Our Own Mickey Mantle
We all have our ways of marking the seasons. I know it’s spring when in early April I start my morning by skipping The Washington Post front page and going right to the sports section. It’s not until I’ve fully savored the baseball box scores that I resignedly turn to politics.
My non-baseball friends are forever puzzled by my devotion to the game. I agree entirely with them about the irrationality of fandom. Why should a grown man with a house, a family, two jobs and a cat named Will Feral (brought in from the cold and now largely domesticated, like the Danish King Canute by the English) care about a bunch of millionaire 20-something strangers playing a boys’ game in baggy uniforms?
It’s ridiculous. Yet when the hometown Washington Nationals win, my mood brightens. Can’t help it.
When they first came here a decade ago, they didn’t win much. In 2008-09, the Nats lost 205 games. I went to the park anyway. When your team is good, you go to see them win. When they’re bad, you go for the moments — the beautiful moments, like the perfectly executed outfield assist, that grace every difficult athletic endeavor from the balance beam to the giant slalom.
The Nationals, being a very good team now, practically guarantee such moments every game. Their newly acquired second baseman, the one with the impossibly level swing and no leg kick, leads the league in hitting. Their star pitcher tossed two no-hitters last season, something done exactly five times in the previous 115 years. And then there’s Bryce Harper.
He’s the best baseball player on the planet, probably in the entire Milky Way. (Those box scores are slow in coming in.) And for the next three years, he’ll be playing at Nats Park. After that, he becomes a free agent and will command the largest contract in the history of professional sports. He might very well end up with the money-bag Dodgers or Yankees and $500 million. Give or take.
So be it. By 2019, we could all be underwater or living under Sharia law, depending on whether your doomsday is of the Democratic or Republican flavor. In the interim, I’m going to eat, drink and watch Harper.
At 16, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the “Chosen One.” At 19, when most elite players are starting college ball, he was the National League rookie of the year. At 22, he was unanimously voted the NL Most Valuable Player, the youngest to score such a sweep. That was last year. This year, he’s even better.
He came in as a brash, hyperenergetic, often reckless rookie who in his eighth major league game stole home off a former World Series MVP pitcher who had deliberately plunked him minutes earlier just to teach him a lesson. It obviously didn’t take.
These days, Harper plays with more controlled fury. No longer crashes into outfield walls. And has tamed his violently explosive swing with such pitch recognition and plate discipline that in the age of the strikeout — up 24 percent in the last decade — he has (as of this writing) fewer strikeouts than home runs.
And it’s those home runs that turn every Harper at-bat into an event. Like Thursday last week. Harper comes to the plate with 99 career home runs. Bases loaded, two outs, Nats trailing 1-0, crowd rocking.
It was a movie moment and he did his Roy Hobbs — a rocket to right field that seemed to be still rising when it hit the scoreboard on the upper-deck façade. And broke it. Knocked out the “r” in the Good Humor ad running at the moment of impact. Place went nuts.
Harper’s first-ever grand slam. What does he do the very next time he comes up with the bases loaded, just five days later? Need you ask?
In spring training, Harper hit two home runs in a game off Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. The second cleared a 35-foot wall at the 420-foot mark in dead center. Said the Nats’ new pitching coach, incredulous, to the manager: “We get to watch this every day?”
If you live in Washington, you get to watch this — our own young Mickey Mantle — 81 times a season. How then can you get too despondent about our presidential choices, the kowtow to Cuba or the decline of the California smelt? It’s spring. It’s warm. There’s baseball. There’s Harper. Why, even the Cubs are good this year.
© 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group