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Penitence Race


THE STATIC of the broadcast, the AM-band crackle that the cheap transistor spit up every time it swung or bounced—even this I remember. Just as I recall the heat from the water in the hallway fountain, its cooling mechanism never quite functional. And the godawful smell of the secondary wing boys' room.

It is 1971, and I am new to the fifth grade at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, a few hundred yards north of the D.C. line in suburban Maryland, where everything is perfectly Proustian, perfectly preserved in memory.

I have been on the playground, playing strikeout with Firestone and Bjellos. It is an April afternoon, after school hours, yet unseasonably hot in my memory. I am wishing the water cooler actually worked, stumbling into the boys' room to take a leak before drifting back to the game.

On my little Sanyo, Frank Howard launches a grand slam off the Oakland A's starter, some fella with the improbable name of Blue. It is Opening Day. And though this is Washington Senators baseball, all things are still possible.

Two years earlier, in fact, my Nats, managed by the great Ted Williams, finished above the hated Yankees for the first time in my short life in a season when both played better than .500 ball. These guys are due. They have always been due. This, perhaps, is the year they pay out.

Mike Epstein follows Howard to the plate, and I rest the radio on the boys' sink. Epstein, my favorite. Superjew—and yes, that is his actual nickname. Thirty home runs in '69 hitting behind Howard, who had 48 jacks that year. And in '70, Epstein added 20 more.

Is there a hero more tailored to my existence? Is it possible to overstate the sociocultural and psychological import of a power-hitting Hebrew playing first base for the Washington Senators, the hometown team of a skinny, slap-hitting Jewish runt from Silver Spring, Md.? Surely, Mike Epstein, standing astride my childhood like a colossus for all the Chosen, is a personalized gift from the god of my fathers. To whom I now pray:

"Dear God," I offer aloud, my words echoing against the drab brown walls of the bathroom. "If you let Mike Epstein hit a home run right now, I will never, ever skip Hebrew school again."

Whereupon the very next pitch is launched into the rightfield upper deck of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Back-to-back with Howard. The Opening Day crowd cheering wildly because maybe, just maybe, this is the year, with the Nats embarrassing this Blue fella and shutting out Oakland to begin the great exodus from Egypt and bondage.

And here, now, comes the worst and most frightening image in this sequence of memory: That of a mop-headed boychild, arms above him, cheering wildly, his image reflected back from the old oxidized mirror above the school bathroom sink. I can still see that fool kid. Right now, in my mind's eye, I am looking at him as his moment of delirious joy evaporates into near Biblical loathing and terror.

What did I just promise God?



I'M NOT AN IDIOT, or a fundamentalist. A sentient grown-up cannot take seriously the notion of petitional prayer in any sporting contest. Any modernist knows that a divine entity who would intervene in human affairs to hang a curveball or block a field goal is a deity with too much time on His hands. Any god who actually exists has to be playing for larger stakes than a playoff win or, worse, a five-year contract with built-in incentives. The sight of a wide receiver falling to one knee and crossing himself in the end zone is an affront to any theology that can matter. And we must concede that a serious god in whom real purposes abide cannot possibly give himself over to punishing the random collective of northside Chicago baseball enthusiasts merely because they don't live in St. Louis.

So, O.K., no worries. I made a vow and I broke it. Within three weeks I was again cutting out of Hebrew school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, hanging with friends, creeping down Beach Drive to play basketball in Rock Creek Park. But so what?

God, if He even exists, is good, or at least noninterventionist—an Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle would say, who rules from a heaven with high walls and leaves small matters of athleticism to men. A child's vow over such nonsense is unheard.

Except a little more than a month after that long-ago Opening Day, Mike Epstein, my favorite player, was traded to the Athletics. And by the following season my entire hometown baseball franchise, the Senators, was shipped to Texas to become the Rangers.

I did the rest of my growing up in Washington without baseball. And when I moved to Baltimore in late 1983, I could in no way enjoy the Orioles' victory in the World Series that year. The O's of old were Canaanites, a savage crew of Moloch-worshippers who routinely marched south against my tribe, with the Robinsons and Palmer and McNally and Boog smiting and martyring the Nats at will.

I rooted for Philly in that Series, and only embraced the Orioles when they began the '88 season with 21 straight losses. As only a Senators fan will, I came to my second franchise when it was in the basement, and for a long time the elevator did not move.

So note:

It is now nearly half a century since a small boy asked his god to hang a Vida Blue pitch for his hero, and neither team with which he has allied himself has to this moment returned to a World Series.

Lo, the Orioles have wandered like Israelites through Sinai since I took a mortgage in Baltimore, teased from New York by Jeffrey Maier's mitt and mocked from Chicago by Jake Arrieta's fastball. And the new Nats, reconstituted a decade ago, have touched the hem of greatness only to collapse at the very edge of every playoff opportunity. They ended the present season, literally, at each others' throats.

