February 27, 2006

The Value of Investing in the Team

DM over at The Nats Blog has me thinking more about something Nate and I discussed over beers. He's right to ask the question about the trade. What are we buying in our relationship with the Nationals? DM and his crew, as well as the NTP crew, and many others have taken our hard earned dollars and exchanged them for tickets. What does that buy us?

I'm going to start with another statement that I think may continue to make me just as unpopular as last time -- I don't think it buys us a winning team. If exchanging large amounts of money for a winning team was the equation, then the Yankees would be the best team in baseball every year, and the Redskins would have the best team in the NFL. That just doesn't work, and it's not what we're paying for.

How much value can you put on the 'other' parts of baseball? In a perspective that I'm sure will drive some fans up the wall, I go to baseball games because I love being there. Baseball lets me spend some time outdoors, with friends, enjoying a cold beverage, and the regular Chipwich in the 8th inning. It gives me something to chat about at Glory Days and lament we can't watch both boobies and baseball at Coyote Ugly. While it's more fun to watch a win, it's not the only reason to be there -- in particular for me.

I don't know statistics. I generally don't care about them. (That's Nate's job). I do know that on a summer night, after a day of work, there is nothing better than sitting at the ballpark and cheering for the team. I might not even pay that much attention on some nights.

DM's right -- the financials of the team are more driven complicated than just the season ticket buy, although I do think that's a major factor. And for the same reason, the relationship with the team is more complicated too. It's not just about wins and losses, it's about the experience with the team.

Are more fans there for reasons other than the intricate nature of the percentages, trades, and moves (and thus the majority of the focus of the Natosphere?). I say yes, and I actually believe it's a significantly greater percentage than we're giving credit for.

Many people are there paying for the fun. I'll grant that everyone's definition of fun varies widely, but I think many more people are there to enjoy it than simply to craft the perfect winning team via great trades and perfect management. Hell, sometimes the fact that we have a crazy manager or a loony GM may result in more fun. I'll never forget Frank calling out the Angels, and I wasn't even there.

So in the end, I've given the Nats my money, I think it's a good long term investment, and to extend my infamous stand -- I think I'm going to get my money's worth.

It's up to each to decide this cost/benefit analysis for themselves.

February 26, 2006

A Shoulder to Cry On

Where have you gone, Darrell Rasner? A Nat-ion turns its lonely eyes to you.. woo woo woo.

New pitcher
Brian Lawrence will miss somewhere between half the season and the rest of his career after sustaining a torn labrum in his pitching arm. Nationals Farm Authority broke the story... ah, the benefits of having an "online journalist" down in Viera. Here's the team's official story, and the WaPo take (citing "leading expert on baseball injuries" Will Carroll.)

Federal Baseball
contributes a post on the injury that I won't try to improve on. He also beat me to the best possible title. Basil points out that this might be the one situation where Jim Bowden, poster-GM for all that is wrong with the Nats, gets away clean, and I tend to agree. The Lawrence-for-Vinny Castilla swap was lauded when it happened, and I was right there lauding along. Brian Lawrence had an injury-free career, all indications are that he passed his pre-trade phyiscal with flying colors, and the Nats weren't doing anything wierd or funky from a training standpoint. So maybe this is just one of those things that happens sometimes. Bad luck all around.

Having said that, watch me proceed to pin this on the Nats front office and training staff. Note well that I have no medical background (but I do watch House) no training (other than being CPR-certified) and no evidence or "sources" to suggest that this is anything other than pure conjecture on my part. And away I go.

The Nats medical staff that failed to detect any problem with Lawrence's shoulder are the same people who apparently misdiagnosed the severity of Jose Guillen's
shoulder injury. The same doctors who thought seriously about putting Jose Vidro back under the knife until Dr. James "Ligament Surgeon of the Gods" Andrews advised a strength-training and conditioning program instead. The staff that questioned the need for Tony Armas's late-season shoulder surgery.

