PYR Rises Anew

I need to sort out my team’s logo, so fingers crossed, this ad hoc device will manage the task, and my goodness! Has it really been over a year since my last post? Apparently so, quite a slump.

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Mid-Season Crisis

Your humble correspondent would like to share the happy news that he celebrated his birthday yesterday. Lately, this has been a less than joyous event since the impending celebration of an age with zero as its second digit has been little more welcome than a late inning managerial visit to the pitcher’s mound. Reading the latest articles about the Washington Nationals’ Prospect E$maiyln Gonzalez, I have realized how wrong-headed it was for me to fear the years ahead. I have no need of a red sports car or a younger girlfriend to replace my non-existent spouse. Why should I be concerned about the beginning of life’s journey? Apparently, I can even anticipate a hefty signing bonus in my future.

Let the record show, and I am more than willing to produce the requisite documents, that my foray into adulthood has only just begun. Eighteen years of age feels pretty good to these erstwhile tired old bones. No doubt my readership will join me in celebrating the news, and also the revelation that appearances to the contrary, I actually grew up in the Dominican Republic. There are those naysayers who will point to earlier posts in this very forum and question these assertions. The doubting Frank Thomas’s might have access to official records such as a “birth certificate” or a “passport” indicating that I have falsified my age by twenty years, give or take a week. To them, I say that it is a sad reflection on our society when an eighteen year old kid such as myself cannot get a fair shake in the minor leagues just because what hair he has left atop his pate is sprinkled with grey. Has our consumer culture rendered us so shallow that we automatically judge people on appearance, paying no heed to character and personality? I am aghast that my integrity would be impugned in this manner.

Having said as much, good readers, my detractors have some grounds for complaint. The time has come for me to own up. The truth of the matter is that I have not been entirely forthright with you. My columns about a childhood spent in Alaska and the importance of 1977 Topps baseball cards, all of them were fabrications. I apologize for the fraud, it was a fantasy that I concocted to insulate myself from the rough and tumble adolescence of a Caribbean baseball prospect. I would not want these youthful errors to impede my progress with the Washington Nationals minor league system, nor would I want them to affect the $1.4 million signing bonus that has been dangled in front of my cherubic fingers by the esteemed Mr. Bowdown, pardon me, my English is still improving, Mr. Bowout, sorry, I mean Mr. Bowden. Let’s give the man some credit, you cannot help but admire his ability to spot my obvious talents, and even the most near-sighted scout could discern the linguistic plate discipline displayed in that last at-bat: two called strikes ignored followed by a safe hit. Faced with such prima facie evidence of my burgeoning talents, and at so young an age, is there any question as to whether or not the Nationals General Manager deserves the same executive retention bonus that has been awarded to the talented players of the Wall Street Leagues?

From where I stand, the answer is as obvious as the candles on my cake, yesterday, before I ate it.

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Filed under Some people go to BSM clubs, I just root for the Nationals

The 1st National Bank All-Stars

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….” William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust.

I do not remember my first game of catch, nor does my father, certainly the only other living witness to the momentous event. That it occurred, I have no doubt, but like many true believers, I must keep faith with what I cannot know. After all, a pebble dropped into water leaves no sign of its passage after the ripples subside. Thus it was that my first memories of playing the game revolve around my glove, an outfielder’s shovel wrought from tanned hide whose very enormity lent itself to the boundaries of my confidence. However fallible the hand which it enclosed, such a mitt could never fail. My grip on the transaction that made it mine is less certain, just an ambiguous picture of a department store’s sporting goods section, and the glove that we took off the racks. There was a big leaguer’s signature splashed across the pocket, but whose, I cannot say. Sometime that afternoon, like as not in the front yard to the side of the majestic spruce whose branches obstructed future athletic feats, my father introduced me to the simple joys of throwing a baseball, and in this instance, playing drop, since I suspect that I did not catch it as often as I would have liked. All of this remains conjectural, however, and your humble correspondent is wary about saying too much more on the subject.

