THE BIG HIT | Congrats Expos *Ahem* Nationals

By Ken Napzok

Let’s get personal. I grew up — and still very much am — a New York Yankee fan. I know. I get it. A large percentage of you just cursed my name and stopped reading.

Fair enough. I apologize for all the winning they did in the 1920s. And 1930s. And 1940s. And 1950s. Annnddd I’m not helping. (Though at the time of this writing they are on the brink of elimination so enjoy it!)

Anyway, if you’re still reading this, the funny thing is that I grew up in Southern and Central California. Born and raised. Didn’t step foot into New York until I was an adult. Long story short: I was assigned to an elementary school lunch league softball team with the name of the Yankees. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to root for them, so I started following them. This non-regional way of supporting professional baseball teams also led me to having a favorite player way outside the normal SoCal choices in the mid-1980s. My favorite baseball player was Gary Carter. 

I loved The Kid and hoped to one day be a major league catcher myself. (A quick check of my knees and — nope — didn’t become one.) Because of my admiration for one of the best hitting catchers of that era and others, I formed an affection for the Montreal Expos. (And, yes, later on the Mets.) The senior team from the great white north was a fun follow. 

With great talent like Carter and others like Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Tim Walloch, Hubie Brooks, Dennis Martinez and more the club in Montreal always seemed on the verge of breaking through. Year after year solid rosters hit the field in underrated uniforms for the time, but came up just short (1981) or just couldn’t get over the hump that was the Mets and Cardinals. They had several mid-80s or low-90s win seasons. Yet time and time again the play-offs escaped them. Attendance, naturally, started to drop. 

Yet the 1994 squad Expos came out swinging (and pitching) and were sitting pretty at 70-44 when the strike hit on August 12th. The team that year had Larry Walker, Wil Cordero, and Moises Alou absolutely raking while the pitching staff was led by 16 game winner Ken Hill and a young Pedro Martinez. A collision course with my Yankees seemed inevitable but never arrived. The same could be said for the Expos. 

For TEN more seasons the franchise limped around in front of more and more empty seats. The business of the game changed dramatically and all those big names left. The memories of Carter, Dawson, Walker, Alou, and even Vladimir Guerrero all began to fade away. The 2005 season saw the franchise take the field as the Washington Nationals. 

The team’s fortunes didn’t seem to improve during the early days. They seemed to play under the same thumb that pressed down on the teams that played on the unforgiving astroturf of Olympic Stadium. However, by 2012 top tier talent arrived, future stars emerged and their fortunes most definitely improved. Yet the team — this franchise — just couldn’t seem to get over that hump until now…

This week those very Nationals finally reached the promised land. The forty years in the desert is over.

The 2019 Nationals have been a Joy To Watch. Yes, that’s an actual title. A time honored tradition in sports. Particularly an honor in baseball. From time-to-time a team will hit a stretch that finds them playing with a powerful combination of momentum and purpose. Their on field exploits merge seamlessly with bigger personalities and stories. They become hard not to root for. 

There is the story of Stephen Strasburg, the Pitcher Who Would Be King, proving that the crown is still his to take.

There is the tall tale of Professional Hitter Howie Kendrick getting his just reward.

There is the fascinating first act of Juan Soto’s longer journey.

There is the third act heroics of Ryan Zimmerman, Company Man.

And so and so on. Everywhere you look on the field the Nationals are presenting us a plethora of compelling baseball stories. 

Of course, there is the off the field storyline of a former franchise player that took the big deal to pursue his goals elsewhere.

Look, it’s easy to make Bryce Harper a target for your jokes, but he’s not the first player in history to take the giant contract that was slid in front of him at the negotiation table… and he won’t be the last. But it is hard to not think that this is a piece of the story and part of the reason many in the sports world are cheering for this team. It’s not as if the current Nationals are playing for free out there, it’s just that none of them asked for $300 million. (Yet) 

So the Washington Nationals are in the World Series. Their final fate still to be determined. But for now it has been a cathartic experience for many baseball fans that used to watch The Hawk launch a rocket throw from right field or argue that Tim Raines was way more than a speedster or marvel at Vladimir Guerrero smacking a ball in the dirt deep into the stands or, for me, watching the energetic smile of Gary Carter, who passed away in 2012, crouch behind the plate game after game trying to carry the Expos of Montreal to the next level. 

