Friday, June 30, 2006

Interim No More

It's official. Jim Bowden will be retained as the General Manager of the Washington Nationals. The other Nats blogs will give you your fill of indignant rage. I'll not add to that; if you've been reading The Curly W for any length of time you know where I stand. I'll try to take a step back and analyze this development objectively. To do anything else is to, as they say, urinate into the wind.

We're all asking ourselves the same question: why would Stan Kasten do such a thing? Why would he retain the man who has become such a lightning rod for criticism? My uninformed, off-the-cuff answer: because he doesn't want to rock the boat. Kasten's mantra has been stability and patience. Perhaps, in Kasten's mind, there is no better way to imbue this philosophy in this wayward franchise than to retain the services of the man who, for better or worse, has been the linchpin of the team's fortunes.

Perhaps Kasten is right. After all, Bowden has only had two years to shape a team that was gutted and left for dead by MLB only four years ago. He's had a small payroll, limited resources, and an uncertain future. His perpetual interim status (and that of the entire franchise) put him under a tremendous amount of pressure to be a rainmaker, to win now by any means necessary. Any of us would probably do the same if we were out to preserve our own steady paycheck. Thus, Bowden set about making move after move, snatching up any wisp of talent that might be circling the free agent drain, in the hopes that something, anything would provide that lightning we all know and hate. In light of all this, a rational person might conclude that Bowden's two years with the Nats offer neither a large enough sample size nor the right control factors to fairly evaluate his tenure.

However, the past two years are not the only body of work that Bowden has to evaluate. His ten years with the Reds offer plenty of insight into what kind of GM he will be now that his neck is no longer on the line. In Cincy, as in D.C., Bowden loved the art of the deal above all else. I'm puzzled as to why a professedly patient man like Kasten would want the impulsive Bowden at the helm. It wasn't that the Reds had a bad minor league system, or had bad drafts, or made bad trades, it was that Bowden couldn't stop dealing. He'd dial and deal all summer for the best player he could get. But he'd get those quality players in a vacuum, paying no attention to the overall composition of the team. I may be one of only a dozen people in the world who have suffered through Bowden baseball for fifteen years. And I'm only 28. Now that's depressing.

Bowden's love of the deal will not die with his interim status. He's in a bigger town now, with bigger media coverage and he'll be out to prove that he's a big time GM. Perhaps Kasten will rein him in, but why should he have to? If patience is truly going to be the force that brings the Nationals out of the ashes, then everybody in the organization needs to believe in that value. That's just never been Jim Bowden's way.

Nonetheless, I'm going to give him a clean slate for now. Let's see what he does this offseason, when the pressure to win now is off the table. And let's not all rush to condemn Kasten either; there's only so much upsetting of the apple cart one man can do in the name of progress. Those who crave upheaval only need to wait a few months (weeks?) for Frank Robinson's dismissal.

So go ahead: curse and stomp, and rant about how cheap Kasten is and how the Nats will be a second class franchise. Personally, I don't think that's the way this will pan out. Let's all take a deep breath, accept inevitability, and watch and wait. And hope. Above all else, hope.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Slumptastic!

Everyone is down in the dumps right now.

And they should be. The 2006 Washington Nationals suck, and there's really not much more anyone can say at this point.

Being a fan of a losing team is a familiar role for me. After all, I am a Cincinnati Bengals fan. You think you know losing? No, no...I know losing. Don't give me any of your Red Sox or Cubs fan pity. I wear losing like a well-fitting baseball cap, soiled and stained through years of futile attempts to block the harsh summer sun. In a baseball season like this, you have to learn to cherish the individual moments of greatness over the net result of the season. The Nats are bad, and they're probably going to get a lot worse later this summer after Bowden and Kasten close down the RFK version of Filene's Basement.

But I'm okay with it. The Nats can lose 90 games and nothing can take away from the pure joy and excitement I've felt at some of the season's best moments. The 12-inning win over the Phillies was absoutely thrilling, and when we finally won that game that night I felt on top of the world. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I wish I could say that about every day. I'll not soon forget the complete awe I felt at witnessing the 9 run comeback over the Yankees at RFK Stadium, the elation I felt as the fans ran up and down the rows high-fiving anyone in Nats gear. And of course, who could forget Zimmerman's walk-off the next day, definitely one of the top 5 moments in the short history of the Nats. It felt great to be a fan on those days. It hurts to be a fan on other days. That's life, I guess.