Maybe these were all the right calls. Maybe they were no worse than medically debatable. But I see a pattern here. I don't think the Nats have a top-flight medical staff. Why should they? Everything else about this franchise is consignment store, gently used, retread quality... from the GM to the stadium to the free agents. Why should the doctors be any different? Let's be clear: I don't think the team's medical staff is delivering sub-par care, or that they have a "ride 'em until they drop" treatment philosophy. But I also don't believe the Nats players get the best medical care money can buy.

Even if Lawrence's injury was a fluke, something no medical staff in baseball could have predicted or prevented, I can still lay this at Bowden's feet. In
Tom Boswell's column Trader Jim is quoted as saying "We now have six starters. You want to go into the season with seven because two of them are going to get hurt." Jim Bowden never has any trouble diagnosing the problem, it's just that he keeps coming up with cures worse than the disease. The cures du jour? Over-paying for a free agent pitcher like Pedro Astacio, or trading a commodity like Ryan Church for a middle of the road starter.

Now let's run the names: Claudio Vargas, waived in a roster squeeze. Zach Day, gone for 3 months of the now-departed Preston Wilson. Tomo Ohka, gone for less than three months of the now-departed Junior Spivey. Sunny Kim, waived to call up the now-departed Matt Cepicky. Darrell Rasner, waived to sign Matt LeCroy. Maybe none of these guys was more than a 4th or 5th starter, but they're all on 40-man rosters somewhere. And taken together, they're evidence of why the Nats seem to be constantly short of starting pitching, with nothing but a back-up 1B/C to show for it.

February 22, 2006


I was going to hold off a few days on this, but in light of the twin stories by Rocket Bill and Dave Shenin (Why is it that every news outlet turns into Pravda during Spring Training?) I feel the time is right to kick off "Guzmania 2006: Reuse the Goooz!" my official campaign on behalf of much maligned SS Cristian "Mendoza Line" Guzman.

Now I know I'm opening myself up to endless mockery from the Natosphere, who regard Cristian as a cross between Stalin and Pokey Reese. And I'm not for a second trying to justify Goooz's 4-yr/$16M contract (though honestly, that's not his fault... if P.T. Bowden offered you $4M a year, you'd take it, wouldn't you?) But I've never believed that Guzman deserved to be the whipping boy for everything that's wrong with the Nats front office and coaching staff.

When The Federalist ran his Guzman Prognatstication I submitted a line of .276/.315/.390 for the year, which is less than mediocre but represents a massive improvement over his 2005 line of .219/.260/.314. In retrospect, I was too conservative. If I'm going to go back in the tank for Goooz, I may as well go in the deep end. Here's my revised, offical, Guzmania 2006 prediction:

(BA/OBP/SLG) .282/.324/.406 for a respectable .730 OPS

This is more than an exercise in blind faith. I think Cristian losing weight will help. I think vision correction surgery will help (Want to argue that seeing the ball better won't make anyone a better hitter?) I doubt being "pushed" by Royce Clayton will make any difference at all... and why aren't Royce and Damian Jackson even on the depth chart at shortstop? But most of all, I think replacing Tom McCraw with a real live hitting coach will help.

Last year Guzman struggled at the plate and got advice from McCraw, Barry Larkin, Frank Robinson, Miss Cleo, Robert Redford (he's a Natural) and Bill Ladson. It obviously didn't help, but I think replacing that Greek Chorus with Mitchell Paige will pay immediate dividends. Everyone concedes that Guzman will improve on last year's numbers, the law of averages says it's all but inevitable, but I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Goooz betters his career averages this season, and produces gap-to-gap line drive hits tailor-made for RFK.

Gentlemen (and Ladies), start your mockery!