The next day, the next weekend, soon afterwards, I took my place on a sports field adjacent to the elementary school where I had just completed a stand-out performance in the very low A ball of first grade. “The kid can read, count, and does not fall down much, he’s got limitless upside.” The introductury practice took place on a day that was overcast and cold, with a driving wind that prevented the ball from remaining easily on the batting tee, so the more exciting hitting lessons were abandoned in favor of defensive skills. The coach would have been one of our parents, no idea which, only that he was THE COACH, like but unlike a parent, a figure only of authority. It is no surprise that his commands made a lasting impression, and that my first memory of playing baseball was quite literally drilled into me. Whatever else, I am certain that we practiced fielding grounders, dropping to one knee, glove to the ground, ready to catch or at least prevent the ball from careening too far past us if we muffed the play. The drill was straightforward, we teamed up with a partner and threw the ball back and forth. My peers were for the most part, familiar faces, neighborhood kids, veterans of kindergarten. There were a few outliers from faraway neighborhoods, but for the most part, we knew each other, as did our parents, or at least the fathers who had signed all of us up for this annual rite of spring.

Thirty years of additional experience has crowded out this particularly small market, and apart from the grounders and the venue, there is not much more that I can write about the initial practice, with one critical exception. Each one of us arrived there with whatever hat we already owned, some were bare-headed, but at the end of the hour, we were all given a blue baseball hat. It was our only uniform to begin with since a local sponsor had not yet provided us with any shirts. The hat was enough. We knew that we were a team.

As we played games throughout the season, my friends and I recognized that we were also a good team, one of the better sides in whatever peewee league governed our weekly contests. Everyone batted over .500, a menagerie of veritable all-stars, led by our most valuable player, the batting tee. Nobody ever struck out, and singles were common place, extra base hits, less so. Baseball even in its easiest form adhered to its ancient laws. What distinguished us from other teams was a core of strong hitters, capable of lifting the ball well beyond the infield dirt. Carried by those diminutive Caseys, we rarely lost, to just two teams in the league, and only one with enough consistency that they were considered worthy rivals, not that we considered them to be worthy, just rivals. One team wore mustard yellow, and our most hated foe, maroon. There was another club that made up in style what they lacked in substance and took to the field resplendent in proper baseball uniforms, whereas every other nine donned only a baseball shirt and the all-important hat. Remarkably, since this was no pitch, and at season’s end, slow pitch ball, whoever stepped into the batter’s box had to wear a helmet.

Batting next, your humble correspondent!  Note my brother at the right, totally uninterested in the proceedings.

Batting Next! Note my brother at the right, totally uninterested in the proceedings.

I am certain that we had a team name, something like the Bears or the Wolves or some other predator appropriate to an Alaskan club, but this is yet another detail that eludes me. The only words stenciled across our backs denoted the name of our sponsor: 1st Natl Bank. Children are blissfully unaware of irony, and sometimes it takes the passage of years for the wit of the universe to reveal itself. In this instance, my own team’s moniker is lost to the ages, but the team that my younger brother invented in order to assuage his keen sense of envy and boredom at every game and practice that he was required to attend without actually playing is writ large: the Weasels. This fantastical organization never played a game, nor did my brother, but their survival is assured in large measure to a theme song, “The Weasels, they are really keen, the Weasels, you know what we mean, the Weasels, they will never lose, the Weasels never sing the blues…” The tune is catchy enough, and although the lyrics changed from day-to-day, I heard it incessantly on every drive to the park. I even sang along.

A swing worthy of Cooperstown or at least first base.  As ever, my brother does not care.

A swing worthy of Cooperstown or at least first base. As ever, my brother does not care.

Every one of our games was played at the same field, a humble affair that seemed a thousand miles away from the familiar streets and yards of Bootlegger’s Cove, the neighborhood that most of us called home. I had no idea just how far away it actually was from my house until halfway through high school when I had occasion to visit, for the first time, the house of a schoolmate who would become one of my closest teenage friends. As it turned out, he lived on the opposite side of town exactly one block away from the park, had grown up there, and may very well have seen me years before during one of the games. At the time, I was gripped by a sharp, sudden awareness that I had been there before, and lo and behold, confirmation of the fact was quite literally, just around the corner. Even in so small a world as a childhood spent in Anchorage, Alaska, home plate eludes the modern precision of 61°12’23.70” North, 149°49’13.74” West, but the glories of satellite imagery have enabled me to peer into the past and share the contours of a brown diamond and the dusty wasteland of an outfield that shows it age, for once it was as green as the children who played there.

