A couple of weeks ago, I was at the ballpark in Washington, D.C, one of the few places in town where one can go and feel relatively safe that Omorosa is not taping you. I saw something that never had been done before. It is one of those moments in the game that make you happy that someone invented the Elias Sports Bureau to keep track of such things. Otherwise, nobody would notice and history, or a splinter of it anyway, would be lost. It does, however, require a little set-up.
The night before, the Washington Nationals had defeated the New York Mets, 25–4, in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. (Why the Nats went for two after their third touchdown, I will never know.) By the eighth inning, the Mets were trailing, 19–1. They were out of pitchers although, judging by the performance, they hadn’t shown up with any in the first place. To call the Mets a landfill these days is to insult the Love Canal Disaster. Unfortunately, the rules of baseball require that somebody at least go out there and throw the ball in the general direction of home plate. Infielder José Reyes stepped up and took a freight train for the ballclub. He surrendered six runs on five hits. More to our purposes, however, he gave up two home runs.
Our scene now shifts to the next afternoon. Defying all the odds, as well as any concept of shame, the Mets showed up to play the Nationals again. They lost again, this time by a less baroque final score of 5–3. However, Reyes, who was batting somewhere south of either the Mendoza Line or Tierra del Fuego, whacked two home runs to account for most of the New York scoring.
It wasn’t until about 40 minutes after the game that it was discovered that Reyes, in pumping his batting average up to .191, had done something that no other player in the modern era of baseball had done—namely, he’d given up two home runs and hit two home runs in consecutive games. The only other player to do it was Cap Anson, and that was in 1884 during the administration of Chester Arthur. And Anson was a horrible racist; only a year earlier, Anson had refused to take the field against a Toledo team featuring an African American player named Moses Fleetwood Walker, who was the last African-American to play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson. So, to hell with Anson. Reyes is the hero of this story.
Baseball devotees, both within and without the press box, are the most hypochondriacal fans on earth. Every decade or so, like clockwork, they work themselves into a frenzy over the possibility that they will wake up one morning and the game they love will be gone, that someone will have converted Yankee Stadium into the world’s largest MMA octagon, or Fenway Park’s left-field wall into a giant screen hosting a gamer’s league. If someone in Cincinnati sneezes, everyone in Milwaukee catches cold. If fans don’t show up for a daylight game in Texas when it’s half-past perdition in the midday sun, then people get worried if there are empty seats staring back at them in Pittsburgh.
This is a brief list of what is giving the devotees of our erstwhile national pastime the vapors. There are too many strikeouts. Some of the teams leading the divisions are doing so with spavined offenses. After a 2017 season in which MLB topped $10 billion in revenue for the first time, attendance at the games has fallen off a staggering 6.6%—horrors!—from last season. This is neither new nor particularly worrisome; in each of the past six seasons, attendance has declined from the season before. This has less to do with the product on the field than with the exorbitant prices charged to watch it, especially in an era of stagnant wages. (It should be noted that people are still turning out in relative droves at minor-league games.) And it would help attendance immeasurably if owners like the Wilpons in New York could be convinced to sell the Mets, and if the Florida Marlins were run more like a baseball franchise and less like a chop shop.
I am a baseball agnostic. Whatever deep emotional chokehold baseball has on the Tim Kurkjians and Steve Buckleys of the world, I am immune to it. There are two things I like most about baseball—it is played (largely) outdoors and it is played in the summertime. There is nothing quite like watching a day game at Fenway, or watching the twilight spread over the rivers in Pittsburgh. Time slows. Possibilities expand. If the beer weren’t $12 these days, life would be completely grand.
Because my needs are few, and my pleasures simple, I never have understood why serious baseball fans go out of their way to be so endlessly pessimistic. As far as apocalyptic visions go, many baseball writers make John of Patmos look like he’s drafting scripts for Thomas The Tank Engine. This deep, miasmic fretting among the faithful always makes me think of fervent baseball acolytes as a kind of sports Millerite, convinced the end is near, always, and standing on a hillside, waiting faithfully for the end that never comes. Could make a fella downright gloomy.
Bryce Harper is having himself a very strange season, as the Nationals try to hoist themselves into playoff contention in the National League. He is the unquestioned face of the franchise, the golden phenom in which the Nationals placed most of their identity, the franchise’s first real superstar. (Of course, they once had a team full of them when the franchise played in Montreal, but that’s too painful a memory to bear.) Now, he’s coming up fast on free agency. In December of 2016, USA Today reported that Harper was asking for a 10-year deal with a minimum value of $400 million. Both sides speedily—if unconvincingly—denied the report. Nevertheless, as free agency approaches, Harper seems to be enjoying it less and less.
Some of it has to do with his play. He’s hitting only .238 at the moment, but his power numbers—28 HRs, 71 RBI, and a robust .878 OPS—remain strong. But, despite an MVP-caliber season from pitcher Max Scherzer, Harper and the Nationals have spent most of the season trying desperately to get out of their own way. It cracked loose at the beginning of August, when Washington shipped reliever Brandon Kintzler out of town, reportedly because Kintzler had leaked news of an unhappy Nationals clubhouse. Then, in the middle of that 25–4 meltdown in which Reyes achieved half of his newfound fame, pitcher Shawn Kelley had himself a glove-tossing fit, showing up manager Dave Martinez, which caused Washington simply to dump Kelley the next day. There have been toxic rumors flying all over the place since the season began, and Harper’s contract status has been caught up in them and has been made a toxic subject itself. (There have been repeated rumors that Harper will join his friend Kris Bryant on the Chicago Cubs, but now there’s a survey that says Cubs fans may not want him. It’s been that kind of year.) At the All-Star Game in Washington, at which Harper won the Home Run Derby, he threatened to walk off the interview podium if he was asked anything about his future.
It really shouldn’t be like this. Harper had been a genuine joy to watch and to have around—funny, aware, and enormously talented. Now, he seems beaten down, and his talent isn’t speaking as loudly as it should. After the game in which Reyes achieved immortality, Harper stood at his locker and spoke in what can only be described as a drone.
“Eighth- and ninth-inning points are huge,” he said, staring past the knot of reporters at nothing in particular. “Went out there and try to put your best at-bats forward and won a ballgame.
“I think every day you want to go out there and get knocks and help the team win. It’s been a lot better than usual, I guess. I’m just trying to go out there and get some knocks in.”
There’s nothing to be parsed out of a postgame press gaggle after a game at the beginning of August, but there was a palpable kind of gloom surrounding Harper and his team that mirrored to an extent the atmosphere that has been created around baseball by the people who claim to love it the most. Hell, I got a little bit of history in Washington that day. Let them stay up on the hillside, waiting for the last trumpet of doom. We’ll go to the ballpark and sit in the sun.