Last spring, for an end-of-year history project, I got the chance to read Shoeless Joe, the book upon which the hit film Field of Dreams was based. The novel chronicles the fictional story of Ray Kinsella, a man who briefly abandons his idyllic life as an Iowa farmer to build a public baseball field. The journey takes Kinsella through the dark and dingy cities of northeastern America before he makes it back home to a happy ending on the farm.
This summer, I went on a road trip through the midwest and got the chance to witness firsthand what Kinsella’s and many other similar sports fans’ lives must be like out in corn country. For most people, access to professional sports is limited to watching a minor league baseball team in a nearby town, with the only exposure to major league sports coming through the television or newspaper. In other words, there’s no taking the metro to Nationals Park on a Friday night, and there are no post-Capitals-game rallies on the Portrait Gallery steps.
What stuck out to me most, though, was the lack of cynicism and pessimism that is present throughout D.C. sports culture. In areas where it’s considered lucky to live within ten miles of the Burlington Bees or the Lansing Lugnuts, negativity develops much more slowly than here in D.C., where residents have fairly easy access (not you, Landover) to pretty much all the pro-level sports one could ask for. We got to enjoy the Nationals for about six years before they got really good, started losing playoff series, and began fostering environment for perennially unhappy fans.
Fun. Maybe that’s the key to it all. I mean, that’s what minor league baseball is meant to be, right? Buying a five-dollar ticket to a game with no personal investment in either side just to watch your favorite (or least favorite) team’s utility infielders of the future, all while consuming untold quantities of “real meat” hot dogs and the softest of soft-serve ice cream. But the minute you begin to expect something from one of the teams, everything goes downhill.
And so we find ourselves back in September, at the crossroads of seasons for many D.C. sports teams. The euphoria from the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win—easily the greatest moment in modern D.C. sports history—has worn off all too quickly. The Nationals are likely getting ready to fire another manager as they squander what is probably their final season with the once-in-a-generation talent that is Bryce Harper. The Redskins are preparing to set out upon another 16-game slate in which they will attempt to play something resembling quality football while trying their darndest to avoid more off the field catastrophes.
When promising Redskins rookie running back and professional Fortnite streamer Derrius Guice went down in a meaningless preseason game with a torn ACL, it was far too easy to slip back into the familiar pessimistic rhetoric surrounding not just the ‘Skins, but the city as a whole. I admit, I’m no saint when it comes to sports fandom; I can be just as devoid of hope as RG3 on the surgery table. But, maybe this year we should consider Ray Kinsella, and the Lansing Lugnuts, and think about just how lucky we are to have the privilege of watching all these great teams fail year after year. Because you know what? When they win, it’s that much sweeter.
By Eli Thayer