By Rebecca Borman
I just watched Improbable, an MLB video about the 2019 Nationals’ unlikely (improbable) run through the playoffs and, ultimately, the Championship. It struck me that baseball is a game with many life-lessons. It gives me perspective when I watch a sport in which the main object is to hit a ball, and a player who does that successfully 3 times out of 10 is considered to be a star. Like baseball in general, the Nats’ 2019 playoff season has some lessons to teach.
Ask any diehard Nats fan what our record was on May 24, 2019, and he or she will respond without missing a beat—19-31. That’s right, by the end of May, less than two months into a six-month season, we were done. You don’t dig out of a hole like that, right? Many fans, myself included, were ready to dump our new manager, clean house, and suffer through a miserable season. Our manager, though, stayed positive. Every day as the team gathered in the clubhouse for another game, he’d tell them, “Let’s go 1-0 today.” And, slowly but relentlessly, there got to be many more 1-0 than 0-1 days. By the end of the summer, unbelievably, the Nats had a chance for the playoffs, and a wildcard win put us there.
The 2019 Nats were not a team of stars. We had a few good, even great, players, but many more who could be up or down on any given day. In the video, one of our ace pitchers was asked which of the team’s personnel were the key to our success. He responded that it wasn’t one or two players, but a team effort. He said that in every game someone different seemed to step up, to “pick up” other players who might be struggling, by getting a big hit or making a seemingly impossible defensive play.
And, speaking of pitchers, our pitching staff was the stuff of conversation the entire season. We had two ace starting pitchers and two more very good starters. But, ohhhh, the bullpen. Relief pitching had cost us so many games. How were we to get through the playoffs without good relievers? Our manager had a plan…use the starting pitchers in relief. Now, anyone who knows baseball understands that starting pitchers take great pride in the fact that they’re starters…they work hard to get to that spot. Coming into a game from the bullpen? Not so much. But pitch in relief they did. One of our two aces was asked how he felt about coming in as a reliever. It was the first time—high school, college, the majors—that he had ever come in from the bullpen. “It’s the playoffs,” he said. “You do what you can for the team.” All of our starters swallowed their egos and came in to pitch as needed. And, it worked.
Another challenge: the 2019 Nats had the highest average age of players in MLB. Some of these guys were probably in their final years of playing. Were they still up to the pressure of the playoffs? On the other hand, we also had Juan Soto, 20-year-old phenom from the DR who laughed and joked and hit the heck out of the baseball. (And, by the way, studied English for hours every day so that he wouldn’t need a translator for his interviews.) The mix of experience and youth seemed perfect. Juan kept reminding us that the game was FUN, as did one of the “old guys,” Gerardo Parra, who picked “Baby Shark” as his walk-up song and had the whole ballpark doing the baby shark hand gesture. The experienced players reveled in their chance to make it to the playoffs, and in some cases, played the best baseball of their long careers. And provided crucial leadership in the clubhouse.
Finally, improbably, the Nats were in the World Series. First step, two games against the Astros in their own park. And we won them both! Back to DC for the next three games, and many of us were thinking we would surely win the Series at home. But, the Nats had three dreadful games in DC. Overconfidence, pressure, bad luck? Who knew? It seemed unlikely that we could win two more games in Houston. In all of professional sports, no 7-game series had been won entirely on the road. But, the rest is history, of course. Behind in both game 6 and game 7, the Nats pulled them out, and left the ballpark with a beautiful trophy.
What can I learn from all this, as I struggle to manage myself in the midst of COVID? I really do feel like I’m 19-31 sometimes. Lesson #1: Go 1-0 each day. Looking too far into the future probably isn’t helpful right now, so make the best of today. Lesson #2: Pick each other up. Sometimes I’m on my game, and when I am, I can maybe help someone who’s struggling, with a text, a phone call, a kind word or smile. Next week, when I’m down, perhaps he/she can do that for me. Lesson #3: Do what the team needs. Wearing a mask sucks; I’m tired of cooking at home; I really would like to hug my friends and enjoy a meal with them. But, it helps everyone when I wear a mask and keep my distance. And, maybe whine a little less. Lesson #4: Learn from both the young and the experienced. Our grandkids whip their masks on without complaint as they leave the car for school, even though their lives have been turned upside down. And some of my friends have used skills developed over the years to help others—one friend cranked out masks for months. Others challenged themselves to learn more about technology, so they could Zoom to stay connected to family and friends. Lesson #5: Overcome setbacks. Here we are, facing another surge. It would be easy to get discouraged. But, as the Nats overcame three terrible losses at home to emerge as World Series Champions, we can take a deep breath and figure a way out of this setback. See Lessons #1-4.