This is one case where you do want to miss the forest for the trees. The 2006 season appears to be a disaster in the making, but each game offers the opportunity for a small sweet victory of its own. So savor these tiny moments of joy. After all, what else are you going to do between now and football season?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Frankly Speaking

Just as I was softening a bit on my contempt for Jim Bowden, the Nationals GM gave me new reasons to detest him. The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga has written an excellent article on the uncertainty surrounding Frank Robinson’s fate. Svrluga details the history of the animosity between Robinson and Davey Johnson, who has just been hired as a special assistant to Jim Bowden. We learn that Bowden did not even have the courtesy/guts to tell Robinson personally of Johnson’s hire. Instead, Frank first learned about the situation from a reporter calling Robinson in Atlanta to get the manager’s reaction to the story.

What was Bowden’s explanation? Why, to blame someone else, of course. Bowden said that “another club official” was supposed to tell Robinson about Johnson’s new position. Said Bowden:

“We all like to be communicated with. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, there was a communication breakdown, and the news didn’t get there. For that, the organization is sorry.”

For whatever reason? The reason was that Bowden didn’t do his job and tell Frank directly. Bowden knew that Frank would be uneasy about the news because, from Frank’s point of view, Johnson could be in line to replace Robinson after this season. The organization is sorry? This is vintage Bowden wordplay. Jim Bowden, not “the organization” is the one who should be sorry. Bowden went on to say:

"The tough part about life is that a lot of times, people are hired by different people in an organization that they have history with. And that's part of life, and the reality is, the hiring of Davey does not affect him."

No, Jim, war, hunger and disease are the “tough part of life.” But the reality is that the hiring of Davey Johnson does affect Frank in the most immediate way possible. It appears very likely that Johnson is being groomed to assume the manager’s position in 2007. Several clues point to this possibility. First, Johnson was Bowden’s first manager with the Cincinnati Reds from 1993-1995. Johnson presided over the Reds’ only playoff berth of Bowden’s tenure with the club, a wild-card berth in 1995. After that season, Johnson was forced out by then-owner Marge Schott’s moral objections to Johnson’s relationship with the woman who is now his wife. Bowden and many in the Reds organization still feel that things would have been very different for that franchise had Davey Johnson stuck around.

Also telling is the fact that Johnson’s contract as special assistant only runs through July 31 of this year. On the surface, it would appear that Johnson is only needed to get Bowden through the trading deadline. But it’s also interesting to note that July 31 figures to be only 2-3 weeks after the Lerner/Kasten regime officially takes over in Washington, just in the nick of time to renew Johnson’s contract and/or give him the manager job. Kasten can get up on the podium and tell us all how the franchise is going to enter a rebuilding period and that a change of the guard is necessary, and that Johnson is just the man for the job. I really would not be surprised to see this happen.

Perhaps a changing of the guard is necessary for the Nationals. But it’s embarrassing to see the team and MLB treating Frank Robinson like a leper after all he has done for the game and the franchise. After all, it was Robinson who stepped out of a cushy New York office and into the manager’s role in Montreal to steward the franchise through contraction and ultimately the move to Washington. Despite all the obstacles and the disgraceful way in which the franchise has been treated by MLB, Robinson has managed to field a decent and at times competitive team. He certainly doesn’t deserve the smug, pithy comments of Jim Bowden. After all Frank Robinson has done for the game, he deserves better than to be tossed off the bus as the Nationals drive into a new future.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Square One

The time has come for the Washington Nationals to go back to the drawing board. The team has now found itself on the business end of the broom handle in two of the last three series. The sweeps from Colorado and Boston make strange bookends around the Yankees series, but these last two weeks of underscore the true nature of this team. The Nationals, as currently constituted, are a slightly below average team. They are good enough to beat the better teams in the league if those teams have an off day. They are flawed enough to lose to the worse teams in the league if those teams play well. And if they face a good team playing well…lights out.

The team’s flaws are numerous and easily exposed. The starting pitching is wildly inconsistent. The youngsters O’Connor and Hill pitch well, but they have been asked to play over their heads. The veterans have either gotten injured (Drese, Lawrence, Astacio, Patterson) or been complete busts (Hernandez, Armas, Ortiz). The Nats cannot count on any of these men to give them quality starts on a consistent basis. This leads to the constant overworking of the bullpen, which lacks a true middle reliever to eat the innings left on the table from the starters. Many of the young bullpen pitchers, who are trained to last 2-3 innings at most lack the stuff to challenge opposing hitters for multiple at-bats. After Andruw Jones sees Saul Rivera the second time around, Rivera’s already has shown Jones everything in his bag of tricks.

