We’ve seen this story before Washington sports fans. An over-hyped, overrated professional sports team, destined to win the championship (Redskins (2000), Capitals (2009-2012), and now the Nationals (2015) because of its plethora of can’t-miss stars and talent comes up short, well short. Last night you could feel it if you watched the Nationals game (a 10-3 drubbing to the Brewers at home), a flat crowd, an even flatter team, coming to the fall-is-almost-here realization that they just don’t have it. It’s a lot of things: player chemistry, managers not connecting with the team, lack of discipline and effort, but the common thread, again, is that these teams fail to live up to wildly inflated expectations. It’s a Washington thing. We’re entitled to a championship therefore it must be. Not. What Washington needs to learn is that championships are earned, the hard way, through grueling work and effort. Don’t let the easy life around here fool you, the beautiful vistas, the sophisticated Washington parties, the Washington media enabling you and your greatness. You still have to work. Maybe that’s why professional sports teams from grittier cities do better (think Pittsburgh and Baltimore), they take on the ethos of the city. They know the only thing you can count on is work, hard work.
As I went for an early, end of week ‘beauty’ run this morning around the perimeter of a local soccer field in the tall, dewy grass, with only the sound of the crickets and a few birds, I looked out over the barren field and thought about that sweet time of the year when football teams all across America would begin fall practice. There are the welcoming sounds of pads and collisions, coaches barking instructions that echo throughout the practice field, the blowing of whistles, and a truant player or two running laps in tall grass around the perimeter of the field because he was late to practice. These are the morning sounds of early August America. And these are when championships are won, not under the lights, and the glitter, and the glitz, but when you have to get up in the morning when you don’t want to and get back out there. No guarantees. Just work.
It’s August; the days are growing a little shorter, the nights just a tad bit cooler, and the sweet murmur of the crickets at night now portend back to school and the coming fall (always has for me). For the long baseball season, the games are more meaningful, too. Those late inning battles in one-run games between teams at the top their division take on more importance. The contenders step up. The pretenders fade away. If you’re a Nats fan, this is not a good sign, particularly if you’re following this weekend’s series with the New York Mets. The Mets look like a real team, a team poised to take on the Nats and assume control of the NL East Division. You can see it their eyes, whether it be pitcher Jacob deGrom or first baseman Lucas Duda. During this series, the Mets have been winning those late inning battles with the Nats. Last night when Duda came up to bat in the 7th inning against Nats pitcher Joe Ross, after homering his previous at bat against Ross in the 4th inning, you just sensed trouble was in the offing. Duda had that look in his eyes, that August/September contender look, not to mention a hot home run swing that said don’t give him anything close to hit. If you’re the Washington Nationals, it’s time to put up or shut up and start winning. For whatever reason, what they’re doing right now, even with a healthy line-up, is not enough. Something’s missing, club house chemistry, cohesion, it’s just not there right now. There’s still enough time, but the season’s getting late, early.
You look forward to it all week. A Friday night under the lights at the ballpark. Just kick back and unwind. No agendas. You don’t have to be your best. You just have to be there and take it in, like a great summer movie. The perfect end to the work week grind. In my case I had been looking forward to the Nats/Dodgers game all week. The first game after the all-star break. The start of the second half of the season. The serious fan starts to pay attention because the serious teams, the contending teams, start to make their moves. Oh, and did I say the Nats were playing the Dodgers? The LA Dodgers? The glamour, flagship major league baseball team from Southern California and Chavez Ravine where the palm trees beyond the outfield beckon the dreamers. The Dodgers and Vin Scully were meant for Friday nights. Perfect. And it doesn’t hurt when your wife gets free Diamond club seats from work, that means access to the air conditioned lounge and all the free eats and Cokes you can handle. You’re one meal away from going on Statins anyway so you might as well as enjoy the hot dogs, sauerkraut, and sausages. You’re at Nats Park and it’s Friday night and the living is easy….until, the lights go out above the third base side. Washington does a lot of things well; it’s a beautiful city and a great place to grown up, the fan experience at Nats Park is first rate, but one thing Washington doesn’t do well is the basics (haven’t we heard that before?) The lights stayed out, and the teams waited in the dugout. I even had a great view of