East 16th Street Park. My friend's house is just out of sight on the right of the picture.

East 16th Street Field. My friend's house is just out of sight on the right of the picture.

On either side of the corners, two long boxes appear to a heavenly observer, the dugouts. 1st National Bank always occupied the 3rd base line. This was our turf. Quite obviously, none of us chewed anything more carcinogenic than Hubba Bubba, but there had to have been a ribald atmosphere in our domain, if only the G-Rated antics of an after school made for TV special. I stake this rather grandiose claim on the one piece of clubhouse banter that has stayed with me through the years, probably because at the time it seemed rather edgy and dangerous. We were behind in runs. Batters were not reaching base, errors were proliferating in the field, and tempers were rising in the dugout. Names were being called, and given our age, it would not have been long before somebody was crying to their eternal mortification, those closest in age to babies are apt to look down on infantile behavior from heights far loftier than the span of their years. One of the kids, I cannot remember who, but certainly not one of the team leaders, grasped the situation, and spoke out against the name calling, appropriately, with reference to our real names. “George is just a George, Mike is only a Mike, Jay is a Jay, John is a John!” At which point, John piped up, “I am not a John!” Without missing a beat, everyone cracked up laughing. Trust baseball players to relish toilet humor. I would like to say that we went on to win the game, but I would be lying, maybe we did, I have no idea. What I do know is that I have never forgotten that innocent, off-color remark. Boys playing a boy’s game, oblivious to manhood, learning the basics in every sense.

The Dugout, 3rd Base Side, E. 16th Street Field.

The Dugout, 3rd Base Side, E. 16th Street Field.

Of that magical season, just one other memory, one other quote remains. For some reason, I was missing my glove before a game. My parents were out that evening, probably working late, because it was my next door neighbor’s dad who drove us to the game. His son was an overweight slugger who would later realize his full potential as a local bully, but at the time we got along well enough. Aware that my glove had gone absent without leave, his father, a man as lean as his son was not, retired to the garage and emerged with a battered glove that had clearly seen a lot of use. I must have looked at the mitt with some suspicion, even disdain, because when he handed it over to me, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and solemnly declared: “This is a good glove. It does not drop baseballs.” Reassured, I tried it on, and wore it all the way to the park.

A tense moment at bat.

A tense moment at bat.

The game was close, and as it was the policy of our coach to cycle us through the positions over the course of twenty-seven opposing at-bats, I played left field in the final inning. The action was remote, and in a less competitive game, my attention might have strayed. Not this time, and a good thing too, since there was no crack of the bat to warn me that the action was headed my way, just a swing, and the ball was up, up, up, driven impossibly high toward my parcel of the outfield. I had to run for it, in order to position myself just so, which was not really a problem because the ball had been lofted with such force that I had more than enough time to get beneath it. We had been taught how to target pop-ups, and I had fielded more than my fair share over the season: frame the ball with your glove, wait for it, and then close your hands around the catch. Never take your eye off the ball. Of this last injunction there was no doubt. I was transfixed. If a bird had flown overhead, it would not have surprised me had it blocked my view, for no ball that I ever caught had tried so hard to escape earth’s gravity. I was a little scared of it, so far away that it looked like the moon against the evening blue of a cloudless sky, but my thoughts were also of glory and the accolades of my peers. The ball was falling, looming larger and closer and faster with every passing moment. I kept my eye on the sphere throughout its decent, and then felt the familiar impact in the pocket of the mitt and closed my hand around the ball. My fingers touched, the glove snapped shut, empty. The trap had sprung a moment too late and its prey lay on the ground in front of me. The batter was safe. My moment of glory had been snatched away, taken by someone else who certainly has forgotten what I cannot. Excalibur was broken. The glove that never dropped baseballs was no more. Yet there was no time dwell on the catastrophe, the ball was still in play. Without further thought, I wrenched the offending object from the ground, and threw toward the infield, anything to distance myself from a few seconds before. Another batter was already taking his stance at home plate, and so the inning continued, the runs began piling up, the game ceased to be close. This proved to be a small blessing since we were in the field long enough for the tears to dry.