Congratulations to the Washington Nationals. The Souls of Jarry Park and Olympic Stadium will be rooting for you. 

On Tyler Skaggs, drugs, and the path forward…

The death of Tyler Skaggs is a tragedy. 

Nothing short of it. 

The 2019 baseball playoffs have been a rip roaring good time, so as news and investigative stories have started to emerge about the situation around the death of the Angels pitcher on July 1st, the tendency of many fans is think: Let’s not talk about that now. Save that dark reality for another day.

But now is the time. Tomorrow is too. Yesterday would have been even better.

The details surrounding Skaggs passing are getting more and more disheartening. 

Dangerous levels of opioid use, Angels staff with possible knowledge, one of them a provider of the drugs, and a report claiming five other players — perhaps past, perhaps present — using as well. It’s not just a one time thing. It isn’t just an internal situation that can be quietly addressed. It has the feel — and I say feel because, in truth, none of us are in these locker rooms — of a “tip of the proverbial iceberg” problem. Opioid use is clearly a problem outside of baseball. So was cocaine use in the 1980s. But, like in the 1980s, you can’t help but think there is more going on here in the sport that needs to be dealt with. 

However, let’s not go too far down that path and forget the tragedy of Tyler Skaggs. No one should use this scandal to erase the memory of a 27 year-old man leaving behind his family, friends, and teammates. And no one should use this situation to diminishes the healing power of the no-hit game that seemed to be delivered to the field from heaven itself.

Before this becomes the new scandal you can’t turn away from and all the names — names of real humans — became characters in a true crime podcast come to life. Never forget the life that was lost. No one should use this tragedy for any of that…

… but what this tragedy should be used for is a call for the game that has overcome pain, suffering, and horrors before this to take a powerful step in front of this speeding train of a problem. The game should not just take control a potential painkiller epidemic it should be a part of the ongoing solution.

There is first the issue of control. Currently drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone are — wait am I reading this right? — not tested for in Major League Baseball. It’s being considered? Ok, well, it’s a good thing no one is using human growth hormones to hit baseballs far any more, but what about the lengths players often feel they have to go to in an effort to stay healthy? This is no longer the wink and nod greenies of clubhouse coffee… this is something more. Much more. So first baseball must take those steps to control it. 

The second, more important issue, though, is the idea of a true solution. Or at least the hope of one. What’s bubbling below all of this isn’t just a pain management issue. This is an addiction issue. Major League Baseball would do well to admit that. Maybe the players would follow?

This week I was talking about it with comedian and writer Nick Mundy, an Astros Fan of Note, and he said something that struck a chord with me. It just made sense, logistics aside. There should be a rehab list. Not an injured list. Not a personal leave list. A rehab list. Plain and simple. This is not a Scarlet Letter approach where players are sent to a wasteland of damaged goods. Quite the opposite. “They need to remove the stigma of addiction,” said Mundy. And that’s where my mind and heart goes. Ok, maybe a “rehab list” is too on the nose or too improbable, but the point is a player should feel as though they can get the help that is needed. We all should. 

Depression. Anxiety. Overall mental health. These are personal battlefields for all of us. We know that a person — or ourselves — that is struggling with these things (and many more) is not well. Help is needed. But the feeling that you can’t ask for that help is often the killer. Literally. 

Professional sports (and I’m including professional wrestling here) are a constant test of how much stress and strain the frail human body can take before it all goes away. Before you go away. How much pain can you endure for the entertainment of others and the big paychecks that come with it? Yes, yes, these are all careers entered into by choice, but that does not lessen the demands once you’re inside these modern gladiator arenas. We are too far down the road of modern pop and sports culture to not know and understand the dangers that circle these things we love. We’re too knowledgable to keep playing dumb. One by one these leagues and companies have had to face the bigger issues. It would be great for baseball — a sport that once prided itself on getting out in front of deeper problems even if it was years and years late — to get out in front of this danger. 

There is more legal drama to come. There is more salacious news to leak out. There are potentially more names to be revealed. There are bigger questions and important answers out there far beyond our fan knowledge. But as the 2019 baseball postseason continues to thrill us while these dark clouds form around the game, let’s look at the heart of the issue. 