February 20, 2006

Enlarging Your Staff

Spring is in the air, flowers are blooming, small woodland creatures are procreating like mad, and the Nationals are having confidence issues with the size of their staff. The early concerns out of Spring Training '06: Pitchers & Catchers Edition are all related to the starting staff. Cap'n Hook would like to firm up his staff and increase its size by at least 3.

The top of the rotation is set. Livan Hernandez will start Opening Day vs. the Mets, followed by the newly-bearded John "Still Not Big Nasty" Patterson. After that, it's a crapshoot. The NTP morning line has Lawrence-Ortiz-Drese filling out the rotation, with Jon Rauch in the 'pen as a long reliever and Tony Armas starting the season on the DL with a nasty hangnail.

On the catcher side of things, two-headed back-up catcher Robatt LeFick is getting some work in with Bob Boone. Boone is working with Robert Fick on throwing the ball to second base, a semi-essential catcher skill. Quoth Fick:

"The rap on me is my throwing. [Boone] said he is going to make me an accurate thrower to second base. I have the arm strength, but I haven't had the accuracy. We talked about the correct form. It was different information than I ever heard before."

Which immediately made me think of Rube Baker. Wherefore art thou Tom Berenger? Other disturbing Spring Training tidbits:

  • Joey Eischen dropped 17 pounds because his wife decided to become a professional bodybuilder. Her first mission: Hunt down Wil Cordero and kick his a**!
  • Cap'n Hook acknowledges mistake, admits it was wrong to send Chad Cordero out to close 163 games last season, including the exhibition opener. New plan: Robatt LeFick will split time at back-up closer.
  • Competition for Felix Rodriguez: Nats sign reliever Kevin Gryboski to a minor league deal. Addition by accumulation continues!

Update: Just a Nats Fan has the first sights of Spring Training (mostly bald guys and Japanese bondage.) The Nats Blog's DM posts a thoughtful, well-argued response to Dave's Business of Baseball bombshell.

February 14, 2006

The Business of Baseball

I'd promised this rant to Nate for a while, as it's been stewing in my head for a considerable amount of time. Since I'm struggling to get the wording right so that it doesn't come off like I'm a rich prick who doesn't care about fans, it took a little while. As you read this understand that I'm not rich, and I am a fan. But I'm also a businessman, and that is where I take my perspective.

I'm generally annoyed by the Natosphere's take on season tickets. Every time I read "I threw away my invoice for my 20 game package" it just makes my blood boil. The three main reasons given are these:

1. "The cost increase of a $1 a game is robbery"

2. "The cost increase of a $1 a game for the same/substandard product"

3. "The Nats are going to suck, so I don't want to give the team any money".

Let me start my rant here -- I paid for my 81-game package, and my seats are on the lower deck. Thus, my cost increase was measured in thousands of dollars, not hundreds. Since I own my own company, I buy the tickets for my customers and staff, and use a few with the Triple Play crew. So while it's something the company does
budget for, it's still smarts to pay a big jump. I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for those who are complaining.

Objection One: “"The cost increase of a $1 a game is robbery"

Price increases are the nature of the beast -- this is just what happens. Everyone likes to forget that baseball is, ultimately, a business. If you think anyone in MLB is doing this just for the love of the game, you're nuts -- and naive. Do you pay the same for gas that you did last year? How about food? Is your house worth the same as it was last year? Get over yourselves -- you're going to pay more every single year from now until the day you die for everything, including baseball tickets. If you want to feel better,
remember that I shelled out more than you did anyway. Feel good about that.

Objection Two: "The cost increase of a $1 a game for the same/substandard product"

Now, let's look at the product angle. Ultimately, the Nats on the field aren't the same team any year. I think every one is right in that this year, it's going to be worse than last. And this leads to Bowden -- I agree that the guy has made some really, really weird moves. However, unlike every other GM in the game, he has two things that completely change the game for him. The first -- NO OWNER TO INCREASE HIS BUDGET. Blame whoever you want, but ultimately, the guy is stuck with the budget he has, and no wiggle room at all. Second, he feels unable to make any long-term moves due to the fact that he has no long-term guarantees from the team.