The entire pitching staff seems unwilling to throw strikes. The pitchers nibble around the corners until they find themselves behind in the count, leaving them no choice but to throw a fastball down the middle to avoid a walk. This habit has led to run after run in recent weeks, as the batters either take a walk or rap out an extra-base hit, usually an RBI. The Nats pitching constantly commits avoidable follies like walking the opposing team’s pitcher or walking home a run with the bases loaded. None of the pitchers on the staff seem to have any confidence in their stuff, and opposing hitters are taking advantage.

The defense is similarly ugly. The middle infield lacks range and guys are diving for balls in the gaps that other players might field cleanly. The outfield is also a house of horrors with Soriano’s shaky fielding and the woefully ineffective Byrd/Jackson platoon. For the gory details I’ll refer you to Needham’s excellent post on the subject. You’ll find yourself nodding your head throughout the whole read.

I find myself anticipating the coming month of July like one might anticipate a painful but necessary surgical procedure. It is time for Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden to completely remake this franchise from the ground up. I’ve grown fond of many of the veterans on the team, but it’s time to send some people packing. In particular, I’d like to see what the market will bear for any or all of Soriano, Guillen, Hernandez, Vidro, Armas and possibly Nick Johnson. The only guys I would refuse to deal are Cordero, Zimmerman and Schneider. I’m not including platoon guys like Jackson and Anderson or journeyman veterans like Fick and Clayton because these guys have no trade value.

With luck, Bowden can trade these guys for a stopgap player that can fill a need today and a prospect or two that can be a mainstay tomorrow. Today’s most pressing needs are in the outfield (depending on if Guillen and Soriano are traded) and above all, center field. The Nationals also need to replace Jose Vidro’s glove at second base and get a shortstop that can get on base reliably. Of course, starting pitching is a huge need but isn’t it always?

It’s clear that the Nats have a long way to go before they achieve true respectability and success. Watching this ragtag band of misfits play the top dogs of the AL East has illustrated the franchise’s shortcomings with brilliant clarity. Sure, it’s fun to root for a scrappy team when they upset a great team. But it’s even more fun to arrive at the stadium knowing that your team has even or better odds to win. The Yankees and the Red Sox expect to challenge every team they play. The Nats just hope that Armas makes it into the third. For once, I can’t wait to see what deals Jim Bowden has up his sleeve.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Long Day's Journey Into Nats, Part 1

Every once in awhile, fortune smiles upon the meek who inhabit this cruel Earth. There are times, like yesterday, where trying your best really does bring success against incalculable odds. The ragtag Washington Nationals defeated the greatest baseball team in history yesterday 11-9. If you weren't there, watching on TV or listening on the radio, a glance at the box score won't do the game justice. Let me tell you the story of the greatest baseball day of my life.

I had been determined to go to one of the Nats-Yankees game all week. None of my usual game-mates could attend, and I thought about just staying home and watching the game on TV. But it is summertime, a time when I always took my greatest boyhood adventures, and I'm not old enough to give up on adventures just yet. I decided to go to the game Han Solo. I simply could not resist the pull of attending a sellout game at RFK against a Yankees team that, to me, represents all that is wrong and grotesque about Major League Baseball.

I was also determined to tailgate before the game. For me, tailgating for an hour or more in Lot 8 has become a key part of the Nationals experience. The wide, tree-shaded expanse of grass by the Anacostia is filled with picnicking, partying Nationals fans for hours before each game. The tailgating somehow adds an authenticity to being a Nats fan that was completely absent during my previous life as a Reds fan. People would drive downtown to Riverfront Stadium for the start of the game and then flee to the suburbs immediately after the game ended. In Washington, people arrive hours early to barbecue, toss the baseball around, and spend time together. I'll really miss tailgating when the new stadium arrives.

I donned my Nationals jersey and cap and stopped in my local Subway to grab a pre-game turkey sub for consumption in Lot 8. Then I headed up to Capitol Hill with my wife and daughter, who were meeting a friend to go to Eastern Market. I had planned to grab some beverages on the way to RFK, but it turns out that my wife's friend had a fridge full of Corona that she was desperate to get rid of. I was more than happy to liberate some of the beer, so I put five of them in a bag along with my sub. She even cut me some limes and supplied a bottle opener! I knew this was going to be a great tailgate, even if I was by myself.