Let these players — these real people performing a job at an insanely high level — know that they can ask for the one thing they just might need: help. 

Do it for Tyler Skaggs.

Remember when… 

… baseball was a witness to history that shook the world?

Thirty years ago this week, on October 17th, 1989, 5;04 PM to be exact, Al Michaels and Tim McCarver (with Jim Palmer waiting his turn) had just started to recap the first two games of the 1989 World Series when the television broadcast feed skipped and fritzed. 

The excited crowd at the old Candlestick Park started to cheer. Tim McCarver tried to keep on going with the highlight of Dave Parker driving in Jose Canseco with a double to right field. Then — after a lifetime long pause of terror — the baseball world and the viewing audience that was leaning forward with a confused curiosity heard the one-time voice of Monday Night Football say these chilling words…

“I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earth–” 

And that was it. 

A cold, sterile logo went up and the viewing audience waited to see where the game went and what had made Al Michaels say that. With no Earthquake Twitter to check into. No smart phone videos and live streams to watch. The entire world it seemed waited… and waited… until the images and information started to move. 

The Loma Prieta earthquake measured at 6.9 on the Richter scale, would claim 63 lives, and caused over 6 billion dollars in property damage. For the first time in modern history, the sport of baseball was the witness to this event. Baseball became the eyes of the world. 

From Al Michaels to the ESPN crews featuring future stalwarts like Chris Berman, Chris Myers, and Bob Ley and many, many news media outlets at the game, the first crucial and undeniably gripping bits of information came from them. The Hard News world had found the Sports World in a way only matched by the hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympics. 

Al Michaels would earn a News Emmy nomination for his calm, measured reporting on the destruction of city he knew so well. With no preparation and getting his initial information via the telephone from future Disney CEO Bob Iger, then head of entertainment for ABC, Michaels held it all together for the world watching and even legendary newsman Ted Koppel himself. He did most of reporting from a telephone. 

I was watching all of this about four hours south in my childhood hometown of Arroyo Grande, CA. Al Michaels cut off words had served as a warning system. As my family and I stared at the now blank screen, the house started to shake. I’ll never forget watching my dinner tremble on it’s player as my parents realized what was happening with their own shouts of  “earthquake.”

Memories often fade, but I can recount Tim McCarver describing Dave Parker’s double just missing going over the right field wall at the Oakland Coliseum and Candy Maldanado’s slight hesitation on the throw back in letting Jose Canseco score to the very beats. The pause. The scratch of audio. Al Michaels’ fateful realization of what was happening. It’s all there. Burned into my brain in large part because for me — then 12 — and baseball fans of our generation, this was the first time that the mythical world of baseball and the larger than life heroes that roamed those fields of dreams became human.

The burning city blocks. The collapsed Bay Bridge. The compressed Interstate 880, where 42 deaths alone took place, are images that are forever locked in my brain, but so are the images of the players in the immediate aftermath. Mark McGwire pulling his wife out of the stands. Jose Canseco comforting  his then wife Esther, her decidedly 1980s red dress and hair frozen in time. Terry Steinbach’s wife crying into her husband’s shoulder. The pensive look of Will Clark as he led his son to a safer place. Storm Davis holding his newborn daughter in his hands  next to his wife with tears in their eyes. Video clips of Joe Morgan and Willie Mays looking up in fear as the stadium shook. Video clips of Giants and A’s player coming up to each other with bits of information they were getting from nearby police. 

‘The Bay Bridge collapsed,” said one Giants coach.

All the nervous laughter and jokes that help one get through the initial stages of shock faded away. The crowd chants of “play ball, play ball” started to dissipate. The cynical minds of locals that experience quakes all the time changed to dread.

Yes, this wasn’t about baseball anymore. That magical world that had always pulled me and countless others into an alternate universe of enjoyment wasn’t there at that moment. Thirty years ago, baseball was more than a game, it was view to a larger world . I was twelve and for the first time I can remember, that world was suddenly very real. 


Walk Off Quote

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson

***


Ken Napzok cried the day Gary Carter retired and he sobbed harder the day he died. He is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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