Bowden, could, in fact, screw everyone who comes after him by signing multi-year deals. As GM, he has that right. He has, however, chosen to only take deals that don't restrict whoever gets the job next. This is actually a very honorable thing to do, as he's not restricting his successor. It does mean that for now he's treading water, but that's really the best he can do.

So, in keeping options open for the future, and not sticking new owners or GMs with deals they have to live with, he's limited to the kinds of deals he can make -- resulting in a lower quality team in 2006, but wide open options for business whenever the stupidity of ownership is brought under control.

Now, onto Objection Three: "The Nats are going to suck so I won't give the team any money". (Also known as the “I’ll show them” angle)

See my earlier point about baseball being a business. This theory implies that the fan, by not supplying money, is going to make a difference in the operation of the team. Let me bring you to some reality here.

Ultimately, fans are not really the business MLB/The Nationals/our new owner truly care about. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's true. Sports make their money from corporations, who buy the much more profitable luxury boxes, sponsorships, advertising,
broadcasting, and all the other little pieces that go into a Major League team.

Additionally, the team is looking for growth. They are much more concerned about selling the 81-game packages than the 20 game ones. Besides being much more valuable in numbers, it's less work -- one purchaser rather than 3 to manage. That's 1/3 the overhead to manage it. So a price increase of $4 per game in the lower deck, to one customer shouldering the entire thing, is a much better profit margin than a price increase of $1 per game in the upper deck, spread across three customers (meaning three invoices, etc).

Let's also look at their corporate customer -- generally companies give the tickets out, both to staff, customers, etc. This 'quasi-fan', who might not go often, is likely to spend a pile of money at the ballpark, on all the little pieces, since they don't go often. Again, more profitable to the business.

Have some perspective on the business of MLB, and this all makes more sense.

This isn't to say that all owners don't care about the game. But as our friend Danny in Landover has proven, ownership is in it for the cash, not for the fans. If you want to truly feel like you're being used for your pocketbook, an overnight delivery company has their name on a stadium in Maryland you can drop your cash into.

So here's the business of this. I'm putting my money into the Nats, and I think you should too.

First off, there is the basic premise that before we didn't have baseball at all, and I'd rather have it than not. Thus, the cash machine must be paid. But more importantly, there is the business.

What we really want from the Nats is quality product. The way to get that is to make the situation viable for the owner -- and frankly, an owner that is making money is a good thing for us, and an owner who isn't is a bad thing. Whatever new ownership we get is going to have shelled out an inordinate amount of money for the team. In order for our new ownership to pay that off, the basics of revenue need to be in place. And frankly, the ownership is going to be stuck with whatever mess they are handed. (I'll point out that for all of you Bowden critics, his moves have one overriding principle -- no long term mess). The owner needs that machine to start returning money on his investment, and the part we control is the part that is fueled by attendance. Remember, the stadium debacle in the DC Council is all related to money. Everything in this ultimately boils down to dollars.

I commented earlier that the smaller ticket plans are not a core part of MLB’s business. That's true, but no business is ever going to turn down the revenue. More money in the coffers is a good thing for the business, and ultimately, good for the success of baseball in

So swallow hard, renew your tickets and do your small part for better baseball in D.C.

February 12, 2006

The Long Pitch Goodbye

Part 3 of 3 (Read Part 1; Part 2)

Jim Bowden. I was sure that he was the key. With Randy St. Claire out of the loop, Eddie Rodriguez in the hospital and Bob Boone warming up pitchers in that big bullpen in the sky, Bowden was the only one left who could be responsible for Darrell Rasner’s disappearance. I needed answers, and fast, the delicate balance of booze and pills that had been keeping me going for the last day and a half was beginning to wear off.

