shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare





A World Series

As Flies to Wanton Boys Are We to the Gods

Attending a World Series has been high on our bucket list for decades. Over all the years we’ve been following baseball, Sarah and I have never made it to the Series, even when we lived two hours from Atlanta during the Braves’ decade of preeminence. As we settled in the D.C. area upon Sarah’s retirement from the Air Force, we shifted our devotion to our new (and newly arrived) hometown team, the Washington Nationals, and when they evolved into contenders, we became annual season ticket holders expressly to get priority seating and discounts for postseason games. We were in the stands for the team’s tragic meltdowns in the division series of 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017.

Tonight, finally, the World Series comes to Washington, D.C. And this morning, as I write this, Sarah and I are on an airplane heading for Honolulu, Hawaii. We’ll be on O'ahu through next week. This is not a trade-off of one paradise for another, I assure you. Instead, we’re at the mercy of, and paying devotion to, the baseball gods.

Teddy bear in Nationals uniform sits on a hotel bed watching the baseball game on a TV perched on a dresser across the room.
Burlingrton, with all the understanding inherent in teddy bears, has accepted missing out on attending Nationals postseason games, but accompanied us to Hawaii. He took in Game 3 of the World Series upon arriving at our hotel. Photo by Eric Minton.

And so are the Washington Nationals, I dare say. Though they are currently up two games to zero on the Houston Astros in this best-of-seven series, I’m not one of those celebrating. I’ve experienced too many life lessons through the pen of William Shakespeare to give in to hubris. Romeo and Juliet were up 2-0 when Mercutio drew his sword on Tybalt, and we know how that tragedy ends.

We’re not on vacation: at least I’m not. This trip is part of my duties as editor of the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety. I, a couple of commissioners, and other staff will be making visits to various military installations in Hawaii throughout next week. Sarah is going along (on my dime—or, rather, on our growing credit card debt) because, with her cognitive condition, I can’t leave her home alone for that length of time. It will be a lovely trip for her, hanging out on a Hilton resort for a week, and it is an opportunity for me to make my first visit to Hawaii. Still, I’ve seen my itinerary for next week, and I’ve been on so many of these site visits that I know beyond doubt how beat I’ll be after a week of constant movement, meetings, and town halls, and then transcribing notes into the nights. Echoing through my mind now is a comment by one of the commissioners, also a veteran of these travels, as he looked over the itinerary: “Wow! This one’s going to be a lot of work.”

OK, so quit whining Eric. I’m spending a week in Hawaii. Indeed, I knew exactly what I was doing the moment I first heard the dates of this trip and signed myself up instead of turning it over to my deputy, who was lobbying hard for the assignment (in the end, we had to add her to the team, too). I was working the will of the baseball gods.

For the past seven years, I’ve always kept my October calendar clear—no plays, no concerts, no trips, no Blackfriars Conferences (the American Shakespeare Center always schedules its biannual event for World Series week. Really?). Even last year when I was doing the Shakespeare Canon Project: 42 Plays, 42 Theaters, One Year, I delayed booking theater visits in October until the Nationals fell out of contention in August.

This year, as most of you baseball fans know by now, the Nationals fell out of contention in May, so I pretty much decided not to hold this October sacred as I had done in years past. Given the dire straits of the Nats, practicality piled upon practicality. I considered the travel requirements of my job, the depth of debt incurred due to Sarah’s illness, and Sarah’s own worsening cognitive condition. I couldn’t afford the time and energy to attend postseason games, which run later into the night than regular season games (my alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. to get into work by 6:30). We couldn’t afford the cost of going to postseason games, even with a season ticket discount (we even had to let our season ticket account lapse at the end of the year).

As I was giving up on October baseball, the Nationals were putting on a clinic in resiliency. Since May 24 when they were 12 games below .500, they played to an unbelievable .667 winning percentage. They couldn’t overcome their poor start to win their division, but they did make the playoffs as a wild card team, requiring a one-game showdown with the league’s other wild card entry in order to move on to the league’s division round of the playoffs.

Halfway into the Nats’ historic turn-around, I learned that the dates for this Hawaii trip coincided with the World Series. I weighed the consequences. The chances the Nationals would actually make the Series were still slim (statistically, they had only a 50-50 chance of winning the Wild Card game, and then the odds went down from there). I could see myself working at home this week grumbling that we missed out on Hawaii. On the other hand, if I committed to the Hawaii trip—and set that commitment in stone by paying for Sarah to accompany me—I figured that would increase Washington’s chances of making it to the Series, as I could see myself working in Hawaii grumbling that we missed out on a World Series. In fact, one of our season ticket compadres in the last week of the season called our Hawaii trip a potential “reverse curse” for the Nationals.

I’m not being so bold as to take credit for the Nationals being in the World Series. To do so would mean I’d also have to take responsibility for their past postseason meltdowns. Still, I know how the baseball gods play, and I take omens and baseball superstitions seriously, even tracking the win-loss record of the 28 different Nationals hats that I wear to games. The one I’m wearing on this trip, their 2015 spring training hat, has a 10-3 in-person record and was on my head the night the Nats won the fifth and final game of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. While we didn’t go to any postseason games this year (and consequently missed two clinchers), Sarah and I made the games appointment television watching, though I was on the road last week when the Nationals completed their four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series (I called Sarah as the players were rushing on the field to celebrate).