My vow, I have come to believe, was heard. And now I am Jonah, fleeing from my God and Nineveh, unwilling to address my sin. And the Nationals and the Orioles are both ships on a storm-tossed sea, their sickened, seasick fans unwitting victims of the outcast who walks among them.

Every season since 1971, the gaping maw of the whale awaits me. I am to be swallowed, along with the hopes of any baseball team I care about, into the belly of the beast and spit up in time to do it all again when pitchers and catchers report.

I gotta get right with God.

NEVER HAPPENED," says Mike Epstein.

The phone line goes silent.

"No way," he adds.

Finally, I say something clever: "What?"

"I never hit a home run off Vida Blue, and I never hit a home run on Opening Day. You got it wrong."

"But I remember it."

"Never happened," he repeats.

I sit there on the other end of the phone, stunned like a cow with a sledgehammer. Me. In the boys' bathroom mirror. My promise. My sin.

"Listen," Epstein says finally. "You're not serious about this, are you? Because, I gotta just say, you realize this whole thing is a bit, ah, egocentric."

You think? Isn't everything that constitutes the theology of fandom egocentric? Believers who won't change their shirts for 16 Sundays if their team is winning? Acolytes who have to walk out of the room on a full count with loaded bases because if they stare at the television screen, the Fates will bring bad juju to the moment? Pilgrims who eat the same thing in the same inning in the same number of bites because the ritual assures the outcome?

Surely a direct appeal to Yahweh, the god of our forefathers, carries more gravitas than mere fate?

And no, I still don't believe a just god intervenes in professional sports. He does not care if Mike Epstein goes deep against Vida Blue, or whoever threw that pitch on whatever day he threw it. But does He care if a Jewish kid two years shy of his bar mitzvah promises to stop cutting out on Hebrew school?

Think on that for a moment, Mr. Epstein. Maybe this vow wasn't about baseball. Maybe it was about theology and spirituality and the 6,000-year-old faith of our ancestors.

"You're serious," Epstein says wearily.

"You and me, we gotta bury this together."

And somehow, I get this man to agree. Somehow, I convince him that the two of us hold the future of the Nationals, and possibly the Orioles as well, in our sin-stained hands.

He will come east from his home outside Denver, back to Washington. We will taste the bread of affliction together, share a Passover seder and use the Jewish holiday of liberation to commemorate the long years of wandering in baseball wilderness, to dream anew on a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey and freshly printed playoff tickets. Then, on Opening Day of the 2005 season, we will go to the old RFK Stadium, where the Montreal Expos have just relocated, and we will watch a ball game together.

I know I have Mike Epstein aboard when I can hear him laughing at me through the telephone.

"O.K.," he says. "You're nuts, but O.K."

All that is left for me, other than buying his plane tickets and reserving a hotel room, is to figure out my broken memory. Back-to-back home runs with Howard. Vida Blue. Opening Day. The upper-wing boys' room at Rock Creek Forest Elementary.

"I'll work on that," I tell my childhood hero. "And I'll see you next April for Passover."

Except the Old Testament god, He is not so easily appeased.

A few months before Passover in 2005, my brother-in-law, a sailing enthusiast, was caught in a storm off the Florida coast and, when a metal coupling fell from the mast, suffered an injury that would eventually prove fatal. That year's family gathering was no time to trifle with anything as obscure as baseball voodoo. And by the following season, my father had become invalided; our Passover seders became, for several years, private affairs. I couldn't follow through with Epstein.

Season followed season. The Orioles slowly improved and made a couple decent runs toward a Series, but last year's rollover to Kansas City seemed like a high wall. The Nats, for their part, looked weak-willed the year they sat Strasburg, and last season's playoff performance was so devoid of heart that some supernatural element could be plausibly suspected. In the back of my mind, totaling up the cumulative seasons of Series-less baseball in my wake, I piled up a weight of guilt that only Jews and Roman Catholics can carry.

Verily, my God was still an angry God. So, a decade after I first contacted Mike Epstein, I called him again. He didn't return the message. Not right away. Who calls a goof like me back a second time in a single life?

I had an editor from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED follow up, if only to make my pitch more plausible. And I called the Nationals' front office, asking about the possibility of honoring one of Washington's former baseball stars. And in July I flew to Denver, where, finally, seated across from an aging but still athletic man, in a breakfast spot south of the city, I did all I could to assure my boyhood hero of both my sincerity and my sanity. I also told him I had solved the false manufacture of memory, and it was a telling corruption at that:

"When you make a promise to God, a promise that you don't keep, a promise that you then secretly blame for the trade of your favorite player and then the loss of your entire baseball team, well, you kind of want the home run to matter. And for the Senators, the only way a home run could matter was to have it as close to Opening Day as possible because by May...."