Bowden’s office was empty and dark, a pile of old
Cincinnati Reds rosters scattered across his otherwise spotless desk. But I knew from chatting up one of his secretaries that Bowden kept a condo just off Highway A1A. If he hadn’t skipped town yet, I was betting he’d be there. To cover all my bases I phoned Bill Roquette, a quasi-journalist for the local rag and one of my regular snitches, and asked him to keep an eye on Melbourne International Airport. My per diem didn’t cover airfare.

Minutes later I was crossing the 404 into Satellite Beach. Jim Bowden’s condo was on the top floor of a three-story garden-style complex. His cherry red
Miata with the distinctive BIGRED1 license plate was parked across two spaces in the lot. I bounded up the stairs to Bowden’s unit. Lowering my shoulder I drove through the door with technique that would have done my old high school football coach proud. Probably should have checked to see if it was locked first. The door exploded out of its frame and I tumbled through the doorway, skidding to a stop in the middle of Jim Bowden’s living room.

The room had once been tastefully decorated. Now every flat surface was covered with life-size color photos of aging sluggers, washed up pitchers and past their prime utilitymen.
Sammy Sosa was there, as were Frank Thomas and Steve Finley. Darren Dreifort, Paul Abbott and Damian Moss occupied an entire wall. And Carlos Febles, Royce Clayton and Jeff Reboulet stretched down the hallway toward the bedroom. In the midst of it all stood Bowden, nattily attired in an open collared silk shirt and black leather pants, clutching a half-full duffel bag. “Anyone ever teach you to knock?” he asked.

It was a fair question, but one I had no interest in answering. Instead, I asked if he’d seen Darrell Rasner around. I wasn’t expecting what happened next, but I’d lost all capacity to be surprised. “Rasner!” Bowden snapped, “That’s all I hear anymore! Where’s Darrell Rasner? What happened to Darrell Rasner? Night and day. When did Darrell Rasner become Roger Flippin’ Clemens, that’s what I want to know. You’d think I’d traded Wilkerson for Soriano all over again! You want to know where Rasner is? He’s gone, adios, auf wiedersehen, goodbye! Tonight Darrell Rasner
sleeps with the Yankees!”

Jim Bowden was becoming seriously unhinged. “I needed a roster spot, so I took his! Just like Vargas and Kim. Robinson wasn’t going to pitch them anyway! They weren’t corn-fed Iowa farm boys with ten years of big league experience!” By now Bowden’s eyes had gone glassy and he had that thousand yard stare endemic to combat veterans and shell-shocked middle relievers.

“I’d trade every pitcher in our farm system for a guaranteed thirty homer guy. It’s like McGwire said to that Simpson kid, ‘Do you want to know the terrifying truth? Or do you want to see me sock a few dingers!’ Chicks dig the long ball, baby!!! You think Boston would have cared if I’d rebuilt the farm teams?! You think Cincinnati is looking for a guy who can stockpile young arms? In that ballpark?! Hell no!!!”

That made sense, in a deranged way. But what did it have to do with Boone and Rodriguez? “They were in my way!” Bowden ranted. “Boone was always whining about devoting two roster spots to back-up catchers. He kept harping on me, ‘Go get a real catcher, we need a real catcher, you might as well just put sheet of plywood behind home plate!’ I found his lack of faith disturbing… terminally so.” And Eddie Rodriguez? “Eddie was a Nervous Nelly! He kept coming at me with crossed out lineup cards. ‘I can’t do it!
There’s too many of them! This will never work!’ He wanted me to keep Rasner and waive one of my second basemen! Can you imagine?!”

But why send two guys after Rodriguez… a lefty and a righty? “What?” Bowden seemed momentarily distracted. “Two? I just sent
Bernie Castro. I had to give him something to do; he’s not even on the depth chart! He’s a switch-hitter, you know. Super Toolsy!” So there it was. All the lies, all the intrigue and back-stabbing… all part of Jim Bowden’s insane quest to maintain infield depth. Nothing left now but to bring him in. Unfortunately Bowden had other ideas.

As I moved towards him Bowden dropped the duffel bag to reveal a snub-nosed .38 caliber pistol. “Can’t stop now, I’m on my way to the
Dominican. There’s a kid down there who could be the next Cristian Guzman!” I weighed my options. I wasn’t getting paid enough for this, but I owed it to Eddie to try and stop him. I lunged, he fired, and I reconsidered the biological underpinnings of heroism. Then I slept…

When I came to I felt remarkably good for a man with a bullet hole in his shoulder and a lump on his head. Seems Trader Jim had offered me the butt end of his pistol on my way down, just before he hopped a flight to the Caribbean. I made a mental note to inform the
local paper that Bill Roquette fabricated most of his stories.

A week later I was back on my feet and on my way back to Miami Beach. I was looking forward to sipping a few mojitos, and maybe doing a little people watching along Collins Avenue. You can imagine my surprise when I opened my office door to find a gaggle of waiting Washington Nationals fans. “We’re looking for one of our infielders,
Jamey Carroll…”

February 11, 2006

The Long Pitch Goodbye

Part 2 of 3 (Read Part 1)

Daylight streamed in through the curtains I’d neglected to close the night before. Hadn’t seemed important at the time, but it sure did now. My head pounding like Ryan Church against an outfield wall, it took me a moment to identify my surroundings. There it was; the desperate Washington Nationals fans; the missing pitcher, Darrell Rasner; my encounter with Trader Jim Bowden; the bottle and a half of Johnnie Walker Black.

I massaged my throbbing temples and debated a plan of attack. Bowden had suggested I talk to Assistant GM Bob Boone, but I wasn’t eager to return to the funhouse that was the Nationals front office. Not until I had more to go on. As it happened, I had an in with the Nationals coaching staff. I knew Frank Robinson’s Bench Coach,
“Fast Eddie” Rodriguez from his days as a slick-fielding shortstop at Miami Dade South Junior College. It was just plain bad luck that he was drafted by the Orioles just about the same time as another shortstop. Eddie could have been a contender.

After a quick breakfast of
Pepto and Tastykakes I put in a call to Rodriguez. He seemed somewhat surprised but pleased to hear from me. I suppose it had been awhile. We agreed to meet for dinner at Eddie’s place down in the Keys, but first I wanted to talk to Randy St. Claire. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to go right to the Nationals Pitching Coach, but the shortest distance between two points was never my style. Unfortunately, when I got in touch with St. Claire our conversation was brief.

“Darrell Rasner? You’re asking about Darrell Rasner?!? They expect me to make a pitching staff out of
Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas, Jr. and Ryan Drese. I can pitch better than Tony Armas, Jr.! You think I have time to worry about Darrell Rasner? Hell, I couldn’t pick the kid out of a lineup!” So much for doing things the easy way.

Calling Eddie Rodriguez’s place down in
Marathon a fishing shack would be insulting to fishing shacks everywhere. It was a rough-hewn, tumbled-down bungalow. Martha Stewart would have run screaming for a Motel 6 at the sight of it. But after the long drive down from Viera, the place looked as inviting as a feather bed. I could hear strains of a Caribbean Series play-by-play announcer through the open windows and there was a hint of fresh conch stew on the breeze. I should have known something was wrong.

The door swung open at my first knock. Through the neat living room I could see Rodriguez slumped over the kitchen table. It was still too early to be dead drunk, and he’d never been that kind of guy anyway. I rushed in, trying to focus on Eddie while still staying alert for the sound of other people in the house. When I reached the kitchen I could hear Eddie drawing slow, ragged breaths. His eyes were closed and blood was slowly pooling around a stack of half-filled out lineup cards. Seems like the ambulance was there before I’d even finished dialing the 911 operator.

Lucky for Eddie
Fishermen’s Hospital was close by, and the doctors were able to stabilize him. It was just after 1 am when a young trauma surgeon found me dozing in the lounge. After assuring me that Eddie was on the road to a full recovery he paused, and almost to himself he said, “It’s the strangest thing… he was stabbed eight times, and I’d swear two people did it.”

I was more than a little groggy from chasing
NoDoz with vodka shots, so I asked the doctor to repeat himself. “Look, I’m no pathologist,” he said, “but it looks to me like half the stab wounds were made by a right-hander, and half by a lefty.” I resisted the temptation to tell the doc that that’s just how Eddie would have wanted it. Instead I thanked him for his good work and attempted to feign sobriety as I slouched back to my car. Lots of cops around hospitals in the wee hours of the morning, and I didn’t have time to waste in the drunk tank. I had a date with an Assistant GM.

Driving drunk is bad. Driving drunk at night is worse. Driving drunk at night over water while intermittently popping caffeine pills is so
monumentally stupid as to transcend conventional notions of right and wrong. Needless to say I used up several lifetimes worth of good karma in the span of a few hours. But I had to get back to Viera. I needed to see Bob Boone. Whatever was going on with this Rasner kid clearly transcended the coaching staff. It was time for a front office shake-up.

It was just before 7 am when I pulled into the Space Coast Stadium parking lot. The Smokehouse Turkey security guard was gone, his swivel chair cool to the touch. Bob Boone’s office was easy to identify, every light blazing in the gray post-dawn. I barged through the door, hoping for a combination of surprise and intimidation. He was beyond both.

Bob Boone was hanging from an exposed ceiling beam, one leg of what looked to be a pair of warm-up pants fixed to the beam, the other wrapped tight around his neck. An overturned swivel chair lay on the ground behind his desk. On his still-lit monitor, a four-sentence note: “I can’t do it. I can’t make Robert Fick a big league catcher. No one can. I’m so sorry.”

So was I. I was running out of ideas. Standing beside Boone’s desk, I gazed vacantly out at the stadium as my thoughts spun. Bowden…

The Long Pitch Goodbye

Part 1 of 3

Sunshine is what Florida sells. Sunshine, warm breezes, palm trees and the kind of pure, white sand beaches that haven’t been seen since before the Everglades were plowed under and paved over, if they ever existed at all. Thanks to the tourism industry even the clockwork monotony of our afternoon thunderstorms is a selling point. But not everyone down here spends their days sipping mojitos and shopping along Collins Avenue. Some of us have to work for a living. That’s why I was at my desk when they shuffled in.

They had the tell-tale pasty whiteness of Northerners, and the perpetual squint of people who spent too much of their lives in out of the sun. But the outfits were the dead giveaway. Baseball
jerseys or polo shirts over pleated khakis, shorts that were too baggy to be anything but utilitarian, the sort of Velcro sandals favored by toddlers and stoned college kids. And everywhere Curly Ws… Washington Nationals fans.

I had seen a few before, last spring and summer, when they were the
trendy new thing. But as summer faded into fall so had the Nats, and fashion, ever fickle, moved on to the next sports logo. But these folks weren’t behind the times trendsters. It showed in their Wilkerson and Loiaza jerseys, last year’s batting practice warm-ups, blue and red DC caps. These were legitimate fans. And they had a very real job opportunity for me.

“We’re looking for one of our pitchers, Darrell Rasner. He’s gone missing, and pitchers and catchers are due to report to Viera in less than a week. He’s one of our best young arms. Can you find him?” I had to think about it. I was a Marlins man by trade, but hell, their entire 2006 season was shaping up to be an extended Spring Training, so I wasn’t going to miss much there. And business was always slow in the weeks between the Superbowl and Daytona. So I took their money, and their case.

Florida in February is everything you never see in the brochures. We still get our warm, sunny days, but they’re mixed in with days when the air never quite loses that morning chill and the sky takes on the dull leaden color of month-old chewing gum. Even the thunderstorms are sullen, half-hearted affairs. It was shaping up to be that kind of day when I set off to look for the Nationals errant pitcher.

