In a funny 1997 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, the former, speaking to a group of depressed psychiatric patients, asks a sobering question: “What if this is as good as it gets?”
Washington sports fans must wonder the same thing about the Nationals (not to mention the Capitals, Wizards and local NFL team).
Since 2012, the Nats have won four division titles and compiled the second-best record in the majors. That, plus some tickets would get them to the National League Championship Series.
Another trip to the playoffs has ended with another short-lived run, despite fielding arguably their best overall team.
Baseball is cruel in its demands, 162 contests over half-a-year, and stingy in its rewards. Four teams are thrown into a do-or-die scenario and the Division Series is a best-of-five crapshoot. Six months of work can end in fewer than six heartbreaking days.
You might ask: Is it worth the effort? As the Nationals have been mostly good-to-great the last six seasons, the San Diego Padres never sniffed the playoffs, finishing no higher than third in the NL West. If you’re not going to survive the first round anyway, what’s the point?
The Nationals’ misery is nothing close to what the Buffalo Bills endured, but fans in upstate New York understand conflicted feelings. The Bills accomplished one of sports’ most-remarkable feats by appearing in four consecutive Super Bowls. It’s a source of pride, but also a sore point because they lost each time.
The disconnect between the Nats’ performance before and after October reminds me of the great sports debate on the best way to lose. It’s kind of like the half-joking, half-serious discussion on preferred methods of death.
Would you rather fall behind steadily and watch the deficit continue to mount, your mind drifting off down the stretch like you swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills?
Or is the choice a taut, competitive game (or playoff series) with momentum changes and mood swings throughout, until at the very end you lose in a flash, like a bullet to the temple?
Missing the playoffs altogether is a lot easier on fans’ emotions and frayed nerves compared to crushing letdowns in a Game 5 or Game 7. A law of diminishing returns seems to be in effect: The better your team does each regular season, the harder it is to enjoy when each postseason ends prematurely.
But the answer to Nicholson’s question – What if this is as good as it gets? – is simple: Appreciate the journey.
Four division titles are better than none; 90 wins in a season beats 70. That has to suffice.
Besides, the Chicago Cubs are proof that you never know when “better” is coming. So, keep dreaming, too.