Today is Friday the 13th, a date long associated with bad luck, which was certainly the case in the wee hours this morning for the Washington Nationals and their fans. Bad umpiring, too, which hardly salves the wound.
“Baseball has the largest library of law and lore and custom and ritual,” former Major League Baseball commissioner and classics scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti once noted. For that reason, he added, “in a nation that fundamentally believes it is a nation under law, well, baseball is American’s most privileged version of the level field.”
That’s true enough — until it’s not. Last night, in the Halloween-arrived-early fifth inning of their decisive Game 5 against the Chicago Cubs, Nats’ catcher Matt Wieters was hit on his mask by the backswing of Cubbies second-baseman Javier Baez. By rule, that third-strike swing should have ended the inning. Yet even in this era of televised replays — and in the 8th inning the Nats were undone by a nightmarish overturn of a close call at first base — the game is still played and administered by human beings. In the aftermath of the Cubs thrilling 9-8 win, one of those human beings, plate umpire Jerry Layne, went into serious spin mode in explaining how he misinterpreted the rule (or missed the call) that gave the Cubs two additional runs.
Bart Giamatti dispensed some wisdom on that point as well, and plenty of others too.
“It breaks your heart,” he wrote in an essay about baseball for Yale’s alumni magazine in November 1977. “It is designed to break your heart.”
“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
Writing as a Red Sox fan, he continued, “Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.”
That’s how Nats fans felt late last night — really, early this morning — when Cubs closer Wade Davis fanned Washington superstar Bryce Harper to finally end the marathon game. But more baseball is to be played in this country, as was true in early October 1977 when Giamatti penned his essay titled “The Green Fields of the Mind.”
The powerful New York Yankees had yet to take the American League pennant that year from the upstart Kansas City Royals. The Royals were led that autumn by 24-year-old George Brett, a player so fiery he ignited a bench-clearing brawl at third base after tripling in the first inning of Game 5. Nor had current Nats manager Dusty Baker been named MVP of the National League Championship Series for leading the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Phillies. The Dodgers would fall to the Reggie Jackson-led Yankees, a World Series that would solidify Jackson’s reputation as “Mr. October.”
So, summer may be over, but the 2017 season isn’t. The Yanks and Dodgers are still standing, along with the Cubs and Astros. But there is no joy here in Mudville, for the mighty Harper has struck out.