We are scheduled to land in Honolulu around 2:30 p.m., a half hour after the scheduled first pitch of D.C.’s first World Series game since 1933. No telling how much of the game we’ll have missed by the time we get to our hotel, especially the way these Nationals are playing. This is a special, special team. Over my lifetime I’ve given my heart to some great baseball teams: the 1972 Detroit Tigers, the Philadelphia Phillies of the 1970s, the 1990’s Braves. These Nationals are the highest echelon of bliss-inducing baseball I’ve personally witnessed. They're baseball good: artistically brilliant starting pitching, fundamentally solid defense, and unselfishly tenacious offense. They're people good: a multicultural and multigenerational brotherhood that parties even when down by two runs in the seventh inning of a do-or-die ball game. In average age of players, the Nationals are the oldest team in all of baseball yet their inspirational savant, Juan Soto, just turned 21 today. At the helm is Manager Davey Martinez, whose twin mantras we all should live by: “stay in the fight” and “just go 1-0 today.”

Having won the first two games of the World Series on the road against the mighty Houston Astros, including a full-on ass-whupping in Game Two, the Nationals are riding a record-tying eight game postseason winning streak (they are 10-2 in this year’s playoffs and have won 18 of their last 20 games going back to the last week of the season). So I’m feeling pretty good about our chances now that the Series settles in D.C. for three games, right?

Nope. We still need to win two games and have only five games to do it in. It’s not so much that I’m a pessimist, but I am a Shakespearean. I know that tragedies emerge out of full hearts and heroic intentions, and I know that comedies must overcome travails to earn their happy endings.

Human beings tend to have short psychological memories despite long emotional memories, especially in our current ADD/ADHD society. Shakespeare helps lengthen our psychological memories by pressing our emotions through an intellectual sieve. Baseball does the same thing for the true aficionado. While many “fans” were abandoning the team back in May and calling for Martinez’s firing, I was thinking back on the 1912 Boston Braves, which was in last place at midseason, and the 2005 Houston Astros, who had a 15-30 start. Both went on to the World Series, the Braves winning the title.

I don’t want to run afoul of the baseball gods, either, as I have learned from Peter Garino, artistic director of the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, who preaches the gospel of temperance in the church of baseball. He offers up the parable of Dusty Baker, manager of the San Francisco Giants when they were in the 2002 World Series against the Los Angeles Angels. The Giants were up three games to two going into Game Six, and starting pitcher Russ Ortiz had his team ahead 5-0 going into the seventh inning. With one out and two runners on, Giants Manager Dusty Baker went to the mound to make a pitching change. He took the ball from Ortiz, but instead of waiting to give it to the relief pitcher, he called to Ortiz and tossed him the ball. It was a noble gesture, giving Ortiz the game ball in recognition of the pitcher’s outstanding performance. Game balls, though, are for winning. The Giants were still eight outs away from winning the game and the Series, and in that time, the two runners Ortiz put on base scored en route to the Angels battling back for a 6-5 victory and winning the next night to take the Series. Garino told me that at the moment he saw Baker’s hubris, he knew the baseball gods would never forgive him. Sure enough, despite being one of the winningest managers in baseball history, Baker has never been back to the World Series. Even when his subsequent teams, the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Nationals, entered the playoffs as favorites to win it all, they would make early exits in the most dramatic and oddball fashions (I was there for two such unfathomable exits, the Nats in 2016 and 2017).

Also seared in my brain as Exhibit A of the mighty power the baseball gods wield is the 1996 postseason. Living in Georgia then, I was a big Atlanta Braves fan, and the team stumbled in the National League Championship Series against St. Louis, falling behind three games to one. When the Cardinals won Game Four, St. Louis closer Dennis Eckersley unleashed an ecstatic victory cry and his teammates mobbed him on the mound. The thought crossing my mind watching on TV was, “Hey, asshole, you didn’t clinch, it’s only 3-1.” The TV cameras panned the Atlanta dugout, and the expression on the Braves’ faces mirrored my thoughts: Eckersley and the Cardinals had just made a huge mistake celebrating too early. Atlanta swept the next three games, 14-0, 3-1, and 15-0. Upon defeating the Cardinals, the Braves moved on to the World Series, Atlanta’s second in a row and fourth in six years. They thumped New York in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, and as they headed back home for the next three games, pundits and fans were saying, it’s over, just go ahead and give Atlanta the trophy. “You fools!” I screamed at the newsprint and airwaves: “It’s not over till it’s over.” The Yankees won the next four games to take the Series. (This year, when St. Louis beat the Braves 13-1 in the clinching Game Five of the Division Series, pundits said the Cardinals were getting revenge for that 1996 shellacking, which was the Braves getting revenge for the Cardinals' behavior at the conclusion of that Game Four. It's kind of like baseball tribes are replicating the cyclic behavior of the Andronici and Goths in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.)

So accept my caution this morning; and Nats fans, don’t give in to hubris. The Nationals are coming back home after beating the Astros in the first two games in Houston. That's one truth you can count on. Rarely do teams overcome such a deficit; last time it happened, in fact, was 1996, Yankees against the Braves. That it has happened is another truth you can count on. The Nationals are a special baseball team, and their ticket to the World Series has the stamp of destiny on it. Nevertheless, the Astros are more than capable of winning four games, because they have five games to do it in.

I believe in these Nats, but I believe in the power of the baseball gods more. I’m not going to tempt fate. That’s why I’m going to Hawaii.

Let’s go Nats.

Eric Minton
October 26, 2019

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom