This Holiday season, we at the Curly W would like to wish you and your families the happiest of holidays and best wishes for 2007. In the spirit of giving, I'm going to give everyone a blogpimp!
The Curly W would like to thank:
-Screech's Best Friend and the Nats 320 gang for keeping me excited about the team and inspiring me to become a season ticket holder.
-Farid at the Beltway Boys for helping me place my love of the team in a larger historical context, and for extending Nats Nation into the potato patches of Idaho.
-MissChatter at Just A Nats Fan for keeping us all up to the minute during the tense stadium negotiations and taking us in-depth to exclusive team events.
-Harper at Oleanders and Morning Glories, Chris at Capitol Punishment, and Basil at Federal Baseball for the thoughful, brilliant commentary that you post each and every day. So many of my posts started as comments on your blogs that simply got too long.
-JammingEcono at Banks of the Anacostia for exploring every avenue of the Nats' trade possibilities at the deadline (so I didn't have to).
-Brian and the crew at Nationals Farm Authority for keeping our hopes alive that we might yet have a viable farm system someday soon.
-Nate, Watson and Dave at Nats Triple Play for the most hilarious, witty and snarky commentary in all the land.
-Jeff at District of Baseball for giving us all the updates over morning coffee.
-A very special thanks to the frequent commenters, including natsfan7 and Phil Dunn (cheer up, buddy...it's Christmas!) and all the lurkers, orbiting magpies and assorted hangers-on that make the Curly W a successful Nats blogs. The comments and the dialogue they represent keep me invested in this hobby and motivated to keep posting.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, everyone. Buy a Nats hat for that special someone in your life!
Image of the National Christmas Tree cut fresh from VistingDC.com
Friday, December 22, 2006
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
I wasn't always a Nationals fan, you know. I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for 18 years before moving to D.C. in 1996. I was as die-hard a Reds fan as a kid could be, and growing up 20 minutes from Riverfront Stadium meant that I had formative, in-person baseball fan experiences from my earliest days. Basil asked me about those years during our question exchange, and I haven't stopped thinking about them since. There is no question that the Reds experience of my youth has led directly to my love of the Washington Nationals today.
It's a strange causal relationship, to be sure, but there are many parallels between the Reds of the 1980s-1990s and the Washington Nationals of 2005-2007. The team had perpetual issues with scouting and front office operations. Although the circumstances in Washington are far different, the Reds had wacky ownership issues, too. The Reds of my youth played in a decrepit, cookie-cutter stadium, much like RFK. As in Washington, the Reds had to wage bitter war with their city government to get a new stadium, which was hailed by the team as the necessary ingredient for lasting success. I find that each of these parallels offers us Nationals fans a bit of catharsis (at least we're not the only ones) or a cautionary tale of a fate to be averted in the coming years.
The Reds' ownership woes were primarily caused by the antics of the infamous Marge Schott. Many critics have accused the Lerners of being aloof when it comes to running the Nats, but the Marge Schott Experience taught me that I'd rather have a hands-off owner than a meddlesome, half-witted owner. Schott perpetually interfered with the front office, the coaches and the most minor of player concerns. The Lerners, so far, have been the anti-Schott, shunning the limelight and letting Stan Kasten be the public face of the team. The Nats are very fortunate in this regard; the professional sports landscape is littered with owners who fancy themselves experts on player management (see Snyder, Daniel).
The Reds' approach to scouting during the Schott years parallels that of the last years of the Expos and the early years of the Nats. The penny-pinching Schott slashed the Reds' scouting budget and turned to free agency as the primary source of player development and acquisition. Between 1984 and 1999, the Reds barely had enough scouts to cover the United States and had no scouting presence in Latin America. This put the club at a severe competitive disadvantage with the rest of the Major League teams, who were rapidly turning to international markets to find untapped player potential.
Many fans are unhappy with the Nats' current aversion to free-agent acquisition in the name of building the scouting department and the minor leagues. However, it's essential that the franchise rebuild this critical infrastructure as it continues to recover from the brink of contraction in 2002. The Nats hired 10 new scouts this offseason to increase the team's talent evaluation presence across the United States. Former Red Jose Rijo, who operates a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, will significantly boost the team's presence in Latin America. This commitment to developing young talent will provide the Nats with a steady stream of talent in years to come.
A solid minor league system frees up payroll for necessary free agent acquisitions. If most of the team's needs can be filled internally, free agent money need only be spent on filling a few holes in the offseason instead of blowing up the roster each year. A steady stream of young talent also gives the team more leverage in contract negotiations with existing players. There's little need to overpay a veteran when there's an equally capable and less expensive rookie waiting in the wings.
I've been painfully reminded of the Reds' acrimonious efforts to secure a new stadium as I've watched Major League Baseball battle the D.C. City Council over the last two years. The effort to build a new Reds stadium began in the early 1990s. At that time, the NFL Bengals and the Reds both shared Riverfront Stadium. First the Bengals, then the Reds began to make noise about relocating from small-market Cincinnati if their demands for separate stadiums were not met. After a bitter civic debate and lawsuits galore, the people of Hamilton County (of which Cincinnati is the seat) had no choice but to vote for the one-half percent sales tax increase that funded the construction of the football and baseball stadiums.
In light of the Cincinnati experience, Nationals fans are very lucky to have a new stadium. Cincinnati has been home to its beloved professional sports teams for years and its very identity depends upon the Reds and the Bengals staying in town. If either team had left it is highly unlikely that the city would have ever received an MLB or NFL team again due to the small size of the media market. In D.C., however, the City Council was asked to pay for a stadium for a team the city barely knew for a league that would not guarantee the franchise's permenence. The council approved the stadium largely to save political face, but if the matter had been placed before D.C. voters the Nationals would already be on their way to another city.
Great American Ball Park was built in just under three years for a cost of $290 million. It opened for the 2003 season. The Nationals' stadium, scheduled to open just five years later, will cost at least $611 million. This price differential underscores the staggering difference in construction costs and design plans. GABP is a nice park with some neat features, but it leaves something to be desired as a truly memorable place. The design features of the new Nationals stadium have been heavily hyped, but it will be tough for the place to compete with the nearby Camden Yards.
A final lesson comes from the illogical decision to locate the ballparks next to bodies of water. Riverfront Stadium was located on the banks of the Ohio River, which provided great views from the Goodyear Blimp, but completely cut the park off from the downtown area. People in Cincinnati would drive to the games just in time for the first pitch then get in their cars and drive right back home afterward. The downtown area never received the benefit of the nearby stadium. The Cincinnati city fathers had a chance to set things right when they built the new park. The final choice of sites came down to the existing Riverfront site or a site farther inland in the middle of a depressed downtown neighborhood. After much discussion, the Riverfront site won out. Today, GABP sits between a highway and a large body of water to the north and south, and an arena and football stadium to the east and west. Downtown Cincinnati remains clinically dead, and an opportunity for revitalization has been lost.
I'm concerned that the same fate may befall the new Nationals stadium. There was never serious consideration of any site other than the Anacostia river location since Mayor Williams needed the revitalization hook to win over skeptics on the council. But there's no question that the stadium is being built in a part of town that is completely alien to most Nats fans. Near SE is somewhat difficult to get to from the suburbs and is surrounded by businesses that offer no amenities to baseball fans. Far from providing a pastoral setting, the Anacostia river serves as a filthy moat that pens in the ballpark district and will almost certainly make life hell for fans arriving and departing by car. If Mayor Williams' vision is realized, the area will acheive the revitalization that Cincinnati missed, but these first few years in the new park may be frustrating as fans cram into the few bars and restaurants that manage to spring up right away.
I'm headed back to Cincinnati tomorrow to visit my family for the Holidays. I always drive by the Riverfront and the ballparks on the way into town and the memories come flooding back. The Opening Day parades, Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb's record, Chris Sabo, Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Rob Dibble and the Nasty Boys, Sweet Lou Pinella. Memories of a small market franchise trying to make its way in a big market world. For me, walking into RFK Stadium is a step back to a time when I was a kid sitting in a crappy stadium rooting my heart out for a team that didn't have a prayer. Soon the Nats will have a great stadium and the team will be a perennial contender, and as the team grows up I guess I'll have to grow up too. But until then, these memories will be with me every time I go to a game.