After the game, the opposing coach made a point of striding over to our dugout. He wanted to congratulate the kid who almost caught the ball. I was flummoxed that the guiding hand of our enemy saw fit to congratulate me for a failure, and I was at a loss to reply. Whatever his purpose, the unprecedented gesture helped soften my mood. None of my teammates gave me any lip, for the moment I was taboo. I suppose that I was spared teasing and recrimination because everyone who has ever played baseball has feared that ball, and everyone has dropped it, I just led the charge that day. Besides, I was usually a steady hand, and even though the cynical adult who writes these words is tempted to regard the coach’s gesture in a different light, “thanks for helping us win that game,” the boy understood that this was not the case.

A Study in Greatness.

A Study in Greatness.

If there was a championship series, 1st National Bank failed to make it to the show. We performed well enough throughout the remainder of the season, but our murderer’s row lost a lot of its punch when they took away our most valuable player. The transition from a batting tee to the pitched ball, even underhand, reminds me of the tragedy that befell certain shrill actors when the talkies swept away the silent screen. I have some sense that in the end, we lost out to one of our rival clubs, the jerks in yellow. Unfortunately, there was no wait till next year, not for me at least. Over the autumn, my persistent ear infections had gotten worse, and my parents, having heard that it was an effective remedy for my particular problems, signed me up onto a swimming team, the Anchorage Aquanauts. Aqua not would have been a more accurate turn of the phrase. I hated it. For the rest of my childhood, two hours a day, five days a week, I hated it. In their defense, I never needed another operation on my poor, scarred inner ears, but my days of playing organized baseball were over just as they had begun.

Everything else is the man attempting to recapture the boy’s game, and if my sharpest memory is of failure, so be it. For the rest of my days, I shall always hold onto that moment, the one before the ball is dropped, when it is catchable, and caught.

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The deal is Dunn!

Long live the Czar of all Nationals! He has opened the royal purse, and given the serfs of his realm cause for celebration! Extra helpings of gruel for everyone! We can live on exclamation points and the promise of the season that is almost upon us!!!

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The Better Man has Passed.

“Lo there do I see my lead off hitter. Lo there do I see my manager and my fans and my announcers. Lo there do I see the line-up of my team, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call to me, they bid me take my place among them, in the Halls of Balhalla, where the brave may play… forever.” [With a tip of my hat to Viking spirits, Norse nationalists, and other mainstays of the Ragnorak Leagues]

Baseball is often called a game of inches, a tribute to the time-honored proportions of the field, the distance from pitcher’s mound to home plate, from home plate to first base, from the infield paths to the warning track.  We look to the aptly named diamond and see a flawless treasure.  Such prose ignores other facets of baseball, that the game’s speed and its relative distances are not absolute when played on dissimilar surfaces such as green grass and artificial turf.   To the cognoscenti who make this point, I suggest that it is better to describe the national pastime as a game of balance.  Whether or not the groundskeeper works with fertilizer or polypropelene,  ninety feet between the bases represents an ideal compromise between strength and agility, action and reaction.  

The sporting pages are filled with stories these days about the corruption of that balance.  Two days ago, I deigned to comment on the problem myself, and in doing so, singled out MLBPA representative Gene Orza for particular contempt.  The next morning, an obituary appeared in the Washington Post to remind me that 360 feet from the batter’s box to home plate can actually encompass the cosmos.  

His name was Melvin J. Welles, although he entered this world as Melvin J. Welitoff.  He was born in my beloved Jersey City, the child of Jewish immigrants who had escaped from the absolutism of Russia to the promise of the American Dream.  American reality dictated the change in his last name.  His mother thought he would encounter less prejudice with an anglicized cognomon.  He was a labor man, Chief Judge of the National Labor Relations Board, the best hope for fair arbitration when labor talks fail.  The umpire of last resort.  He was also a lifelong baseball fan whose dedication to the game and whose experience in the stands should be the envy of us all, even if he was doomed to love the Washington Senators.

Mr. Welles was a fixture of the stands in Griffith Stadium, he saw every home opener from 1946 onward, and missed only one game against the hated Yankees in all that time, on the night of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.  The Yankees had already wrapped up the pennant, so he opted for the more competitive race. A humble spectator, he contributed in small measure to baseball’s endurance record, being one of two people present at the 2,130th consecutive games played by both Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr.  The other guy who went the distance was no less than Joe Dimaggio. 

Apart from being a fan, Welles had the chance to live the fan’s dream, to influence the game itself, not with a bat or a cheer or by introducing a son to its magic, but with his mind and his sense of fair play.  In 1981, baseball was suffering through its fifth labor stoppage in less than ten years, as the owners sought to undo the legitimate gains made by the MLBPA in the previous decade.  The strike, which history blames on management, cost over a third of the season, 713 games lost. 

Unable to reach agreement, the negotiators turned to the NLRB, and Melvin J. Welles did what he thought was best, he assigned the case to himself.  He reached a decision and wrote it as well, but on the very day that judgment was to be announced, the impasse broke.  After 50 days on the picket line, the players were able to return.  As for his decision, it remains a mystery.  Welles later remarked, “Nobody in the world but me knows the decision of that case.”   The strike was over, it had been acrimonious and bitter.  Melvin J. Welles knew better than to hit the bruise. 

Just two days ago, I wrote about a union man who has brought shame to the national pastime by keeping quiet on the issue of performance enhancing drugs.  Today, I have drawn your attention to a union man who honored the sport through a decision not to speak when there was no need. And so, take a moment of silence in memory of a fan whose passage reminds us of the better angels of trade unionism, of the decency that surrounds our national pastime, and the ballast that keeps it from tipping one way or the other.  Let us remember Melvin J. Welles, and keep in mind that baseball is a game of balance.

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Strike Four

At the risk of staying in the game when my best stuff has deserted me, I just want to pitch a few lines before my next quality start. Any season ticket holders can relax, it is not just my arm that is on ice. A lengthy essay is already more finished than not, but circumstances dictate that those recollections must wait a day or two before getting called up to the show.

In the meantime, at the end of what must certainly stand as an unhappy day for the national pastime, Boston excepted, a few remarks on the endangered species that is the innocence of baseball seem to be in order. We are wont to forget that this is, at its heart, a game, and a child’s game at that. It remains the prerogative of adults to ruin it for everyone. I am fond of remarking that people tend to take matters so seriously because the stakes are often so low, but the same cannot be said of the professional game. The pinnacle of achievement, the upper floor of the late Harold Seymour’s house of baseball, the bigs are the object of innumerable dreams and aspirations. Even in hard times, America remains the world’s treasure house, so vast fortunes are involved, and countless lives are supported by the major leagues from the lowly peanut barker to the grandiose magnates who can break the hearts of entire cities. Is it any surprise that egos commensurate to such wealth have emerged, with swollen heads and shrunken consciences as seem to afflict the sucking dog tick Scott Boras, whose entire existence appears dedicated to enriching himself through the inflated salaries of a talented cadre of players?  Yes, he does so at the expense of the owners, who can certainly foot the bill, but ultimately it is the fans who suffer most as wealth is drained out of cities that have struggling schools and underpaid teachers in order to shower an otherwise perfectly ordinary few with lucre beyond measure. One of the few pleasures in rooting for the Nationals these days is that our club does not have any players good enough to fall under his thrall. Unfortunately, the likes of Gene Orza, odious champion of baseball’s answer to law enforcement’s blue code of silence, cannot be avoided by any fan.