"By April, you mean," laughed Epstein, remembering. "Those teams were so bad."

"By April," I agreed, "the Washington Senators were usually out of contention."

Mike Epstein and Frank Howard hit back-to-back home runs on Aug. 17, 1970, in the first inning of a 7--0 home win over the Kansas City Royals, off a pitcher named Bob Johnson.

It was summer. A hot day in D.C. My fifth-grade year hadn't started yet, but the school building would have been open as the staff was preparing for the start of school. In August, we were routinely allowed to use the bathrooms while we hung on the blacktop and played ball. That explained why my memory had no one else in the hallway or bathroom, why I was even allowed to have a transistor radio in school that day.

Ridiculously, I had offered up a vow to God over a single at bat in the first inning of a late-season game for a sixth-place team—that was last in the old American League East—that was in no way contending for anything. Not even pride. Biblically, this is the equivalent of Esau trading his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. Yet over the years, as the baseball fortunes of two cities fell and as I bricked a personal prison cell using mortared blocks of Judaic guilt, I imbued that useless home run with more and more meaning.

The Senators had in fact shut out the A's on Opening Day in 1971, beating Blue in the same convincing fashion that they had shut out Johnson and the Royals. That, too, was a warm memory, one that I happily conflated with Epstein's prayed-for homer if for no other reason than to make my plea for divine intervention more purposed and romantic.

"Do you remember what pitch you hit off Johnson?"

Epstein had some memorable dingers in his career. Three in one game. Four in consecutive at bats. And some astonishing artillery salvos to the upper deck of RFK, where they painted the seats blue in Superjew's honor. But an August home run in a game that meant nothing?

Epstein didn't remember the at bat, much less the pitch on which he turned.

Only I did. Kinda.

NEVER MEET your heroes, it has been famously said, and as an old newspaperman, I've generally been inclined to credit the adage. A hero is someone far enough away so as not to reveal himself completely.

But the Michael Peter Epstein who has put up with my on-again, off-again courtship these many years, upon our first meeting in Denver, revealed himself to be a fine, if somewhat skeptical, soul.

Now 72, he has shaped a life with successes and pleasures beyond baseball. His wife, Barbara, is a nice Jewish girl he spotted in the stands of a minor league game in Stockton, Calif., and the marriage is now a half-century strong. Three children are grown, successful and happy.

A professional ballplayer from 1964 until he retired 10 years later—just before the rise of free agency and a seller's market—Epstein was obliged to turn on a dime and embark on a second career as a businessman.

A native of the Bronx, he nonetheless learned about the cattle market, of all things, and would own and operate ranches in Oregon and Wyoming. It is probably safe to say that in meeting the man, you are shaking hands with the only lefthanded Jewish power-hitting cattleman to ever stride this planet.

And for a third act, Epstein returned to the baseball world, developing batting techniques and drills that he describes as rotational hitting—an influential and level-swinging counter-revolution to the Lau-Hriniak school that dominated the game a couple generations ago.

Asked the ageless Talmudic question—"Which is harder: hitting or preventing hitting?"—Epstein doesn't hesitate before offering his own rabbinical dissent: "Teaching hitting. That's the hardest."

It was not something that he particularly wanted to do in life, but when the greatest hitter in modern baseball history prods and pushes repeatedly, you eventually give way. And Ted Williams, having managed Epstein for two-plus seasons with the Senators, had kept a friendship with his former player.

Williams knew hitting as a precise science, of course, but teaching it? He had no patience or vocabulary for explaining himself or his skill. But he would talk hitting with Epstein.

"You gotta do this," Williams told him on one hunting trip together.

"Why me?"

"Because you're a smart sonofabitch. I can do it, but you can figure out how to explain it."

Beginning with a series of 42 articles in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper in the early 2000s, Epstein codified what Williams believed about smacking a baseball with a bat into a coherent, teachable methodology. Today, Epstein Online Hitting Academy—now a second-generation enterprise with Mike's son, Jake, at the helm—has become an influential font of batting analysis and coaching, based in Littleton, Colo., with 650 certified instructors operating nationally. It is the only hitting curriculum Ted Williams ever endorsed.

For Epstein—successful as a player, as a cattleman and businessman, as a hitting guru—life has been a series of pragmatic, goal-oriented paths and pivots. You show up, you do the work, you wait on the proper result. Stray prayers and divine interventions are not currencies in which such a man generally traffics.

BUT THE OLD TESTAMENT God, the jealous God, the unforgiving God of some improbably chosen tribe of ancient desert wanderers—maybe He's not interested in your modernist sensibilities, or in your hard-won rationalism. Maybe He's keeping different stats on this world, and judging mortals by different sabermetrics altogether. And maybe this God is not in the business of cheap forgiveness, either.