Image of 1990s-era Riverfront Stadium from MinorLeagueBallparks.com
Image of Marge Schott and Pete Rose: Cincinnati Enquirer file photo
Barry Larkin 1990 Topps Card from BaseballCardProject.com
Monday, December 18, 2006
You know, I just can't figure out how I feel about this Jim Bowden guy. Oh, it's not for lack of trying. I've followed Jimbo's entire General Managerial career since his 1992 debut with the Cincinnati Reds. We Reds fans loved Bowden back then. After a long string of stodgy, conservative GMs, Bodes was willing to take the chump change that Marge Schott supplied and see what he could do. Three years later, the Reds won the Division.
Depsite the Reds' shoestring budget, Bodes made some exciting trades that kept fan interest alive. He brought Kevin Mitchell, Ron Gant, always-interesting Deion Sanders and native son Ken Griffey, Jr. to Cincinnati. Oh, he made some bad trades too (like dealing Paul O'Neill to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly) but those were few and far between. No, Bowden never won a World Series in Cincinnati, but we fans all understood that it was ownership's fault.
Things started to go downhill for Bodes after Marge Schott got the boot in the late 1990s. Reds CEO John Allen (Schott's de facto successor) promised Bowden that the Reds payroll would increase once the new stadium opened (sound familar?) The Reds' payroll was supposed to be $70 million dollars in 2003, the first season in GABP, but it actually turned out to be around $20 million less. Predictably, the team turned in a mediocre performance and Bowden and his manager, Bob Boone, were sent packing. Bowden was replaced by the incompetent Dan O'Brien, who was then replaced by Wayne "Oh No You Di-int" Krivsky.
Curly W aside: The Reds "new stadium=more payroll" crap is exactly why I'm always cautioning against fans getting their hopes up too much for the 2008 season. Kasten and the Lerners can talk about that year all they want, but if you think the payroll that year is going to be any more than $60 million, I have a bridge to 14th Street to sell you.
Given this rich history, it's no surprise that I was excited, nay, ecstatic to see that Bodes had been selected as the Nationals' GM. The recently-relocated team was in a very similar place as the Reds in the 1990s: a decrepit saucer stadium, deep and abiding ownership problems and no significant payroll to speak of. Surely, if Bodes could keep the Reds interesting he could do a good job here in D.C..
All of my expectations proved to be true at the start of the 2005 season. Bowden took an eviscerated Montreal Expos team and made it interesting with the likes of Cristian Guzman, Vinny Castilla and Jose Guillen. Sure enough, the Nats blew away all expectations that year. When I started this here blog, I was stunned to find that many of my fellow fans harbored a deep contempt for Bowden. I felt the need to stand up for Bodes, so I wrote a spirited defense of the GM. At the time, I wrote:
If I had the ear of the Nationals new owners, I'd tell them something that few in the Natosphere would agree with: Jim Bowden should be signed to a multi-year contract as general manager of the Washington Nationals.I stuck by those words even in the face of criticism by my fellow bloggers. By golly, no one was going to talk smack about Bodes on my watch.
Everything changed after the 2005 season. Bud Selig had reneged on his promise to sell the team to an owner, throwing all team employees (including our protagonist) into an indefinitely interim state. With the future of the franchise in doubt, Nats employees panicked and began looking for other gigs. Who can blame them? The most prominent gig-searcher was, of course, Jim Bowden. Bowden immediately announced his candidacy for the Red Sox GM job after Theo Epstein fled Fenway Park in a gorilla suit on October 31, 2005. It was at this point that my opinion of Capn' Leatherpants abruptly changed.
