Sports fans love a good story.
Ultimately, that’s all it is, right? It’s following a story — sometimes over years, sometimes over the course of a single game, inning or play. People who don’t appreciate sports might deride those who do as having misplaced priorities, or consider them foolish for having an emotional investment in the movement of a distant ball set into motion by people they don’t know.
They’re missing out.
I think of the moments sports have truly brought me joy in my life — and I grew up in Cleveland, so it’s really not that many — and I know that each moment didn’t exist in a vacuum. It mattered because of the context, it mattered because of the things I knew coming in, the things that made it special. The things that elevated it to a genuine story.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was a thrilling game, worthy on its own merits — it featured multiple late lead changes, a few amazing defensive plays, and arguably the most clutch shot in the history of the league. The emotional impact of the game, of course, rested not just on that but the context — a longshot comeback against a vastly superior opponent, a local hero returned to deliver glory to his home region, that region’s psychic torment after a half-century of sports failure.
A much more painful moment for me, but one admittedly important to many others, the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory (over my beloved Indians) later that same year was propelled by that kind of storybook magic. I don’t follow baseball with the breathless intensity I did as a child, and off the top of my head I’d struggle to tell you what happened in last year’s World Series, as I suspect would many people. The Cubs’ come-from-behind, extra-innings-in-Game-Seven win, one that exorcised a century-plus of demons for a huge fanbase, is the kind of story anyone can imagine. Unheralded role players jumping into the spotlight. A journeyman veteran stirring his teammates with a rousing speech during a timely rain delay. Grandchildren leaving victory caps at the graves of grandparents who taught them to love the game and never got to see their team win.
Growing up (and maybe a little bit still, if we’re being honest here), it was easy to daydream and create stories like this with me at the center. I doubt I’m alone in having mapped out exceptionally detailed narratives of how I’d lead my team to victory in the most improbable and heroic of fashions. Over time, the realities of my own athletic abilities (mostly) set in, and the storyline changed. Maybe I wouldn’t be pulled out of the stands to lead the Indians to a World Series title, only to have the Browns offer me a contract once the season ended — but I’d still forge a heroic path of my own. I’d still be at the center of the story.
Surely Daniel Hudson has entertained storylines of his own just like these over the years. The Washington Nationals’ closer has had, on paper, an unremarkable career —one marked by serious injury, a long recovery, and a journey from team to team. His stat lines don’t show much to reflect the lifetime of work that anyone must have put in to forge a lasting career in professional sports. It was only at Major League Baseball’s trade deadline that he was finally put in the position to fulfill the kind of storyline that he’s surely dreamt of his entire life — ending up on a team with a legitimate chance at a deep playoff run, thrust into the closer’s role by injuries.
The Washington Nationals themselves don’t have much of an identity as a club, even after 15 years in the nation’s capital. Their fanbase is mostly made of transient politicos and former Orioles fans, and their brand feels so generic that the Walgreens-esque logo on their hats doesn’t seem out of place. They’re the store-brand playoff team, great for entertaining lobbyists or catching the out-of-town team you actually care about. They’ve had a handful of playoff visits since arriving from Montreal, and all have ended practically as soon as they started. They had one charismatic superstar, and they low-bid him out of town before the current season started. There was little to suggest that the Nationals’ visit to the postseason this year was going to be anything worth telling a story about.
They broke through, though. An exciting five-game series saw them best the three-time defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. (Their former incarnation, the Expos, played in the NLCS, but this was before the Division Series round existed). They would face the annoyingly-always-successful St. Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant.
And Daniel Hudson wasn’t there.
As soon as the series against the Dodgers ended, Hudson hurried back to his Arizona home to be with his wife Sara as she gave birth to the couple’s third child. Predictably, a chorus of the worst kind of voices arose to question the decision to prioritize family over profession. Sports commentator David Samson — who somehow convinced a media organization that his longtime role as president of the Miami Marlins represented an expertise worth sharing with the world — publicly decried the move, calling it “inexcusable” in a tweet. Many voices rose to Hudson’s defense (and to lambast the meat-headed Samson), but it’s clear from interviews after the fact that Hudson didn’t care one way or the other. His story was in Arizona, not in St. Louis.
The Hudsons were delivered of their third daughter, a healthy baby girl they named Millie Lou. Hudson returned to his team for Game 2 of the NLCS, and pitched the final inning to earn a save and put the Nationals up 2-0 in the series. After another win Monday night, the team is on the cusp of a World Series few would have predicted, and Hudson will find himself on the stage I’m sure he always pictured. It’s a story now, but it’s not the story he began writing.
It’s perfectly normal and healthy to want to place yourself in a heroic narrative, to map out how things are going to go in life. To predetermine the successes and glories you’ll achieve, to envision the way you’ll feel when you get there. The story you finish is never the same one you started writing, though. Life will intervene. True priorities will reveal themselves. The things you wished for may still be important to you, but you may find they’re not the central part of the story any more.
The heroism is in how you react when the story changes.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)