I walked with the ladies as far as Lincoln Park and then took my leave, heading due east along sunny East Capitol Street NE. It was now almost noon and the humidity was picking up. I slogged along the sidewalks; the sweat from my arms and the beers soaking the paper bag. As I approached the stadium a DCPD helicopter swooped down overhead and landed in the green expanse in front of RFK. Neato.

I was nearly set. I had beer and food, but I just needed to find a ticket. I headed toward Scalper's Alley by the bus stops in front of the Metro station. A scalper approached me dodgily, wary of the many surrounding police officers. We began the time-honored exchange:

Scalper #1: "How many you need?"
Me: "One."

Scalper #1: "How much you lookin' to spend?"
Me: "Whatcha got?"

Scalper #1: (Shows me a ticket in section 531, high row, face value $12) "Seventy-five dollars."
Me: "Ha! No."

Scalper #2: (Approaches) "Hey man how much you lookin' to spend?"
Me: "About $40."

Scalper #2: (Hands me a ticket in section 301, row 5, face value $44) "Gimme sixty."
Me: "I'll give you forty."

Scalper #2: (Looks like he's about to punch me) "C'mon man, gimme sixty, the game's sold out."
Me: (Hands ticket back to him, smiles) "No thanks."

Scalper #2: (Nervous, looking all over for cops) "A'ight man, meet me halfway, gimme fifty."
Me: (Giving him $50) "Okay, thanks!"

The scalpers slunk away and I headed toward the stadium with ticket, beer, and food in hand. I was set. This was going to be a great day, I could feel it.

Continued in Part 2...

A Long Day's Journey Into Nats, Part 2

Continued from Part 1...

"The scalpers slunk away and I headed toward the stadium with ticket, beer, and food in hand. I was set. This was going to be a great day, I could feel it."
I walked down the stairs from the Metro, past the gates, under the tunnel and into Lot 8. I pushed against the tide of people streaming toward the stadium and sought refuge under a solitary shade tree on the north end of the lot. At last I would have my Subway and Corona picnic. As I watched the fans march toward the gates I knew that this was not going to be your typical Nationals game. Yankees fans seemed to outnumber Nationals fans at least three to one. If we were going to have a chance in this game, I knew that Nats fans would need my help. I downed the footlong turkey sub and the five Coronas in under an hour. I was feeling pretty good at this point, and ready for some Nationals baseball.

I walked into the stadium and found my seat. I couldn't believe my eyes. The crowd was enormous, 45,085 fans, and the largest to see a baseball game at RFK since 1969. And as I had suspected from my experience in the parking lot, at least two thirds of them were Yankees fans. In my section, there were hardly any Nats fans. There were a couple six year olds wearing Yankees shirts and Nats hats, and then there was me, alone, in a sea of Yankees fans.

The game started off badly for the Nats, who looked overmatched from the moment Johnny Damon sent the first pitch into right field for a double. Ramon Ortiz began giving up hit after hit, and the Yankees fans went wild. They started doing their signature chant: "Let's Go Yan-kees! Clap-clap, clap-clap-clap." It was thunderous. I felt small.

I was also awestruck at the well-oiled baseball machine that the Yankees have put together. Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. How do you pitch around these guys? Each one is more deadly than the last. At one point Frank Robinson had Saul Rivera intentionally walk Giambi to get to Rodriguez. No wonder these guys expect to win the World Series every year...how could they not?

Things were not looking good for the Nats at all. The Yankees had rapped out seven hits before the Nats got their first. But they'd managed, somehow, to tie the game 2-2 by the fifth inning. Then the Yankees dropped the hammer. The home runs started immediately. A-Rod went deep first, followed immediately by Posada. Rivera then put the entire bottom of the Yankees order on base, giving up hits and walking the pitcher, Shawn Chacon. Up came Johnny Damon, who promptly hit the third home run of the inning, a grand slam that put the Yankees up 9-2. Thunderous cheers roared from all corners of RFK. The Yankees had completely taken over Washington.

The Yankees fan next to me offered me a high five. I declined. I was despondent. My beloved team was down seven runs and I had 30,000 of the opposing team's fans rubbing it in my face. When the inning finally ended, Damon trotted out to center field and began dancing and flirting with the fans in the upper deck. They fawned on him like schoolgirls with Justin Timberlake.

