachment to games and the people that play them is international and universal, and results in behavior that, while appearing to be warlike, usually does not result in real wars.

Face it. We love our games, our sports heroes, our trophies and the inordinate number of added opportunities to spend time in bars drinking beer, the occasional odd liqueur and liquor and screaming, teeth bared, our heads off.

As the cab driver demonstrated, we have no monopoly on embracing the heady emotions offered up by sports. In an instant, a heartbeat, a second and nano-second, you can go from high-flying elation to crushing disappointment, from a blinding, heart-attack sensation of loss to a heart-attack sensation of triumph.

Consider the World Cup — where small countries have risen up to smite giants, where Germany, the defending champ, was hanging on for dear life.

Germany, as it turned out, won a miracle-like game to stay alive, then lost in another shocker to South Korea, eliminating the defending champion Germans from further play, which, in turn, allowed Mexico, in spite of a loss to Denmark, to continue playing. Or, as a Washington Post headline put it: “Mexican spirits sink, soar.”

Sports imitates real life in all of its most intense moments. What, after all, resembles the best parts of sex more than a game-winning Tom Brady touchdown pass? What is sadder — like a death in the family — than a strikeout in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded? What is better than a Fourth of July parade than a trophy parade?

All of these sensations are memory builders, as in: remember when John Riggins took off on that Super Bowl touchdown run? When you — yes, you — scored the winning basket, in an intramural game?

These things can happen in the course of game, or a split-second or over the humps and harrowing length of a season in the spotlight. How long do we think it will take Washingtonians to forget the Stanley Cup?

Or take the Washington Nationals during the so-far course of this baseball season? Under a new and young manager, they won their first four games, then went into a tailspin that landed them in fourth place in the National League East Division, then went on a tear that pushed them briefly into first place, only to careen into an apparent death spiral.

On Tuesday and on Monday, they were shut out, battered 10-0 and — ecch — 1-0, giving Max Scherzer, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, his third shutout loss of the season.

The World Cup and every sport from T-ball and Little League, where parents turn into unrecognizable fanatics, to professional sports where athletes make millions of dollars and get more offers of marriage and prenups than one of the former Backstreet Boys, is a kind of state of mind where fans lose their minds gladly, a kind of alternate reality that includes its actual fantasy counterparts.

In games, we trust. In games we become, not necessarily our better angels or even our better selves, but our other selves.

It should be noted that the Washington Redskins’ season is only a heartbeat and another heartbreak away. Super Bowl, here we come.

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