The Shoeless Joys of Opening Day

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Nationals Park. Courtesy Washington Nationals.

Tired of all the nonstop, 24-7 talk, conjecture, outrage, exaggeration, speculation, hyperbole and predictions that continue to blow up a storm of verbiage, accusations of nothing less than treason and evil and so on that landed in our collected laps with the Mueller report?

Tired of the almost adjoining 24-7 talk, conjecture, outrage, exaggeration, speculation, hyperbole and musings by media types ranging from CNN to “Access Hollywood” about the fate of Jussie Smollett, the black and gay actor-singer-performer tangled up in an unfathomably legal mess, complete with Chicago atmospherics and media opportunities to pontificate about race, fairness, celebrity and justice?

Tired of bad weather “always affecting millions,” Venezuela, the wall, Trump this and that, Brexit and all the things that occupy or vex us, leaving us — new word — in a state of being “gobsmacked”?

Well, you could try talking about sports. Especially here in Washington.

Sports is always the salve, the savior, the escape hatch, the fragile, shallow, but comforting end of the pool in times of trouble, anxiety or just plain hopeless weirdness. For the sports fan and the sports memoirist, games — as in team sports cherished by all localities with a zip code and around the world — sports are salvation.

It means there is joy in Mudville. It means, in Washington: the Nats, the Caps, the Wizards, the Redskins and DC United.

You know it’s finally spring when veteran political columnist George F. Will’s latest column is entitled “Pop Quiz and Cracker Jack,” a particularly difficult multiple-choice quiz on baseball history, which I flunked badly. How could you not figure out or guess that “Wee Willie” Keeler was shortest player in baseball history? Will is a notorious Chicago Cubs fan who will wax lyrical at the drop of a fly ball.

Be that as it may, today was and is the day for baseball. Around 1:05 p.m., with much aforethought and pre-publicity and special offerings of ballpark food and noise and running presidents and gatherings of officialdom, the Washington Nationals opened their 2019 season at Nationals Park with a dream pitching matchup, pitting the low ERA king and Cy Young New York hurler Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets against former Cy Young winner and last year’s runner-up, Nationals ace and Übermensch Max Scherzer, to whom every pitch is a seismic event (and that’s a good thing).

The two teams are both a part of the National League’s highly competitive Eastern Division, where the Nats, who’ve won the division title a number of times, now must do battle with equally if not more talented teams.

Want proof that Washington is a vastly improved sports town?

Only hours after the completion of the Nats opener, the Washington Capitals will face the Carolina Hurricanes, trying to hang on to their division lead as another NHL hockey playoffs looms in short order.

You might just still remember that the Caps won, at last, the NHL title and its glittery Stanley Cup trophy for the first time, an event that illustrated just how much sports can affect the mental health and stability of athletes, but also the citizens, fans and non-fans alike, of the civic entity they represent.

Let us put it this way, as somebody who remembers Redskins fans literally climbing lampposts in Georgetown after they won the first of three Super Bowls, that the Caps and Washington went deliriously bonkers, not just on the night of the victory in faraway Las Vegas, but for days, weeks and months, and just days ago went on a visit to the White House.

Not only that, but, tomorrow, Washington will host the regional finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s opening round and the regional finals on Sunday, with Duke, the tournament’s omnipresent power, taking on Virginia Tech and LSU going against Michigan State and its cagey coach Tom Izzo.

If you want more, DC United, a much-improved team, will take on Orlando City on Sunday, sporting a 2-0-1 record in the new season.

Sports, it always turns out, is the Band-Aid, the nurse, the cool glass of water at the end of a hot day, the reward for the unrewarding job, the passion injected into the lives that may not have enough. Sports are enduring, sports are fun. And the results of the games we watch and come connected to can induce delirium, joy, celebrations, parades and astounding acts of fandom, from the collection of memorabilia, betting, daring feats of jumping and leaping, to deep depression, anger, disappointment and the usual suspects that surround the losing of a game or a championship.

They inspire adoration and admiration of athletes, of the kind once experienced by Olympians in ancient Greece. In modern times, they also inspire vilification, outbursts of the most disgusting kind on social media.

In other words, sports is where we, the huddled masses, act out, eat too much and drink too much and avail ourselves of occupying another world.

We, the fans, talk, all the time. We fall in love with people of rare gifts, which in turn turns them into millionaires that only lottery winners can dream of. It may all be fool’s gold — who after all deserves to get this much for playing a game, and who can decipher contemporary records and data and who can understand why that guy didn’t get called for pass interference during the NFL playoffs?

But, now, its baseball. And maybe the real opening day for everybody is Tuesday when the Philadelphia Phillies come to town. That’s right, those Phillies. And that’s Bryce Harper and his big contract who has spent his entire baseball life playing for the Nationals, until now.

Will it be booze-fueled boos, or we missed you Bryce and your flying helmet, your home runs, your beard and all that (and here’s hoping you strike out plenty)?

Today, the first cries of spring joy are “Play ball!” and “Strike one!” Not to mention “Popcorn, popcorn!” and take me out to you-know-where and getting a glimpse of Shoeless Joe in the cornfield, the little girl saying: “Daddy, there’s a man in your field.”

And, remember, there’s no crying in baseball.

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