WASHINGTON — Never in the history of Washington baseball has a pitcher recorded the final out to win a playoff series.
Part of that is lack of opportunity. The only playoff series win came in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, when Earl McNeely’s ground-rule double in the bottom of the 12th off New York Giants hurler Jack Bentley scored Muddy Ruel from second base to give the Washington Senators — and Walter Johnson, who pitched four scoreless innings of relief — a 4-3 victory.
That’s the kind of history Nationals closer Sean Doolittle — who could be in position to change that history this October — would appreciate. He and his wife, Eireann Dolan, used to plan their offseason vacation to Washington each fall, to take in the seasons and the Smithsonians, where Doolittle reads every word of every plaque. It’s just one of the many ways they defy, both together and on their own, what many might expect from such a couple.
Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle celebrate Valentine’s Day at Taco Bell.
Back to that in a minute. But first, an observation.
Major League Baseball players, like any other famous people in our society, serve as blank canvasses upon which the general public paints projections based on whatever limited public information is available. One offhand comment from early in Bryce Harper’s rookie season was slapped on T-shirts, turned into a cultural phenomenon, and became so intractable from his perceived personality that it remains in constant use today. That was six years ago.
Doolittle’s personality is much better known, as he allows it to shine through on Twitter. His handle — @whatwouldDOOdo — is a Rorschach test of sorts. Is it a poop joke? A Jesus joke? Both? Neither?
Twitter — and humor — is intrinsic to Dolan and Doolittle’s story. Dolan was living in Los Angeles when she was recruited, mostly because of her Twitter humor, by then-Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy to work on a comedy writing project. He told her he thought she might be a good fit for a rookie teammate of his just up from the minors.
Dolan and Doolittle started chatting and, when Dolan was in Phoenix for business during Spring Training, decided to get frozen yogurt. A couple weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, Doolittle was at Taco Bell when the idea for a silly but romantic gesture struck him.
“You sent me a photo of two tacos in the shape of a heart, from Taco Bell,” recalls Dolan. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to marry this man. I’m going to marry him, and he doesn’t know it yet.’”
The rest is history, much of it cataloged through their light-hearted-but-searing barbs online.
Good thing Sean can throw a baseball because he just called a maintenance worker to change a 9V battery in a reachable smoke detector at 2am
— Eireann Dolan (@EireannDolan) September 10, 2016
“He’ll roast me pretty hard, too,” Dolan said. “It seems like it’s punching down, though, so he’ll hold back.”
Often times, Doolittle will just text what he might have replied if he thinks it’s too harsh.
“There’s times where I’ve come up with some really good stuff, and I’ll be like, ‘Can I say this?’ Because I’m not sure where the line is. She doesn’t care where the line is.”
To wit, Dolan’s Instagram profile link is to an Imgur GIF of Doolittle getting goosed by teammate Edward Mujica in the dugout, back when he was in Oakland. This is news to Doolittle, who is not on Instagram.
“WHAT?!” he exclaimed.
“I’ll change it, I’ll change it,” she said.
As of publication, it has not been changed.
Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle defy simple categorization.
If you took the first bit of charity work that Doolittle involved himself with in the big leagues, you might start painting a certain picture of who he is and what he stands for in your mind. Doolittle raised money to equip new homes for wounded veterans in the Sacramento area as a part of Operation Finally Home, for which he earned the A’s Dave Stewart Community Service Award. Two years later, he and Dolan sponsored the Oakland Athletics’ first ever LGBT Pride Night. Later that year, they organized a Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago for Syrian refugees.
“I just don’t think it has to be a zero-sum game,” he said. “I think there’s probably more people that don’t fit neatly into one of those columns, or that can’t be painted with one color. And I think, so far, every one of the project that we’ve worked on has been really personal enough to us or are families to get involved with.”
Doolittle was a military brat, son of a Bronze Star-awarded Air Force navigator father, born in South Dakota and raised all over. Dolan’s brother and uncle both served. But Dolan also grew up with two moms.
“For us, it’s not politics — it’s our family. All those things have touched our family in some way,” she said. “We set out these values and goals that we start with, and that sort of helps us guide and direct us to what we think is important to put our name behind.”
Perhaps what makes their approach so relatable is the fact that they are thoughtful, fully-formed adults in a way that many in and around the sports world aren’t, or at least don’t publicly appear to be.