Because this ball season, on Sept. 21, the night before Yom Kippur, the sundown commencement of the Jewish Day of Atonement, I arrange to bring Mike Epstein—who remains politely dubious about the entire enterprise—to a stadium in the city of Washington, where the third and present incarnation of professional baseball in D.C. resides. There, just a mile or two down the Anacostia riverbank from the hollowed-out hulk in which Epstein once played, we stand in the Nationals dugout, waiting out a rain delay.

"God," Epstein assures me, staring at the infield tarp, "is really angry at you."

It's an hour past the game's scheduled start, and Epstein, having done all his interviews for local radio and pregame broadcasts, stands with a team escort at his side. In the escort's hand are a Nationals jersey with Epstein's name and number 6 adorning it, and a red ballcap with NATIONALS spelled out phonetically in Hebrew letters. But the rain is unrelenting, and there will be no pregame honorifics for Epstein or anyone else. In the end, a little after 9 p.m., this Monday game between the Nats and the Orioles—yes, my plan was to exorcise the demons from both franchises at once—is called for weather. It will be rescheduled as part of a Thursday doubleheader, a day which will find Epstein back in Colorado.

God will have no apologies from me.

Yea, as it shall ever be written: Man plans, grabs a bat and walks to the plate. God plunks him in the ribs with a nasty slider, and then, two pitches later, picks him off with an omnipotent little move toward first.

AT SUNDOWN the next day, Mike Epstein and I find ourselves at Har Shalom Synagogue in the Potomac suburbs of Washington. We are side by side as the congregation rises for the Kol Nidre, the All Vows prayer, in which Jews ask God to forgive them for all of the promises that they, being human and foolish and fallible, will fail to honor in the coming year. Kol Nidre is so elemental to the Jewish ritual of forgiveness that we chant the prayer thrice, slowly, so that the words are given all possible attention and clarity.

As I gather my prayer shawl on my shoulders and turn the page of my prayer book, Epstein shoots me a look and actually smiles. "O.K., you're up," he says. "It's on you now."

Kol Nidre applies to the unkept vows of the coming year, but I'm asking for a retroactive dispensation. My great sin dates to my 10th year of life, and I know I didn't even learn the Yom Kippur liturgy until I was 12 or 13. Hey, with all those unexplained absences, I wasn't the brightest bulb in the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Academy. Sue me.

Yet on this night, I bend to the task. Beside me, I can hear my companion muttering the Hebrew as well; neither of us is particularly observant, but Epstein too has knowledge of the liturgy. But walking out of temple an hour and a half later, he only partially concedes the validity of our mission together:

"I get why you're here, but explain to me exactly why I had to make this trip? I did my job. I hit a home run. And God, he did his job, right? You're the only one here who still owes."

I do my best:

"You're part of the sin, too," I say. "I prayed for a home run in a meaningless August ball game, and I got it. But maybe you got something too. Maybe you benefited from the sin."

He looks at me, ever more dubious.

"Look," I say, "that year you hit 20 home runs, and early the next season you get traded to Oakland to play on a winning team. The year after that, you win a World Series, right?"

He nods.

"Maybe if you finish 1970 with only 19 home runs, maybe that's not such a clean, round number. Maybe when the Oakland front office is looking around for a lefty to hit behind Reggie Jackson and play first base, maybe they don't bite on Mike Epstein. Maybe if I don't ask God to have that Royals pitcher hang a curveball, you don't get traded, you don't hit 26 jacks in '72 and go to the World Series and get a ring."

Epstein considers my theories on man and fate for only a moment.

"Weak. Very weak," he says, laughing.

I drop him at his hotel and we say our goodbyes. And then, before getting back in my car, I shoot a look up at the dark Washington sky.

"C'mon, big guy," I actually say aloud. "What's done is done. Let my people go."

At that moment, the O's 2015 wild-card run is history, and with some irony, their last series with the Nats will fire the last torpedo into Washington's hopes as well. But next year might be different. I tell this to myself and drive home with hope in my heart.

Five days later, the Nationals' closer tries to choke the team's best hitter in the dugout, for all the world to see.

Oh, God.

David Simon is creator, writer and executive producer of the HBO series The Wire, Treme and Show Me a Hero.

The Nationals' and Orioles' sickened fans are victims of the outcast who walks among them.

I know I have Mike Epstein aboard when I hear him laughing at me through the phone.


Illustration by Kagan McLeod for Sports Illustrated



BACK IN THE FOLD The author (near right) and Epstein (below and far right) took shelter from a rainout after the former player received personalized Nationals swag in English and Hebrew.



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GODS AMONG US Epstein (with Williams in 1969, right) shared a pre--Yom Kippur meal with the author (opposite, center).



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MEMORY MAN Simon imagined Epstein's Opening Day home run ... but the slugger did go deep in the second game of the '70 season (below).


Illustration by Kagan McLeod for Sports Illustrated