This week commemorates historically momentous events. The British government issued the Balfour Declaration, underdog Harry Truman defied the political prognosticators by defeating Thomas Dewey in the iconic 1948 US presidential election and Alabamian Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit at the back of a segregated city bus spurred the launch of the modern Civil Rights Movement. For us baseball fans — especially those living in the Washington, DC area — the Washington Nationals’ victory over the heavily favored Houston Astros in game 7 of the 2019 World Series October 30 deserves mention.
Before the baseball season began in March, according to Newsweek, the odds of the Nationals becoming champions stood at 18/1 (slightly more than 5%), while the Astros’ at 6/1 were three times more likely to succeed. The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale and later Commissioner of Baseball, famously wrote eloquently about the sport’s larger meaning in Green Fields of the Mind.
More than that, lawyers (including me) follow baseball closely. Chief Justice Earl Warren took his colleagues on the US Supreme Court to watch the New York Yankees play in the World Series. (Between 1953 and 1964, the Yankees made it ten times.) The elegance of the game, its orderly flow of play and the way each player contributes to the game duplicate the majesty of the law and the administration of justice.
The story of the 2019 Nationals looms larger than the attraction of the sport to fans. The saga teaches us valuable lessons for life.
Foremost, never give up (“never, never never,” as Winston Churchill used to say.) The team finished second in its division, five games behind the winner. That necessitated a one-game elimination game against the second-place team of another division. The Nationals, two runs behind with the game almost over came from behind to beat the Milwaukee Brewers. In the next round, the team faced elimination at the hands of the best team in the National League, and one of the three teams favored to win it all. The Nationals won each time. They had no trouble in the semi-finals, but in the World Series, (a four-of-seven series),they lost at home three times and fell behind 3-2. They traveled to Houston (where the Astros had won almost 75% of their games in the regular season) and beat the home team twice, coming from behind.
Closer analysis shows other important principles. Unlike American football or basketball, baseball is a team game and requires decency to others. The Astros had stars on their roster, most notably Alex Bregman, whom many consider the Most Valuable Player of 2019. Though he hit a home run in Game 6, to give the Astros a comfortable lead, he squandered his achievement. Rather than run the bases in a business-like manner, he showed off to embarrass the Nationals. Normally, the player drops his bat after he hits the ball; Bregman carried his to first base and demonstrably dropped it there. According to some commentators, he aroused the Nationals to come back and defeat Houston.
The Nationals did not have an individual star. Rather, they had contributions from all their players. In particular, unsung and humble players, such as Ryan Zimmerman (born and bred in suburban Virginia and with the team since it moved to DC in 2005), easy-going Anthony Rendon and the modest 21-year old Juan Soto played a big role, as did gritty veterans Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasbourg. On a personal note, Zimmerman would not let me yield to him when he stood behind me as we left the same establishment. I had to go first.
Finally, 50 games into the 162-game season, the Nationals’ record stood at a miserable 19-31. Media called for the manager’s firing; reports surfaced about dissension in the clubhouse. Rather than panic, Dave Martinez coined the mantra :Let’s go 1-0 today”. He focused on taking everything one step at a time, looking at today rather than next week or next month. Slowly, the Nationals regained their footing. That, I think, the most valuable lesson of all, especially to us Jews. As the Talmud in Berachot teaches, “Do what’s in your power, what’s in G-d’s hand leave to Him.”
Finally, the team’s owners, the Lerner family, refused to attend an important game of Yom Kippur and does not attend on Friday night. Success comes to those to stand up for what’s right.