On December 7, 2005 the Nationals traded Brad Wilkerson and two scrubs to Texas for the then-maligned Alfonso Soriano. Many observers, including myself, felt that this deal was made solely to keep Bowden's name in the headlines as a way of getting him the leg up on the Red Sox hiring process. The Nats intended to move Soriano to left field from his preferred position at second base, setting off a near-debacle when Soriano refused to switch positions. Bowden continued the offseason by haphazardly making deal after deal with no regard to the longer-term health of the franchise. The Nats ended up with a glut of second basemen and backup catchers, and seriously flirted with Sammy Sosa well into Spring Training. At this point I went off on Bowden:
This strategy flies in the face of prudent planning and common sense. The Washington Nationals, perhaps more than any franchise in baseball, should be biding its time, building the farm system and making sure that the money is available in three years to pay those prospects. Instead, Bowden is on a rampage of signing has-beens in their late thirties...this franchise has a long, long way to go in nearly every aspect of its operations. The team desperately needs competent leaders who understand and share this philosophy. Sadly, those leaders have yet to emerge and are nowhere in sight...Jim Bowden should no longer be the general manager of anything other than a fantasy baseball team.As we fans lament the lack of free agent action for the 2007 season, let us not forget how angry we were at the torrent of signings last year. Bowden was off the reservation, and there was no Stan Kasten to rein him in.
Now, on the cusp of the 2007 season, I've come full circle on Bowden. Ever since the arrival of Stan "The Plan" and the removal of the "interim" tag I've been quite pleased with the GM's work. He pulled off an incredible trade with the Reds (henceforth known and Majewskigate) and got two pitching prospects for Livan Hernandez, one of whom, Matt Chico, has a decent chance of joining the rotation this season. He was also able to unload the creaky Mike Stanton for another pitcher, Shairon Martis. The decision not to trade Soriano at the All-Star Break was controversial, but no deal is better than a bad deal. He wisely chose not to pursue Jose Guillen, and just this last week was able to unload the expendable Jose Vidro for an outfielder and yet another pitching prospect. That's five pitching prospects (Wagner, Martis, Chico, Mock, Fruto) acquired in the purging of guys who weren't part of The Plan. Not bad at all, in my book.
My only gripe with Bowden these days is that he seems to be killing opposing teams' interest in trading with the Nats by demanding top prospects in every deal. This offseason has shown that teams will spend whatever it takes to buy players on the market, but they'll guard their prospects until the end. The inherent value of home-grown prospects only increases as free agent prices continue to skyrocket. The big money teams in New York, Boston and Chicago will spend whatever cash it takes to win, but won't trade top prospects unless there is no other choice. The Nats simply won't have a chip in that game until the revenue from the new stadium comes in.
Anyway, I'm encouraged by the "new" Jim Bowden...for now.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Here it is...the moment you've all been waiting for. This week's edition of 5 Questions features the Natosphere's delegate to the SBNation network, a man who needs no introduction from me...ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Basil of Federal Baseball!
Here is the link to my answers to Basil's questions on his site.
Curly W: How (if at all) has the relative proximity of the Nats affected baseball fans in Richmond? Are the Nats considered "Richmond's team" or do the Braves dominate due to the presence of Atlanta's AAA affiliate?
Basil: That's a good question. I hope I don't risk ruining it with a long and boring answer. I'll say proximity and exposure will help the Nats here a lot. There's MASN, which is supposedly coming to Comcast here for next season; there's a radio network affiliate; and for the future, there's the hopeful development of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. The Atlanta Braves still dominate; that's expected, given the organization's long and, until recently, wonderful history here. Growing up, I witness an amazing volume of big leaguers come through here and stay here for a season or more, because that's the way Atlanta used to develop its talent. But Atlanta (and, to be fair, the game in general) has changed, and Double-A is where the excitement tends to be. Atlanta doesn't even give us good minor league vets---we've had nine losing seasons here out of the past eleven. And, since they "own" us, they're free to criticize the region for having the misfortune of doing the ballpark thing in the Eighties instead of the Nineties.
Curly W: It's now clear that the Nats' braintrust has given up on 2007. Looking ahead to 2008, do you think they will make good on their promises that things will be different after the new stadium?
Curly W: What's your prediction on the year of the Nationals' first playoff appearance?
