By sheer outcomes, the Washington Nationals’ 2019 season was art – a beautifully chaotic amalgamation of cleats and bats, gloves and bases.
As Brad Pitt’s version of Billy Beane said, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Baseball is poetry in motion. When I think of dragged infield dirt, chalked baselines, or crisscrossed outfield grass, from Nationals Park in Washington, DC, to a tucked away little league field in Johnson City, TN, I am enshrouded by a euphony of poetic form, harmonious blends of notes and sounds. From rhyme and meter, to tone and pacing, with imagery packed so densely, a baseball game may as well be a kaleidoscope.
Ars poetica, or a poem that explains the art of poetry. What an explanation fails to convey is the experience of having written the poem. A reader may read a poem a dozen times over and still come away feeling uninspired. I could sit here and try to elucidate to make baseball and poetry synchronous; or better yet, to make them inseparable, by abstractly comparing the two pieces of art. But instead of explanations, I’ll use examples. Because unlike reading a poem, baseball allows you to be a part of the experience.
When I think of baseball, a list of quotes come to mind, some directly about the sport, but some that I find applicable that were written completely independent of baseball. I think, for example, of Walt Whitman’s illumination on the human condition from Leaves of Grass, when the writer says, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman was talking about the inconsistencies within, but I am talking about something entirely different.
Baseball is a game of firsts, in my mind. Take, for example, this home run that occurred nearly 12 years ago, which Jayson Stark wrote about for The Athletic. To abbreviate a long recounting of the situation, Bengie Molina hit a home run, and due to a directional mishap, an unforeseen hurdle with the implementation of replay, Emmanuel Burriss ran the bases (and no, Molina was not injured). It seems that on any given night, you may see something the game has never seen before, and it may come at the most unsuspecting of times.
The calendars have turned to April, and historically, that means baseball. But that’s not so this year. At a time when many people are understandably struggling with progressing forward in life due to financial or familial complications, many are still seeking refuge in a game – and there’s no shame in that. While it’s been acknowledged that there are far greater worldly problems that need to be addressed completely unrelated to baseball, there is perhaps nothing more seemingly trivial that could reunite us the same way baseball can.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote, “I like this place, / And willingly could waste my time in it.” We know that baseball, and sport in general, is merely a distraction; a convenient escape at day’s end in which the humdrum or melancholy of life can disappear into its deep, dark, wretched void, where we know it will seethe until tomorrow, when everything returns to normal; it’s a respite from work, from responsibility, from life. For others, it’s simply a hobby. Still, for others, there is nothing from which they need a reprieve and simply willingly acknowledge that it’s an enjoyable waste of time.
In bleak times such as World War II, what helped the nation navigate the perils of battle? President Franklin Roosevelt’s Green Light Letter might suggest that it was baseball. When the nation faced tragedy from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, what offered a glimpse of hope during a time of uncertainty? At Shea Stadium, as Mike Piazza was rounding the bases after a home run, 41,235 screaming fans might tell you, “Baseball.”
Rogers Hornsby said that, over the winter, he looks out the window and waits for spring. I would say many of us cope with the cold and dreary winter months the same way. We wait for baseball to return from its annual hiatus, signifying the beginning of spring, and as nature spreads anew, so, too, do we. But in a world where the sports we love were here one day, and gone the next, it can be easy to become anxious and worried about the future.
So, let’s instead hunker down and turn to better days, and try to remember some of the things that make baseball great, and what we have to look forward to when it returns.
When the Washington Nationals completed their destiny last season, which is to say: completed their World Series run, the streets of DC were overrun with joy, and I suspect much of the country felt the same way (minus Houston). What last season really did was remind us how baseball continuously provides an underdog story.
It’s perhaps worth noting that at one point the Nationals were 19-31, and 10 games back of first place.
Granted, that came in late May and there was still a lot of baseball left to be played, as the Nats showed us, but it doesn’t take away from the unlikeliness of Washington’s season outcome.
At that point in the season, the team was in fourth place, ahead only of the now perennially floundering Marlins. According to FanGraphs, the Nationals were projected to finish the season a game below .500, with a 22.2 percent chance to make the playoffs, which breaks down to a 12.5 percent chance to win the Wild Card, and a 9.7 percent chance to win the division. Washington, of course, cashed in on that 12.5 percent chance; but perhaps the number that sticks out the most is the one I haven’t mentioned yet: the Nats had a 1.6 percent chance to win the World Series. Meanwhile, their future competitor, the Astros, had the highest chance to win the World Series, clocking in at 21.9 percent (or nearly the same percentage odds the Nationals had to even make the playoffs). All this, of course, means is that out of 100 simulations of the season, Washington would win approximately one to two times. As Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.”
Need I remind the reader of some of the incredible and historic World Series’ we’ve seen for nearly the last decade? If you go back to 2017, the nation followed the ascent and eventual championship of the Houston Astros, a team that had been mostly cellar-dwellers of late and failed to ever capture a title since the team’s inception in 1962. This was, however, before the optics of that championship were marred by the disclosure of the team’s widespread cheating for that season – a fact that, for many, has made the Nationals’ World Series win over them that much sweeter.
If we move just one year back to 2016, the baseball world got a magnificent Game 7 between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, a game in which we saw an improbable eighth inning comeback when Rajai Davis hit a two-run home run off Aroldis Chapman, a rain delay, and extra innings; and of course, a game in which we witnessed the Cubs break the curse, winning their first World Series title since 1908.
Finally, after hearing so much about small market teams’ inability to compete on the national stage, the Kansas City Royals made it to back-to-back World Series, capturing the title in its return in 2015. That was a year that on April 4, FanGraphs gave the Royals a 0.8 percent chance at winning. Does it need to be said? Don’t tell me the odds.
Those instances barely scratch the surface of what makes baseball so alluring. A game that prides itself on numbers and intuition, on aesthetics and grit, on diamonds and dirt, it’s a harmonious blend of ballet and rock, of physics and abstract art, and so much more.
To conclude, I’ll leave the reader with a few poetic excerpts about baseball.
From May Swenson’s Analysis of Baseball to Baron Wormser’s In Baseball, respectively, on the nature of the game and its pertinence to life:
(Swenson — Analysis of Baseball)
to take bat’s
(Wormser — In Baseball)
It’s the keenness of conflict that appeals.
Tom Clark in Baseball and Classicism on the time-wasting pastime that we call ours:
Every day I peruse the box scores for hours
Sometimes I wonder why I do it
And finally, William Carlos Williams reflects the game back on us, completing the cycle, in The crowd at the ball game:
So in detail they, the crowd,
Go forth all you lovers of baseball and know that times as harrowing as now won’t persist forever, and that we shall, in time, overcome.