Monday Breakdown: Are the Nats Boring?
There was a time not that long ago that baseball was my rock. Maybe it's that I moved away from the area and haven't been to but one baseball game this year and none at Nats Park or it's that my time is pre-disposed trying to start a business and we are in that uncomfortable earlier stage where I'm doing all the jobs. Presented with that scenario in previous years and I would have said baseball would be my go to form of relaxation.
I'm still watching or listening to parts of every game but it doesn't feel like previous seasons where the Nats were can't miss viewing. Maybe the end of 2015 broke something inside of me. The Nationals became just another DC sports team. The games weren't exciting because you know the outcome would be negative and unlike other bad Nationals seasons 2015 had expectations and for four months those expectations were met and then everything fell apart.
I tune in to Charlie and Dave whenever I'm out driving around doing my evening route or yesterday for mid-day and evening route. I'll turn on the TV and sit down to watch the game but then end up reading the book or flipping the channel to something else. This Nationals season hasn't drawn me in and I'm starting to think it's because the Nationals are boring.
Why are the Nationals boring? Think about the themes of previous great Nats seasons. 2012 was a payoff for suffering through 2006-2011. We lived through all that losing and here, finally, was the team the city of Washington DC deserved, and then it ended like a bad wrestling story line where backstage politics interfered with telling a captivating story and somewhere along the lines the Nationals went from the fun upstart team to the bad guys that dared to shutdown Strasburg. It united all of us though.
2014 was a year of redemption. How do you like your walk-off? Even then something had started to change. 2013 was a year we'd all like to forget and the 2014 Nationals help us do that but I think about that team and nothing stands out. The winning streak was fun, but I had to look up the team to even remember it was Jayson Werth's best season with the Nats and that Adam LaRoche was on the team. 2014 was a good baseball year because the Nats were good and Jordan Zimmermann threw a no-hitter, but nothing about that team really stands out.
Think back to 2012 again. Do you remember Take on Me, Firework, Ian Desmond's breakout, Bryce Harper's call-up, the controversy around the Strasburg shutdown, Gio Gonzalez blowing past all expectations? Even Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadine were fun that year. But again that season felt like a reward and it was unexpected. Every year since then the Nats were supposed to be great and some years they have been and some years they haven't been.
I think it comes down to the Nats are a team without personalities. We've grown accustomed to Jayson Werth. He is the same Jayson Werth we've watched since 2011. Bryce Harper is in a slump since May and when he's not playing well there's no real spark. Wilson Ramos has a nickname but as far as personalities go he sometimes stares down a good home run. Daniel Murphy has been a great pick-up and makes weird noises when hit by a pitch but that's about it. Danny Espinosa has been a nice redemption story but there's no man that's more machine than Danny Espinosa. Max Scherzer has mismatched eyes and can pitch like a demon but aside from some fun social media posts his pitching is the most entertaining thing about him. Stephen Strasburg has always been a robot. And Ryan Zimmerman is hurt again.
The Washington Nationals are a good baseball team. They are marching towards a division title and it doesn't appear that anything can slow them down. Dusty Baker has taken control of the clubhouse and made the Nationals winners again, but the Nationals aren't as captivating as they've been in years past. It's the same story we've seen before. 2012 and 2014 were both a quick rise to the top and then stream rolling into the playoffs and first round exits. The Nats are in the stream rolling stage and now it feels like we're all waiting until September ends.
Perhaps the novelty of Washington Nationals baseball has worn away, in some respects. But, following the excitement of firsts – first big signing, first superstar, first playoff run, first heart=breaker – come seconds, thirds, and fourths. And, put simply, that is how baseball history is made.
I was at the Oct. 1, 2012 game – when, before the stretch, it seemed every fan turned their attention from the game in front of them to MLB Radio to listen to the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates game. I remember the moment at which a Braves’ loss was all but inevitable, and all the nearby sections started a “Let’s go Pirates!” chant, knowing that a Pirates win would allow the Nats to clinch the East. I remember the moment the person in our section – blessed with the best WiFi access – shouted it’s official, and we all erupted into cheers and high-fives.
From there came the infamous moment in which Michael Morse’s at-bat music began to play, and virtually every person in the stands – and most in the dugout – sung along, as if “Take On Me” had become our rally cry.
I went to the game with a group of friends – all of whom were die-hard Philadelphia Phillies fans – and yet, they didn’t hesitate to snap photos of me soaking in the moment, smiling like a little kid on Christmas morning. I had goosebumps for hours and nearly teared up as the Nats did their victory lap after the game. I remember raving about that experience for days – probably until I started raving about the experience of being there for Jayson Werth’s walk-off a week and a half later. Nothing will ever match those moments just the same.
And yet, for me, baseball hasn’t lost its magic. With a 162-game season, it’s easy to tune in and out – in seemingly the same way each and every team rides highs and lows. The difference between the magic of 2012 and today is that 2016 is characterized by something else: expectations.
Yes, the 2014 Nationals carried World Series expectations. And, because it was the team’s second rodeo show, there are no photos of me celebrating with that childlike expression on my face. But, I celebrated – and felt nauseated just the same, when it all ended too soon. It wasn’t a first experience, so it doesn’t carry the same weight in the depths of my memory. But I was there – I shivered through the 18-inning affair against the Giants, and I groaned when they lost, just the same.
And like that year, should the Nats cruise into the playoffs without any real hiccups, I probably won’t enjoy my own personal victory photo shoot or champagne shower. But what is different about this year is that – even when I catch myself getting excited about aspects of this team – the excitement is calmed by something else: I wholeheartedly expect the Nats to go further.
I’m not very quiet about it on social media: I’m from central Jersey, and baseball has been a massive part of my life since before I even understood the most basic rules. As such, I’m a die-hard New York Yankees fan, of the school of thought that yes, you can support two teams. (Don’t give me grief, I’ve heard it all already.) And, while I had the pleasure of following the Yankees through the 1990s and early 2000s, I can also say that there’s a different kind of beauty that comes with expecting your team to do well. When you expect the team to top the division (something I can only say of one of the two aforementioned teams this year), the blowout wins leave less of an impression, quotes from the clubhouse leaders resonate less, and there is no call for a collective battle cry. And, perhaps, fewer shenanigans means something else: this team is focused.
Add to that, the Nats are sitting pretty even as Bryce Harper endures a slump, Jayson Werth offers the “same old, same old,” and the usual robots do their thing.
But, in the mix of the “usual” is something else – the beauty of baseball: the fact that we have returned to a world in which we expect Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer to dominate, we expect Washington to kick it into cruise control into October, and we simply don’t need a replacement for A-ha.
Sure, expectations are boring. But, we’re seeing baseball at its finest. Now is the time to soak in the beauty of expecting this team to deliver, day in and day out.