It’s hard to take anyone seriously who hasn’t been through some trials and come out the other side with the scars to show for them. After nearly making the big leagues as a hitter, Doolittle missed three straight years with consecutive season-ending injuries. A two-way player in college, he eventually went the other direction, switching to the mound, as a last resort to try to live his big league dream. But that struggle, through the lonely rehabs and minor league assignments, forced him to grow up.
“It made him the person that he is,” Dolan said. “It makes him not have to take anything for granted. It makes him have a very different perspective, where he’s grateful, not entitled. He got to see what it’s like to be humbled and come back on his own terms.”
If Doolittle hadn’t both been through those trials and tribulations, he and Dolan probably would never have ended up together in the first place. Dolan struggled with the same growing pains as any 20-something trying to make their way in the world, but also dealt with addiction, choosing sobriety at an early age. By the time they met, she had fully established herself on her own. She’s a professional speechwriter and is pursuing her second master’s degree. She wouldn’t have had much interest in a hotshot ballplayer without a sense of humility.
“It’s corny as hell, but I think you’re right,” Doolittle said. “Until you saw me hit batting practice. And when you saw me hit a home run, you would have been like …”
“I’m going to move in with that man. Me and him are going to split rent.”
Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle are still finding their way around D.C.
They famously eloped the day after the season ended, but spent the offseason in Chicago, where they just bought a house. They haven’t had time for a honeymoon yet, just getting settled back in D.C. before Opening Day.
One day they ended up in NoMa, another neighborhood that, like where they live in Navy Yard, seemingly sprang up from the concrete — fully formed, mixed residential/retail communities devoid of any inherent culture. It looked so much like the area around their building (which Dolan jokingly described as “a collection of Chipotles and high-end salad chains”) that they felt like they were trapped in The Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld where Elaine meets a parallel Jerry, George and Kramer.
Another time, they tried to go to H St. NE, but ended up at H St. NW, leaving Dolan perplexed.
“I was like, ‘Why does everyone keep saying how hip this is? I think that’s a federal building. This place sucks.’”
That’s what happens when you’re traded from the only team and city you’ve ever known smack in the middle of the season. Doolittle had been with the Oakland Athletics’ organization since they selected him 41st overall in the summer of 2007 as a first baseman.
Although Doolittle had never been traded before, each understood that showing up in a new uniform in the middle of a pennant race meant the number one priority was making sure everyone involved knew that baseball came first. That meant putting a lot of their off-the-field work on the back burner for a bit.
“Initially, when we got traded over last year, we intentionally kept a super low profile with a lot of that stuff, because we wanted the fans, we wanted the players on the team and their families to get to know us first,” Doolittle said. “We wanted the message to be that we’re here to help the team win. No matter what else we have going on, this is our priority.”
“Also we didn’t want to seem like we were carpetbaggers,” Dolan said. “Like, ‘OK, what’s wrong with this city? What can we fix? Let’s get involved, we just got here 10 minutes ago.’”
That last part is key. If there’s any unifying thread to the causes Dolan and Doolittle put their energy into, beyond their own personal attachments to them, it’s preparation.
“It may seem like a lot of the things we do are reactionary or opportunistic … but we do a lot of background work,” Dolan said. “We talk to everybody on every side of it, every angle. Because you don’t want to come up there and undermine the whole thing by going up there and sounding like an idiot, over overstating or understating it. So we end up doing a lot of work behind the scenes on these things.”
Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle have gassy dogs.
Actually, to be fair to Sophia — the 15-year-old rescue that the couple took in last year during Spring Training — it’s Doolittle’s Rhodesian ridgeback Stella dropping the silent, room-clearing bombs that are driving her owners to apologize while covering their noses with their shirts.
“It’s a crime against humanity,” Dolan said.
“I think it’s funny,” Doolittle said.
“It’s not funny. It’s like you can taste it,” Dolan said.
It’s a moment of levity amid a serious conversation about the bill sneaked into the latest budget, one which will prohibit minor league players from earning overtime, further decreasing the likelihood that they will be able to earn a living wage anytime soon.
“It’s disgusting,” Doolittle said. “You have Major League Baseball paying lobbyists to legally exempt these companies from labor laws so they can pay players even less … That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be paid a living wage.”
Beyond the day-to-day lives for those in the minors, Doolittle sees the potential long-term issues this could create for players once they finally do make it to the majors.