I wanted to leave. I wanted to get away from the Yankees, their fans, and the prospect of seeing the Nats getting further crushed and embarrassed. But something inside me told me to stay put. After all, what was I going to do, just cut and run? (Hee!) Actually, it was that I'd just spent half a Benjamin on my ticket and had five Coronas anchoring me to the chair. But then the comeback began.

Continued in Part 3...

A Long Day's Journey Into Nats, Part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2...


"I'd just spent half a Benjamin on my ticket and had five Coronas anchoring me to the chair. But then the comeback began."

The Nationals immediately answered with four runs in their half of the fifth. There were no flashy homers, just a few walks by Yankee pitchers and base hits by one Nat after another. When the curtain went down on what was one of the longest, wildest innings of baseball I can remember, the Nats were only down three runs. If nothing else, I thought, at least the box score won't show what a massacre this game was. But the Nats kept scoring and the Yanks kept choking. Two more runs scored in the seventh and the Nats were only down one.

Then came the greatest inning of baseball that I've ever been a part of as a fan. The Yankees brought in the indomitable Mariano Rivera to stop the bleeding. I was sure that our comeback was doomed. There was one out and Soriano was on first. Soriano stole second, then third, then scored tied the game on a horrible throw by Posada! Incredibly, Rivera managed to walk Daryle Ward. Then came Jose Guillen, who ripped a triple to right center. Ward chugged along the basepaths in an effort reminiscent of Carlos Baerga. I expected him to stop at third, but Tony Beasley was waving him around! Ward beat the throw to the plate and the Nationals were ahead 10-9!

I went ballistic. I have never gone so ballistic. I was jumping up and down in my seat so high that I almost fell over a railing. I found some Nats fans (the only people who were standing up at this point) and started giving high fives. Then Zimmerman brought home Guillen with a single to give the Nats an insurance run. When Chad Cordero logged his 13th save in the ninth, the Nats had done the impossible. They'd scored nine unanswered runs off the best baseball team in the universe. They'd crossed the Atlantic. They'd landed on the moon. There was much joy in Natsville.

It's hard to describe the way I felt as I left the game. The joy I felt was pure and unfettered. I pumped my fist along with Cordero and ran around the concourse high fiving anyone with a Nats jersey on. There was nothing greater than seeing the Yankees fans trudge out of the park, their cheers silent, their smugness deflated.

I walked out of RFK and down A St, NE to avoid the crowded Metro. All along the way people came out of their houses to ask me about the game and share their joy at the win. One man told me the story of how he and his brother had snuck out of their house on a school night to see that fateful last Senators game against the Yankees in 1971. A Vincent Orange campaign car pulled up and asked me who won the game. The men in the car couldn't believe that the Nats had pulled it off. I couldn't believe that they were supporting Vincent Orange.

As I headed down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol South Metro, passing cars honked their horns and gave the thumbs up. It seemed as if all of Washington was united in triumph. I walked west into the setting sun, with joy in my heart, a grin on my face, and a Nationals cap on my head.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Regression to the Mean

The last month of Nationals baseball is a perfect case study of what can happen when a team is merely good, but not great. All of us who were questioning Stan Kasten’s plans to peddle veteran talent for the heroes of tomorrow can now put those doubts in the deep hole the Nationals have dug. After a thrilling three-week span in which the team won series against some of the league’s best teams, the Nationals were swept in four games, at home, by the struggling Colorado Rockies. The Rockies outscored the Nats by a margin of 35-14 for the series. When the Mile High Mashers put up Coors Field numbers at sea level, you know you’ve got big problems.

My first impulse after reading the box scores this week was to curse, bitch, and kick the cat. (Not really. I don’t have a cat.) But the more I think about this month of Nats baseball the more I realize that these kinds of ups and downs are completely normal. Good teams like the Nationals (and they are a good team, despite the sweep) will have some exciting moments. They’ll have some victories like last Friday night against the Phillies that leave the talk radio caller set sweaty and breathless. These teams will win the hearts and minds of the fans, but they won’t win the pennant.