Curly W: Middling free agents are getting monster contracts at this year's Winter Meetings. Is this a one year phenomenon or the New World Order? Players now seem to have all the leverage...has free agency gone too far?
Curly W: Have you been sorry to see any of the departed players (Guillen, Ortiz, Stanton, etc.) go or is their departure a form of addition by subtraction?
Basil: I was tremendously sorry to see Danny Rueckel removed from the forty-man roster late in the 2005 season. Mad, actually. Very mad. Actions have consequences, Bodes. Look both ways when you cross the street.
Other than that, I'd say Henry Mateo. When the Nats called him up during that first season in DC, they were exploiting a market inefficiency; the league was really undervaluing defense-first utility guys whose throwing arms haven't fully healed to the point they can't play defense.
Well, Mateo and Alfonso Soriano. But Soriano's replaceable. Mateo? Heck, he finished '05 with a .500 OBP.
CURLY W BONUS QUESTION: Don't you hate pants?
Basil: Oh yes. If Krusty were to direct us to burn them, it would be a perfectly cromulent order.
See, the thing about that line is no one seems to understand its message. It's a poignant and dire warning about the deleterious effects of commercialism on the mind and soul. It urges us to value life and freedom and self-determination over the value of the almighty dollar. It reminds us to put things in perspective, according to the dictates of our conscience, not unlike that one Charlie Brown Special where Charlie Brown was all depressed and then . . .
What's that? It's just a joke? Oh, I get it! I get jokes!
Right on. Thanks, Basil for a great exchange! That's a good point about the free agency cycle, and I agree with you about the "uneven covenant" of forcing fans to endure a throwaway season just to get to the new stadium in 2008. Of course, this shouldn't surprise us given the near-Faustian bargain that the city made to even land the team here in the first place. Sigh...all we can do is sit down here and do what the gods on Mt. Olympus tell us we must.
Image of Basil harvested from FusionAnomaly.net
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Posts like these are what happens when you blog about a team that goes to the Winter Meetings as a spectator instead of a participant. I wish I had some actual news to write about, but seeing no such news, I have to turn to desperate measures...like trading ridiculous questions with other Nats bloggers. Posts like these are the creme in the middle of a Twinkie...filler, baby.
This week I was approached by Benji, a relative newcomer to the Nats blogging world. Benji's work can be found over at All About the Nationals. Here is the link to my answers to his questions. Here we go:
Curly W: Let me get this straight: you live in , but you're a Nats fan? I'd think you be into the Rangers or Astros.
Curly W: Hypothetically speaking: it's the last home game at RFK and the fans storm the field at the last out to riot and grab souvenirs. What would you try to steal?
Curly W: If you had to pick one Nats player to be immortalized on a lunch box, who would it be and why?
Curly W: Another question: do you think bull riding would be a suitable mid-inning spectacle to accompany Screech's golf cart ride and the President races?
Benji: NO. My God, I went to a bull riding competion and it was horrible. This wasn't a small, it was the Fort Worth one. It stinks and it's nothing but a bunch of rednecks yelling for some bull to kick them in the face. 100% chance they get shot by DC's finest. The gangsters.
Curly W: If you could name the new stadium, what would you call it?
Okay. Curly W does not endorse terror threats or gang activity, but there you have it.
Stop back next week for another exciting edition of 5 Questions. I really need theme music for this thing...
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
This isn't the first time I've found myself on the wrong end of a Natosphere winter mini-controversy. For a time last year, I was an ardent supporter of Jim Bowden's GM prowess. Of course, I was a pretty big Vanilla Ice fan for awhile back in 7th grade, too. What can I say? Sometimes you bet on the wrong horse.
This year, the blogs are all a-tumult over whether the Nats' inaction in the free agent market is a sure sign of the team's unwillingness to spend the money to compete. Today, even Tom Boswell joined the fray with an excellent column about the perils of spending too little on a respectable team in 2007. I agree with Boswell that the Nats' lack of spending this offseason can harm the fanbase in the short term.