“It sets a dangerous precedent, because you start this wage suppression when these guys are in the minor league, and then they come up to the big leagues, and these are the guys you see teams go after with, like, the nine-year deal worth $20 million.”
He’s got a bit of firsthand experience with that. Doolittle didn’t make his Major League debut until age 25, after coming back up through the ranks a second time as a pitcher. Under the regular service time system, he wouldn’t have hit free agency until his age 32 season. But in April of 2014, with just one year and 122 days of service time, the A’s signed him to team-friendly five-year deal with a pair of team options.
Dolan, understandably, focuses on the human side of the issue, having seen the differences and traveled throughout the minor leagues with Doolittle.
“It’s a slippery slope whenever you start to think of any labor force without recognizing the value they add — they are the only source of value. Without them, the entity itself does not exist. So to treat them as a product, as property, it’s really dehumanizing from a personal level, but it’s also offensive because it’s a threat to anybody who works for any company,” she said.
She also raises a final point about how it may hurt the Major League product in the long run.
“It creates a pool of talent at the very end that makes it through that already came in with a little more privilege, independent wealth, maybe somebody who’s able to support them … It may not be the most talented, it may be the ones who can just best afford to still be there.”
Doolittle echoes her thoughts.
“I don’t care whether you’re a baseball player trying to get to the major leagues, or if you’re in technology, or if you’re a teacher, or if you’re trying to be a doctor. I don’t feel like any of these goals that people have, or these careers they’re trying to get to, it shouldn’t be cost prohibitive. It should be the opposite. Because the more guys you can get playing, the better chance you’re going to have the best baseball players in the world.”
Despite the discussion about the economics of the game, baseball doesn’t actually play that much of a role in Dolan and Doolittle’s lives away from the ballpark. She initially played up her own knowledge of the game, having grown up in the Oak Park neighborhood of West Chicago, going to White Sox games as a kid, before realizing that wasn’t necessarily what Doolittle was looking for.
“I was like, ‘I know everything about baseball,’ which it turns out is not a good thing,” she said. “You don’t want to date somebody who can, like, ask you why you threw a slider in an 0-2 count.”
It’s why they deleted Twitter from their phones last season, why they no longer tune into the game in every waking moment.
“We used to have ambient Heidi Watney in the house,” Dolan said, in reference to the MLB Network show Quick Pitch; as she says it, the living room TV is tuned to CNN on mute.
In fact, the only baseball-related item in plain view is a VHS copy of “Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch,” the third of what Wikipedia cryptically enumerates as “many” straight-to-video spin offs of the original, 1997 theatrical release. It was a parting gift from a fan in Oakland. They don’t even have a VCR.
“We like to play it around the house, so that the dogs know where they stand,” said Dolan. “That they need to step it up a little bit.”
Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle are a great fit in Washington.
In this particular era of Nationals baseball, there have been mainstays Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, the two faces of the organization since its move to D.C. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg have each been anchors in the rotation. But no position has shifted as fluidly and wildly as the closer role.
Consider the cast of characters who have preceded Doolittle. There was the brash, but introspective Drew Storen, who never fully recovered from Game 5, 2012. Goofy fan favorite Tyler Clippard never really got more than a stand-in opportunity, as the so-self-serious-he-trotted-in-from-the-bullpen-to-customized-music Rafael Soriano took over. There was, of course, the disastrous Jonathan Papelbon experiment, and a half-season of quiet, workmanlike efficiency from Mark Melancon. Outside of that, it’s been a rotating door of youngsters, none of whom have quite seized the role.
In Doolittle, the Nats got not just an excellent reliever, but a personality unlike any they’ve had in the role before. Between he and Dolan, they may have a tandem unlike anyone they’ve had around the organization as well, but two people suited for the unique challenges and the opportunities that the city provide.
“I want to make the most out of every part of this opportunity that I possibly can, both the on-the-field stuff and the off-the-field stuff,” Doolittle said. “There’s a whole new set of opportunities here that we didn’t even know existed.”
That’s in both their nature — to want to leave a lasting impact both on and off the field. Once they’ve finally settled on exactly how they’re going to apply that energy off the field in D.C., maybe they can finally agree on a honeymoon destination.
“If we can find a museum in Tahiti,” Dolan said. “Like a really cool, informative museum, then we can figure it out and come to some sort of consensus about this.”