In baseball, being good means winning some exciting games and staying in the playoff race past the All-Star break. Being a great team involves an elusive level of consistency. To reach the World Series, a team must consistently win series. It’s not about long win streaks. What good is a three-game sweep if you are swept yourself the next four? Being great is about all the parts of the team doing their jobs every night. It’s about the starters logging quality starts and giving the bullpen the chance to seal the deal. It’s about the offense making smart decisions at the plate and on the base paths. We can moan all we want about the manager and general manager, but if the consistency isn’t there the team won’t succeed.

The Nationals are a good team. Fortunately for the fans, Stan Kasten has a different destiny in mind. I’d rather see Livan Hernandez traded in a few months for a Bill Bray and a Brendan Harris. Sure, Livan is a stud sometimes, but he’s often a dud, too. Up and down, high and low, just like the team. Let’s trade him while he still has some semblance of value. I sure am enjoying watching Alfonso Soriano hit dinger after dinger, but I enjoy watching Ryan Zimmerman even more. He makes exciting plays in the field, is developing as a hitter, and wants to be a part of the future of this team. I’d love to see Soriano traded for another team’s Ryan Zimmerman. The same goes for Jose Guillen. He provides some good theater, sure, but he’s inconsistent at best. Giving Guillen a big mid-career contract is simply mortgaging mediocrity.

I’d rather not write posts like this. I’d rather be writing about the Nationals’ rocket ride to the top of the standings and start handicapping playoff opponents. But the team is simply not there yet, and that’s okay with me. I’m enjoying another exciting summer of baseball in my backyard. The best is yet to come. At long last we have an owner with a vested interest in the team’s success and the resources to make that success is a reality. So enjoy this summer. Go to the ballpark and watch a good team play. Some summer sometime soon we’ll be watching a great team play.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Best Nats Game Ever!!!

It's 12:41 AM. I just finished watching the best Nationals game I've ever seen. The Nats won 9-8 (on 17 hits!!!) on Robert Fick's game-winning single in the bottom of the 12th inning. I was watching the game on TV, but by the third inning I was seriously considering getting in my car and making the 15-minute drive to RFK Stadium and joining the crowd. I was hooting and hollering so loudly that my wife woke up from her slumber on the couch and said grouchily: "just go to the game, then!!!" I didn't, though, because I was 3/4 of the way through a Friday night-sized glass of Rebel Yell (yee-haw!) and because I thought by the time I got there it'd be in the 6th inning or so and a waste of time. Little did I know that the game would feature three bonus innings!

I started watching the game after the 1.5 hour rain delay, and a few Nats bloopers had the team down 2-0. The Nats quickly rebounded to make it 3-2 and then scored some more runs to make it 7-3. Then a Mike Stanton implosion made it 8-7 Nats but Brendan Harris singled in a run in the 7th to tie up the game. And that was it until the 12th...the Nats threatened several times in the intervening innings but couldn't get it done. There are so, so many reasons to love this game:

  • -Soriano was 0-6 with a walk and three strikeouts and the team still won. Go ahead, trade him! (I know, I know.)
  • -Seventeen hits! Wow.
  • -Another decent outing for Armas: 5.0 IP, 3ER, 6K
  • -Huge contributions from some of the new, young guys: Mike Vento reached first on what should have been a sacrifice bunt, Brendan Harris hit the tying single, and Bill Bray pitched three flawless innings, striking out three.
  • -This win was literally a whole-team effort. When Fick appeared in the bottom of the 12th, he was the last position player left on the bench. The game-winning hit was only his third of the year.
In short, the team overcame a terrific stinker of a seventh inning and grinded out their 15th win in their last 20 games. This is the kind of win that the team couldn't even dream of in April and early May. The Nats are now tied for third place with the Braves and are only five games below .500. If this keeps up, Jim Bowden and the new ownership group are going to have some very, very difficult decisions to make next month.

One final note before I head happily to bed: Brian Schneider is officially my favorite National. There is no doubt that he is the heart and soul of this franchise. He's always carrying himself with a can-do attitude, on the field and in the dugout. He's always the first one out of the dugout to congratulate a guy on a crucial play. He keeps a low profile in the media, never ripping teammates or management and accepting praise with humility. I am so glad that the team has signed him to a long-term deal. I think he's the one truly irreplaceable personality the franchise has right now. No, he's not the most valuable in terms of pure baseball talent, but he's nothing short of indispensable as a field general, a clubhouse leader, and a standard bearer for the emerging ethos of the Washington Nationals.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