Those who know me, appreciate that my family comes from a strong labor background, that my grandfather fought the good fight in an era when baseball bats did not miss strikes but hit strikers. He actually fought, and regretably failed, to free baseball from the tyranny of the reserve clause. Let me be clear, the time was once that the Player’s Union stood for something truly honorable, a fair deal for the men who played the game, a living wage and pension plan, the right to collective bargaining. Today, I struggle to see the likes of Joe Hill in the foul-mouthed entertainment lawyers who wrap themselves in the valorous struggle of workingmen past, and I shudder to think of what will happen in 2011 when the current CBA expires. The MLBPA is necessary, since management will almost always enrich itself at the cost of labor, but when Union representatives tacitly defend the rights of employees to avoid punishment for the willful use of banned drugs, to break the rules, to cheat, what is necessary is made little more than a necessary evil. This is not what the MLBPA should be.

I have never been part of a union, but I am big enough of a fan of organized labor to tell you that on page 46 of the AFL-CIO song book, you can read the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Other songs in that worthy volume tell of violence and starvation wages. In today’s big leagues, the average player makes $500,000 per year, and the superstars have annual contracts that are larger than the budgets for small towns and villages across the land. Do not mistake my purpose, I recognize that professional athletes have always done better than the average working joe, and to me, half a million per year seems a reasonable ballpark figure for the players who never make the cut on our fantasy baseball teams, give or take, well take a grand or two. My concern is the superstars, the ones worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Surely, this is too much?  Surely, they can live far better than 99.9% of the world’s population on half of their wages, on even a tenth of that sum?  Have we abandoned the old adage that cheaters never prosper?   When salaries are manipulated to the extent of today’s game, it is hardly any surprise that this is the case, that players are breaking the rules as if they were maple bats, and that incentive clauses rewarding power result in facile records based on that woeful acronym, PEDs.  Unfortunately, the sucking dog ticks and the practitioners of silence have no interest in a fair shake, it profits them little.  There is, after all, another song in the AFL-CIO song book, no less a tune than Solidarity Forever, which once upon a time caused shivvers to run down the spines of company bosses and business tycoons. One lyric keeps running the bases in my mind, “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold.” When it comes to our national pastime, whose power, whose hoarded gold?

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History, when ignored repeats itself, and what is revolution but something that spins round and round.

It had been my intention to preface these remarks with a quote by Clark Griffith, preferably on futility. My assumption was that the erstwhile owner of the erstwhile Washington Senators would have plenty to say in that regard, and given the subject of this cursory note, he seemed the most appropriate choice. Accordingly, I reached for my copy of “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations,” and thumbed from D to E from F to H. Did my eyes deceive me, was G was riding the bench? Could it really be that the Old Fox had nothing memorable to say at all about the game of games? Perturbed that one of the storied player-owners of the 20th century was ignored by the compilers of this useful reference work, I appealed to the field umpire who had a better view of the play from the index. Sure enough, the bum behind the plate had bungled the call: “Griffith, Clark, 170.”

I returned to the numbers game and watched the pagination leap until page 140 jumped higher than Joe Rudi in game two of the ’72 Fall Classic, managing to reach page 173 in a single bound. Calamitous discovery! My particular copy of this book was the victim of a binding error, and thirty-three pages of baseball verbosity had been silenced with a single misstep. Normally, such a revelation would have been a cause for concern, certainly irritation, but on this occasion, I smiled, put down the offending volume and began to write. The funny thing about futility is that if you go looking for it, you may very well find it.

And so, let me present you with a poem on the subject that I found in a box of papers yesterday while looking for materials destined to play the game for a different column. The doggeral verse (excepting one or two amendments) is not mine, and never the plagarist, allow me to cite little known sports writer Arnold Quint for his epic work in three stanzas, “A Fan’s Lament:”

The real downtrodden Nats are beginning to smell.
They need Hudson or Dunn or even Kip Wells;
Their talent would put our dear Nats near the top.
And prevent us from having another near flop.

The poor manager’s hopes are high in the spring,
But the players, alas, cannot hit a thing.
The attendance is falling from not enough power.
And the fielding is awful; the pitching is sour.

The sad crowd always boos when the team’s in a slump,
And they throw rotten things at the nearsighted ump;
So please help us, dear Lerner, and get us a team
And fulfill the hopes of a spectator’s dream.