However, I disagree with some of the commentary I've seen out there on the blogs that this offseason's inaction is an indication of a longer-term lack of commitment to the success of the Nationals. Yesterday, I posted my opinion on this site and others that it is simply too early in the life of the franchise and the reign of the Lerners to be so alarmist. Today, I was accused of "hyperbolic condescension." There may be something to that, I guess, so let me restate.
Some people seem to have lost sight of the fact that this is the kind of offseason that we should have had LAST year. The pain was postponed because Jim Bowden was auditioning for other GM jobs and was operating with no plan or oversight. Remember all those 6 month contracts that he kept getting from MLB to be the Interim GM? Remember when it looked like he might get the Red Sox GM job, a post Bowden described as a "dream" job? What would any of us have done but go all out?
That's all changed now. The Lerners own the team, Kasten is in charge and Bowden has job security. There is no way that Ted Lerner and his partners paid $450 million for this team only to run it into the ground. When they say they have a plan, I believe them. As the old adage goes, "when you're in a hole, stop digging." The Nats are in an MLB-created hole. The first thing to do is spend the available cash on the areas that have suffered the most neglect, namely the minor leagues and scouting infrastructure.
As commenter Ruben aptly said today: "the price of poker has gone WAY up" this offseason. He's right. Mid-tier players are getting insane deals down in Florida this week. I'm glad that the Nats are sitting this hand out. Part of following a plan is taking the short-term steps to acheive those long-term goals. If the Nats need to suck for a year to wait for the new stadium revenue to arrive and fiscal sanity to return to the free agent market, then so be it. I'd much rather see the team ready to go on a huge signing spree in 2008 than be saddled with Guzman-esque contracts signed out of desperation in the RFK years.
And maybe that's where I see things differently than some others. When I watch the Nationals I feel like I'm on the ground floor of something that will be very special in a few short years. To me, the wins and losses aren't as important at this stage; what matters is that the franchise is on steadier footing with each passing year. In 30 years, I want to be that old crony at the park swapping stories about the old days in the early 2000s. We waited 33 years for the game to come home. What's one more season of losing?
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
I've been travelling. I've been sick. I've been working my ass off. I haven't been posting. Lather, rinse, repeat.
My newsreader is chockablock full of great posts about the Nats' inaction at the Winter Meetings in Florida. The prevailing opinion seems to be as follows: "that dastardly Jim Bowden is at it again. I can't believe he's not making deals! Look at all those deals the other teams are making whilst not dealing with our team! That boob Stan Kasten! Doesn't he know that a mediocre team won't sell tickets? What about the 'customer experience?' Doesn't he want me to renew my $200 quarter season plan? I'll show him a thing or two!"
My thoughts: so what? If there was ever a team who needed to spend an offseason away from the buffet table, it was this Nationals team and this 2006-07 offseason. Do you feed a starving man a steak and a bourbon? No, you stick him an IV and feed him some oatmeal. Bud Selig and Major League Baseball left our team for dead in Canada. Washington took the Expos in off the street and is nursing the team back to health.
This team is coming back from near death. The Nationals organization, top to bottom, needs to get healthy before they can start piling on the muscle again. The big bucks simply aren't going to be there until a season or two into the new stadium. Are you going to cry and get mad and go back to the Yankees, Red Sox or other former team if the Nats win 70 games for a year or two?
The team is doing what it should be doing: rebuilding the farm system, adding scouts and opening up new avenues of developing home-grown talent. The last thing I want to see is the Nationals to become baseball's Washington Redskins, annually forsaking the draft to suckle at the withered teat of free agency. See how far that's gotten Dan Snyder?
The time will come to spend judiciously in the free agent market. That time will be when we have decent, sustainable talent at 8 of 9 positions and only need free agency to fill the holes left by injury and contract conflict. To grasp at free agent straws now in hopes of winning 5-10 more games next year is both silly and ruinous. That's how we got into the Soriano mess. Remember Cristian Guzman?
Bear with the Nats. This will be a big-time franchise early in the next decade. But for now, we've got to take the long view. And that could mean settling in for some long seasons. Bring an umbrella.
Picture of RFK in the rain kleptoed from The Washington Post.