Among my various idiosyncrasies, such as (twice) driving from Washington to New York to watch a world championship chess match, the most baffling to my friends is my steadfast devotion to the Washington Nationals. When I wax lyrical about having discovered my own private paradise at Nationals Park, eyes begin to roll and it is patiently explained to me that my Nats have been not just bad, but prodigiously — epically — bad.
As if I don’t know. They lost 102 games in 2008, 103 in 2009. That’s no easy feat. Only three other teams in the last quarter-century have achieved back-to-back 100-loss seasons.
Now understand: This is not the charming, cuddly, amusing incompetence of, say, the ’62 Mets, of whom their own manager, Casey Stengel, famously asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” — and whose stone-gloved first baseman, Marv Throneberry, was nicknamed Marvelous Marv, the irony intended as a sign of affection.
Nor am I talking about heroic, stoic, character-building losing. The Chicago Cubs fan knows that he’s destined for a life of Sisyphean suffering and perpetual angst. These guys go 58 years without winning, then come within five outs of the National League pennant, only to have one of their own fans deflect a ball about to settle into a Cub outfielder’s glove, killing the play and bringing on the unraveling.
The fan was driven into hiding and the fateful ball ritually exorcised, blown to smithereens on television. Sorry, that’s not my kind of losing. Been there. I’m a former Red Sox fan, now fully rehabilitated. No, I don’t go to games to steel my spine, perfect my character, or journey into the dark night of the soul. I get that in my day job watching the Obama administration in action.
I go for relief. For the fun, for the craft (beautifully elucidated in George Will’s just-reissued classic, Men at Work), and for the sweet, easy cheer at Nationals Park.
You get there and the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids are romping, and everyone’s happy. The joy of losing consists in this: Where there are no expectations, there is no disappointment. In Tuesday night’s game, our starting pitcher couldn’t get out of the third inning. Gave up four straight hits, six earned runs, and as he came off the mound, actually got a few scattered rounds of applause.
Applause! In New York he’d have been booed mercilessly. In Philly, he’d have found his car on blocks and missing a headlight.
No one’s happy to lose, and the fans cheer lustily when the Nats win. But as starters blow up and base runners get picked off, there is none of the agitation, the angry, screaming, beer-spilling, red-faced ranting you get at football or basketball games.