There you have it, a tidy little rhyme, but what makes it expecially pertinent to the impending 2009 Nationals campaign is that Arnold Quint graduated from Alice Deal Junior High around 1957, and his poem appeared in its original form in an issue of the 1956 school newspaper. Substitute Mantle, Berra and George Kell for this year’s crop of free agents, as well the infernal Calvin Griffith, adopted son of Clark, for the club’s current owner, and you will have the fifty year old work in its unadulterated glory. Which carries us round the bases and once more to the issue of futility.

The cover of the 1956 Alice Deal JHS Square Deal.

The cover of the 1956 Alice Deal JHS Square Deal.

The natives of Washington, D.C. and its suburbs are growing restless. Tom Boswell, one of the greatest baseball writers of the nascent 21st century and a glowing star on the escutcheon of the Washington Post’s sports page is in open revolt, having cancelled the season tickets he waited thirty-seven years to buy. Our team’s front office made a lot of noise last fall about hot stove acquisitions, and with spring training just around the corner, the organization that spectacularly failed to sign Mark Teixeira, is now quibbling over the crumbs of arbitration with such luminaries (respected though they are) as Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham. Where have you gone Alfonso Soriano? Our city turns its lonely eyes to you.

Meanwhile, my convenient scapegoat, Nationals President Stan “Castout” Kasten,  emerged last week from an undisclosed location in order to offer such reassuring platitudes as this tidbit from his question-and-answer session with the fans, “I don’t know that the team is going to be much different between now and Opening Day, but we all want it to be… We all want to continue to supplement what we have, and we’re all working hard at it. … I know we’re going to be better than last year.” With all due respect, Mr. Castout, after posting 102 games on the wrong side of the column last year, assuring Nats fans that the new team will be an improvement is about as insightful as observing that it is better to be mauled by a cat than a dog.

Without shame, Castout also remarked that the willingness of the club’s owner to spend $180 million on a player who signed with some other club that almost lost fewer games than the Nats won constituted evidence that he “was so committed to winning that we competed at the highest level for that player. Now unfortunately our team’s not good enough on the field right now for free agents to decide they want to play here over places that are proven to get there. But for them to stand up at that level like they did, with that many years and that much money at the table, that just speaks volumes.” Baseball is famously a sport where failure two times out three is a sign of greatness, but what volumes exactly was he talking about? From where I stand, I see pages 141 to 172 of my copy of “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations.”

Castout, spare me your thoughts on the new dining concessions at Nationals Stadium, I am already happy with the varied selection of beer and over-priced comfort food designed to console me for my under-priced team with its bottom tier payroll. You need to understand that I don’t want to eat cake, or even ball park franks, and despite what you disdainfully said in the Q-and-A session that shall live in infamy, I do care about payroll. It does matter to me, because payroll means players, and my team is not, I repeat, not the Tampa Bay Rays. Do not make that comparison ever again, it is an insult to cultivated tree fruits the world over.

Castout, I understand that I am playing hardball, that my rhetoric is sharp. I appreciate that behind your Potemkin assurances must necessarily reside the dictates of the team’s principal owner, Mr. Mark D. Lerner. I understand as well that I am just one lowly Nats fan, a serf in baseball’s feudal hierarchy. I am downtrodden, and the officers of my sovereign exact a cruel price from me, tied as I am to the land. In my heart of hearts I hold onto the belief that the Czar of all Nationals is a kind man, that if he only knew what was being done in his name, he would intervene and prove himself to be a just and compassionate autocrat. He would make good on his promise to deliver a team that wins, that wins just half of its games. Oh despicable Castout, this must be your doing, with your heel to my neck and my face to the infield dirt! Surely, the Czar of all Nationals cares for his people, is willing to make sacrifices for those who have given so much to prop up his court, with its $693 million palace on the Anacostia. I am fond of my team, I laud its players, but how long must we wait for the acquisitions that will lead them to victory, to the promised land of the postseason, or even the dubious comforts of fifth place? Arnold Quint was waiting fifty years ago, and his descendents maintain that lowly watch. Remember the lessons of history, Czar of all Nationals, yours is not the first team that has worn red to its home games! When Tom Boswellchev abandons his season tickets, surely the embers of revolution are stirring in the fire.

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