This year, May Day completes an April that did not meet the expectations of Natstown or, in all likelihood, those of the Washington Nationals themselves. The 13-14 record was their first losing month since August 2011, and underwhelming for a team and community with World Series expectations.
Mayday!, indeed. You can hear at least a quarter of Natstown screaming it as they jump overboard to swim to shore (football season already?), with another quarter of the fans wondering if they should follow suit. (And to think, in April 2012 a 13-14 start might have been met with some quiet optimism.)
Don’t fool yourself either: It isn’t just the new fans that are panicking. Many an old ’05er is pshawing the slow start out of one side of the mouth, while muttering curses and prayers out the other side. Count me amongst them. Despite my steadfast message here to stay the course (which I wholeheartedly believe), it is impossible to be a fan of this team right now and feel…good…about how things have started.
The Nationals inconsistent (and that’s probably a charitable word for it) play in April is troubling for a team that was so steadfastly consistent last year. The first half of the year was great pitching and timely hitting. The second half of the year was good pitching and better hitting. Apart from the occasional clunker (which all teams suffer) you knew what you were going to get with the 2012 Nats: A really great effort from a really great ball-club that was, more likely than not, going to win.
2013 has been a story of Jekeyl and Hyde with this team, and in all phases of the game as well. Which Gio Gonzalez will show up? The one-hit wonder against the Reds, or last night’s four inning monstrosity in Atlanta? Is the team going to run up the score, or will they lose inexplicably to the Mets (METS!) making Dillon Gee look like an All-Star? Is this the double play machine of last year, or will the infield manufacture more Es than a Scrabble factory?
At 13-14, it’s been more or less even. The Nats have lost only a few games they played well in, and won no games they played poorly this year. It’s really been feast or famine across the board.
Still part of a 13-14 record is that there is nearly as much winning as their has been losing, so it would be a one-sided picture to pretend that it is all going wrong for the team. Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann have been the saving grace of the starting rotation, and Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond seem indifferent to the struggles of the rest of the team. Denard Span has been an absolute delight to watch in the field and at the plate. In fact, when the team plays well there are very few problems to point to.
So why do most folks point out the problems more than the successes? Why are Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche’s slump bigger stories than the successes the team has had? It’s true the team would win more if they were hitting better, but it’s also true the team is winning some inspite of their slumps. You can write the story that they have cost the team, but you can also write the story that the team has fared well despite their slump and might be due for a big upswing when they get on track.
It is an even split, so shouldn’t we be just as excited about the winnings as we are disappointed by the losing? A lot of “why” has to do with the expectations placed on the team (by themselves and others) Conventional wisdom says you don’t win the World Series by only winning every other game (even though you only need to qualify for the post season to have your shot). So even though the ultimate goals of this team are still well within reach, it is hard for our human brains to do anything except employ pattern recognition in the immediate past and future of this team: and the immediacy of this team does not measure up with what we all think it should be.
Also, to be honest, it is easier to look at the negative side of things. This is really what prompted me to write this up today. The age of “build ’em up and tear ’em down” is a consequence of the need for easy story telling. A magazine can anoint them the prohibitive favorites to win it all, and then blame them for not meeting those expectations-selling two magazines instead of one. They can write another story blaming their bravado for thinking they could win it all and announcing it to the world (a third magazine). A sports columnist can list all the things the team is doing wrong, a radio host can belabor the same panicky point for an hour because they know folks are going to tune in to hear it. Folks prefer sunny days, but only tune into the news to find out if it is going to rain-baseball is no different.
And this kind of story telling doesn’t even require lying. There is a really great book called Scorecasting that makes this particular point. Whenever a reporter (or columnist, or radio host) say a player is 5 of his last 6, he’s really 5 of his last 7. If he had gotten a hit 7 at bats ago they would have said he was 6 of his last 7 cuz that sounds better. The same works in reverse. 1 of his last 9 sounds much worse than 2 of his last 10. Each of those is an objective, factual statement about a player’s performance, but the decision of where to draw the dividing line is a subjective decision made to drive home a particular point.
Which is to say that for all the mixed nuts in the 2013 bag, this is still mostly the same team from 2012 that set the league on fire. It is a natural dividing line to start the clock on Opening day 2013, but the team under Davey Johnson has done a lot more good than bad-and there isn’t a tell-tale reason why they can’t, or shouldn’t, right the ship over the next few months.
The reason many of us have trouble accepting that is because the age of “build ’em up and tear ’em down” speaks to something deeper than lazy thinking and easy stories to write. It speaks to the reason why it is lazy thinking and easy story telling: It speaks to the guarding of our own fragile hearts.
We all want something to believe in. Many of us have turned to sports as a venue for that all-too-human need since we were kids. Without drawing too distinct of a gender-line here, I’d hazard that young men have been doing this as a substitute for actually engaging emotionally with other people since, well, they were old enough to feel weird about feelings. And just like every other spurned and jaded lover, the sports fan has built a little fortress around his heart that allows her to believe in the promise of glory from afar, but shut the drawbridge closed at the first sign of trouble.
Is there really a difference between your friend who overstates minor flaws in the last person it “just didn’t work out” with and the sports fan who throws up their hands in April yelling about how this team is never going to get anywhere with this kind of pitching? Running and complaining at the first sign of trouble is the hallmark of the uncommitted, not the person in it for the long haul. The potential of heartache (perhaps unfairly) outweighs the potential for success. Some people are more afraid of failure than they are enamored by success, and that’s just no way to enter a relationship.
So I won’t overstate the problems of the Washington Nationals. I accept them for what they are-problems. Correctable, overcomable, fixable problems. I will choose to believe they can rectify the problems they’ve exhibited because, other than a crass desire to stir up hits for this blog and/or a pessimistic outlook, there is no reason yet to think they won’t or can’t play better. If this team breaks my heart, so be it-at least I gave them a chance. I was no more wrong or right than anyone else for having tried.
Every relationship that works is built for the tough times, not just the easy ones. In every story about a hero, it is the trials and failures that craft the character of the person we root for, not the part where he smashes the bad guy in the face. April isn’t just a month that tested the Nationals staff, but the core of what it means to be a fanatic for a team. You have to be able to wear the failures if you really want to partake in the successes. Professional baseball players do not make it to the Major Leagues without already learning that lesson. This is why they’ll be ready for the month of May whether the rest of us are or not.