It looks like we’ll all have to walk a little farther to get to the new Hooters, Fuddrucker’s and Ruby Tuesday’s in the new BallPark DisTrict™ when the new stadium opens in 2008. The Lerners stuck to their guns in a meeting with D.C. officials yesterday, refusing to pay for the added cost and time delay of below-ground parking garages. This is, of course, much to the chagrin of do-gooders around the region, who claim that the above-ground structures will be unsightly and ruin the chance of a vibrant retail district. Many people are acting as if the team is paving paradise to put up a parking lot, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I applaud the Nationals’ new ownership group for standing up to the D.C. Council and DCSEC, who once again have their hands out for more money for the stadium project. This development completely vindicates Bud Selig’s rationale for refusing to sell the team until the lease deal was done. I’m no fan of Selig’s, but had he sold the team without a lease, arguments like this would have been just as contentious as last winter’s negotiations and the outcome possibly much worse.

The D.C. Council has planned all along to stick the new owners with the cost of building its desired below-ground parking. If subterranean garages were so important to the city, the council should have made this a sticking point during its negotiations with MLB. Better yet, the council should have paid for them with city funds and used them as another revenue-generating device to further offset the cost of the stadium bonds. We’ve heard much boo-hooing about the city building the Nationals a “free” stadium, but now the District wants the Nationals to build the city a “free” ballpark district. When will the different sides stop posturing and admit that the whole presence of the team is a win-win proposition for everyone?

Perhaps below-ground parking would be more convenient for fans seeking to keep the distance from McDonald’s to Gate A at an absolute minimum, but the reality is that the above-ground structures won’t put a dent in either the aesthetic of the neighborhood nor its ultimate commercial viability. The neighborhood shops need not be displaced: the above-ground structures could be built on top of a floor or two of retail space. Also, the parking garages in question will be reserved only for VIP fans; the average fan will still have to park in more distant lots or garages. This means that most fans will still walk through a district of shops and restaurants before arriving at the gate. While the parking garages won’t be the most attractive aesthetic buildings in town, they certainly won’t look much worse than yet another of the uniform concrete and glass office building and condos that blanket the city.

Everyone is still going to win here. The fat cats will have their parking. The city will get its chain restaurants and generic condos. The fans will park in the same places that they would have parked if the garage were built underground. And once we’re all inside the park, we’ll be looking at the most aesthetically pleasing shape at all: a freshly-mown green diamond with four white squares at each end.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Whither Bowden?

Capitol Punishment blogs this morning about an SI report that Bowden might be back next year. This week's announcement that Dayton Moore will take over as GM of the Royals certainly lends credibility to that outcome.

I'm coming around to the idea that it might not matter whether or not Bowden comes back next year. I'd still love to see him replaced, but maybe now's not the time.

If the team is really going the fire sale route, then what difference does it make who's sitting in the GM chair? Add that to the fact that, at present, it doesn't seem like there will be many high-profile GM candidates available this fall. Which is worse, another year of Bowden or having some promising assistant walk into the buzzsaw of a losing team?

I really don't know the answer to that. If the Nats were expected to contend any time soon, the team would be able to attract a top-tier candidate, but by all accounts they're going to be in the tank for at least the next two seasons. It's an interesting situation.

I'm often accused by my commenters of hating Bowden for no good reason. To those readers I say: I'll give you 1,000 good reasons, and I've already blogged about 500 of them. Regardless of what you think of him, I think everyone would agree that the Nats could do better. But it takes a high-profile, winning franchise to attract a high-profile, winning GM, and the Nats just don't have that opportunity to offer right now.

The media and the blogosphere are ready to grant Bowden a win on the Soriano trade, but I'm not. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have Soriano than Wilkerson any day of the week. In that vacuum, it was a good trade. But Soriano is unlikely to stick around, so the decision of whether or not it was a good trade hinges entirely upon what Bowden can get for him. If Bowden can get 3 good prospects, two of whom eventually become cornerstones of a winning team, then we can say that the trade was good. If he trades Soriano for a quasi-prospect and a Preston Wilson-type guy, who then only has to be dumped two seasons from now, the trade will be a huge bust.

What Bowden does with Soriano will make or break the GM's career with the Nationals. Teams know that the Nationals have to move him, so they will do everything they can to lowball Bowden. Can he resist the temptation to shop him to the first bidder, or will he patiently allow the contenders' desperation to build to the point where the Nats win on the deal?

We'll know in July.