Bryce Harper in the Nats dugout…waiting, doing his thing, like the rest of us for the lights to power back up. It’s Friday night and you’re tired, your wife’s tired, and your 9 year old who loves baseball and wants to stay, is tired (and in youthful denial) after a long week of sports camp After 45 minutes the lights powered back on and the players slowly trickled back on the field, and the umpires appeared, and play eventually resumed…briefly, until the same lights went out, again (they would do this three times before the night was over). And when they once again resumed playing the Cardinals/Mets game from Busch Stadium on the center field scoreboard, I knew it was finally time to go. One thing the Cardinals do well is they get the basics. This was a reminder. Their red-clad fans are in their seats from the first pitch on, not many empty seats in their house, and those sensible Mid-westerners know baseball, unlike us Washingtonians who really are quite newbies to baseball. The game is almost a distraction to our cell phones, Presidents’ races, girls throwing t-shirts into the crowd, and that ubiquitous Nats pep-guy rep who shows up on the scoreboard from time-to-time during the game live at various venues around Nats Park, like we’re at a rock concert. Nah…Washington’s not there yet when it comes to being a solid baseball town. When you hear the old grizzled fan next to you naming the third base coach who had just made the call to send the runner home from second after a single to center, the fans are in their seats ready at the first pitch, and the lights stay on, then you’ll know Washington baseball has arrived!
As late spring soon turns to Washington summer heat and humidity and the sweet singing of birds is replaced by the constant drone of a/c units and the splashing of kids at local pools—“Marco…Polo”, here’s what we have to look forward to on the local sports scene. The Nationals, the Nationals, and the Nationals. Get out to Nationals Park when you can. Wear an old t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops. Drink a cold craft brew (if you can afford it) and sit way up high in the 400 sections, preferably a night game, and simply kick back and enjoy the atmosphere. Oh, and while you’re at it, pay attention to when Bryce Harper comes to bat. You’ll know it when you hear the old Frank Sinatra staple, “the best is yet to come…” This is a special player having a special season so enjoy it. Absent any blockbuster movies this summer, Nationals Park is the place you want to be. Fans can lament about the Caps and Wizards coming up short…again, but alas, despair not. We’re all being set-up for the championship that will come to this city.
Sometimes a team (Virginia) is just meant to lose a game. When the opposing team’s 5th scoring option (Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang) calmly swishes the game winning 15 footer with 2.7 seconds left, then it’s one of those times. This was Louisville’s game to win, and a great game to watch. These were two well-coached, hard-nosed team battling it out throughout the night, neither wilting under the pressure, each team hitting clutch shots down the stretch. Virginia will benefit from this game as they head in to tournament play if they can use the rotten feeling of losing a game on an opposing team’s home court as motivation.
As Winter hangs on to its last, cold breath and the sun climbs higher and higher with its welcome sign that spring is indeed on the horizon, the college basketball regular season has come down to its last weekend. Fans of Kentucky and Virginia are no doubt looking forward to tournament play almost as much as the warmer, longer spring days, maybe more. The Wildcats, 30-0, should complete a remarkable undefeated regular season as it hosts the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena this afternoon. Later today, the Cavaliers, 28-1, will play at Louisville in a more interesting match-up on paper. But with the regular season now a foregone conclusion, the more compelling storylines for the top two teams in the country at this point are this: For Virginia, with Justin Anderson to miss additional time due to appendectomy surgery this week, have the Cavaliers decided ‘so be it’ and now plan to move on through tournament play without him? If the last seven games are any indication, the answer is ‘yes’. Virginia is simply deeper, tougher, and more resilient than its parts. They know who they are, they are tested, and they will not be deterred by the absence of one player. If they have to win it without Anderson, they will and they know they can.
For Kentucky, the most talented and maybe the best team in the country, could the Wildcats benefit from a loss before the NCAA tournament? (And thus relieve some of the legacy pressure to go undefeated, last accomplished by the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.) The answer, if you’re a true Kentucky blue blood, and more importantly, if you suit up in one of those vaunted uniforms (no matter how young or inexperienced a player you are ) that spells K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y on the front, is a resounding ‘NO’.
Bring on spring! Bring on the tournaments!