By Jules Witcover
6:00 AM EDT, April 5, 2013
Karl Marx is credited with saying that religion is "the opium of the people." But here in the nation's capital, baseball is the drug of choice that rescues political junkies from the unpleasant realities around them.
Currently providing relief from the congressional stalemate over the deficit that has produced the "sequester" of spending cuts, job furloughs and general fiscal paralysis is the return of last year's Cinderella baseball team, the Washington Nationals.
After rising from traditional doormat to champion of the National League's East Division, the Nats heart-breakingly collapsed in the final game of their first playoff series. In the process, however, they gave new impetus to the sport's age-old lament, "Wait 'til next year."
On Opening Day Monday afternoon, the largest crowd ever to turn out for a regular season game at Nationals Park cast away the political gloom that has gripped much of official Washington so far this year. The newly beloved Nats served up a jewel of a 2-0 victory over the Miami Marlins, rekindling the euphoria of the 2012 season that fell so crushingly short of World Series glory.
What marked the day particularly were the performances of the rebuilding team's two budding young stars, fast-ball pitcher Stephen Strasburg and slugging outfielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg in the shutout retired 19 straight batters while giving up only three hits in seven innings. Harper meanwhile hammered two home runs in his first two at-bats, sending the crowd into baseball-crazy delirium.
It was almost enough to make an old would-be sportswriter wish he had pursued his original career ambition, instead of riding political campaign buses around the country most of his adult life. Almost, since chasing would-be and real presidential candidates from New Hampshire to California can be a bit of an opiate in itself.
But the nation's foremost political town has been badly in need of distraction the last several years. That is especially so now in light of official Washington's seeming inability, after an uplifting presidential campaign and re-election of President Barack Obama, to get itself into gear for a fresh start.
Last fall, after a similar football drought, the local sports fans thought they had found another savior on the gridiron in rookie Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, or RG3 in the popular vernacular. But he got busted up in his exuberant play, and he and his team were knocked out of the NFL playoffs. So it was "Wait 'til next year" for them too.
Getting back to Karl Marx, himself a Communist Hall-of-Famer, what he really said in the German translation of his "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" was: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."
That's not a bad analysis of what political Washington is going through now, as well as the ordeal the city's long-suffering fans have endured over the mostly failed years of professional baseball in the town. Its original entry in the other major league led to the play on the town's namesake, that Washington was "first in war, first in peace and last in the American League."
But the arrival of Messrs. Strasburg, Harper and an array of other new blood has made the new Nats, whose fans are said to be bursting with "Nattitude," a heavy favorite of the sport's pundits to make it to the World Series this year, and even win it.
All this headiness over the gang at Nationals Park is not quite dissipating the concern that the likes of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can't produce anything that resembles similar team spirit in solving the country's fiscal dilemma, not to mention immigration and gun-control reform.
For now, though, Washington's baseball world promises a spring, summer and maybe even a fall of joyful distraction that may soften the season of discontent that its political world seems more likely to encounter in the long months ahead.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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