Two years ago, during the closing hours of Yom Kippur, one of the most embittering moments in D.C. sports history occurred. It was worse than all but the most egregious of the Capitals various choke-jobs and perhaps even as horrifying as when the Nats blew a 6-run lead in a deciding Game 5 against the Cardinals back in 2012.
But I don’t remember it that way.
With two outs in the top of the 9th inning of Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS, Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman faced San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik, with the Nationals holding a 1-0 lead at home. Even when Panik was ahead 3-1 in the count, the Nationals, who had lost the series opener at home a day before, held a 97 percent expected win probability. But Zimmerman walked Panik. Then Nats manager Matt Williams pulled him after 8 2/3rds shutout innings in favor of shutdown closer and notorious post-season headcase Drew Storen (who would turn out to be the connective tissue between the Nats’ 2012 and 2014 playoff collapses). Storen promptly surrendered a single to future Hall of Fame catcher Buster Possey. Mountainous third-baseman Pablo Sandoval smacked the game-tying RBI-double in the next at-bat.
Three-and-a-half hours later, around midnight and after a playoff-record six hour-and-23 minute of baseball, Brandon Belt socked a home run in the top of the 18th inning to seal a 2-1 victory for the Giants, who would go on to defeat the Nationals in 4 games and eventually capture their third World Series title in five years.
Game 2 ended long after the conclusion of Yom Kippur, a holiday whose rhythms and rituals are said to evoke and prefigure death. I wasn’t watching during that catastrophic ninth inning, as I was at an excellent break-the-fast gathering at a family friend’s house as Sandoval drove in the tying run. And honestly? I didn’t really care that I wasn’t watching. Not that I was indifferent to the result of the game—it’s just that if they lost I figured they might as well lose off-stage, partly so that the day’s feeling of detachment from earthly affairs could linger, but mostly because I was glad not to have to endure the disappointment first-hand.
Although there are apparently more than one of them, the Baseball Gods have a vaguely Jewish sense of irony, fatalism, and timing. They insisted I endure the disappointment anyway.
I got home and watched the game from the bottom of the 10th inning onward. I watched as Giants long reliever Yusmeiro Petit hurled seven one-hit shutout innings, allowing contact, it seemed, in less than half of them. (As a sort of internalization of their own victimhood, the Nats signed Petit over the last offseason, only to see him slide into ineffectiveness in the back half of this year; he hasn’t appeared at all in this year’s NLDS, which, as of this writing, has the Nats and Dodgers tied at two games apiece). I watched as stud outfielder Bryce Harper hammered an arching pop-fly to the graveyard in deep right field, with both Bryce and I convinced, for a two ecstatic seconds, that the game was over, and that the Nationals had evened the series. I watched as the innings climbed into the low teens, and then into the high teens. WHO WANTS TO DO IT, I yelled at the TV with whatever post-Yom Kippur energy I still had in reserve. Who wants to hit the most cathartic home run in Washington Nationals history? The answer, it seemed, was Giants first-baseman Brandon Belt, whose homer off of Tanner Roark was catharsis in the classical sense: an irreversible resolution, a violent purging of tensions, one last shofar blast.
Except actually, what’s notable about that game is how unlike Yom Kippur it was for me. I experienced them side by side, and one reduced the other to an irrelevance. As I stated up top, this six-and-a-half-hour, 18-inning march to oblivion should rank among my absolute worst sports-related traumas. But it doesn’t. In my memory, it’s dwarfed by the physical and spiritual ordeal that came before it. I don’t remember feeling much of anything as Belt’s home run disappeared into a by-then empty right field grandstand. At the time, I didn’t have the energy or the emotional reserves left to mourn my team, whose season was effectively over.
This was appropriate: At the very end of the book of Jonah, which I’d heard some seven hours before Belt’s homer, the prophet earns God’s rebuke when he yearns for death after a worm devours a fast-growing tree where he had been sheltering in preparation for the destruction of Nineva, which of course never comes. The book ends with God delivering what would now be recognized as a “sick burn:” You’re broken up about a tree which grew and died in the space of a day, God says. So why shouldn’t I have mercy on a city of 120,000 people?
Among other things, this passage suggests that the divine intellect is capable of a proportionality that eludes the ever-agitated human being. I’d like to think that the Baseball Gods were delivering a similar message back in 2014. That game’s conclusion wasn’t a catharsis or a shofar blast. Juxtaposed with Yom Kippur, the Nats’ loss was a small episode, and the previous 25 hours have had the long-term effect of warping it into its proper place. Thus, that game has endured in my memory not as a garden-variety Washington sports trauma, but as personal evidence of one of the most extraordinary and even miraculous qualities that Yom Kippur, and Judaism in general possesses: the ability to warp things into their proper place. I barely remember it as a trauma at all.
The Yom Kippur Marathon of 2014 was a defeat that nevertheless exhibited the essential fatalism of baseball like few other games I’ve watched. Yom Kippur ends on the symbol of a closing gate, and it’s a day in which some pray waring a kittel, a white robe identical to a Jewish burial shroud. What better day for being confronted with the unique and ever-fractious relationship between baseball and time? Like life itself, baseball has no set clock. The game offers subtle, anxious hints of its approaching end—the elongating shadows in the outfield, stirring activity in the bullpen, longshot pinch-hitters and last calls from the beer-sellers in the emptying stands. Time is bought and lost on every pitch, until the pitch where it’s finally lost for good. Each game gradually builds towards an uncertain and unknowable terminal point, with no guarantee that your investment of time or emotion will have been repaid. The end is a dreaded or yearned-for abstraction, until it becomes real—the gate shuts, and the win probability abruptly compresses to zero. There’s always the off-chance, and the masochistic fantasy, that the game just never ends at all.