The best way to find a missing ballplayer is to be sure you know where they aren’t. So I embarked on a search of every strip club and dive bar between Palmetto Bay and Palm Shores, in the name of conducting a thorough investigation. After 3 days I’d exhausted all my leads and all my clients’ credit cards, so I decided it was time to pay a visit to the Nationals Spring Training complex in Viera.

If the Florida Chamber of Commerce had its way, the highway exit to Viera would be unmarked. Every negative cliché, the strip malls, the chain stores, the Disney-fication of suburbia, had been welcomed here with open arms. When
Panera is the paragon of local fine dining, well… the less said the better. The Nationals brass set up shop at Space Coast Stadium. When the Marlins, who play in the worst stadium in professional baseball, abandon a facility that ought to raise red flags. But beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. I parked, locked my car in the deserted lot and strolled into the stadium past a security guard sleeping off the effects of one too many Smokehouse Turkey Paninis.

After bluffing my way past a few secretaries with some fast talk about agents, veteran outfielders, and non-guaranteed contracts I gained access to the inner sanctum, the offices of Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden. Jim Bowden is famous in baseball circles the way Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards is famous in Olympic lore. The man collects nicknames the way dryer sheets collect lint. Trader Jim, P.T Bowden, Bowda, The Cincinnati Kid… and more that aren’t fit to repeat. But say what you will, there are only 30 GM jobs in Major League Baseball, and he’s got one of them. When I slipped into his office he was hunched over his desk, engrossed in a copy of the 2006 Sporting News Fantasy Baseball Handbook, pouring over lists of free agent infielders.

I coughed lightly, and he looked up surprised, shuffling the magazine away like a teenage boy whose parents have arrived home unexpectedly. He was wearing a blue track suit, but I was willing to bet Mike Piazza’s heterosexuality that the treadmill in his office hadn’t seen duty as anything more than a clothes rack this century. I briefly explained the nature of my business.

“Rasper?” Bowden seemed genuinely perplexed, “doesn’t ring a bell. Is he an infielder?” Patiently, I repeated that I was looking for Darrell Rasner, a pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA in his big league debut last season. “Ratner, Ratner… well, if he’s a pitcher he must be around here somewhere. We never dump pitchers. Can’t have enough pitching I always say. Pitching, pitching, pitching!”

It was then that Bowden whipped up his track jacket to reveal his lower torso. Inscribed just above his stomach, in the style of an exceptionally amateur prison tattoo was indeed “Pitching, Pitching, Pitching.” I only got a quick look, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that those Ps might have started out as Bs. The poor guy did put in hard time under Marge Schott.

I told Bowden that there was no sign of Rasner on the 40-man roster, and he was nowhere to be found among the Non-Roster Invitees, but I could tell that with no toolsy outfielders for trade or rent, he was quickly losing interest. “40-man roster? Never heard of it. I mostly handle the signings. Maybe Bob Boone’s in charge of this “roster” thingy. Talk to him.” I beat a hasty retreat before Bowden tried to show me any of the other tricks he learned during his time chained up in Marge Schott’s basement.

I needed a drink. I'd deal with Bob Boone tomorrow...

February 9, 2006

What Le Hell?

I've haven't said anything, but my greatest fear for the Nats this season is an insufficient supply of right-handed backup catcher/first basemen. Thank God Trader Jim finally went out and did something about it. Matt LeCroy was signed to a guaranteed 1-yr, $850,000 contract. The font of groupthink that is the Natosphere is generally supportive.

Twins fan-in-exile BallWonk practically wonks all over the page anticipating LeCroy's offensive potential. CapPun ponders a platoon. Question: don't we have enough guys under contract to platoon every position on the field twice? Distinguished Senators is happy, but that could be because he finally got to break out the monkey flinging poo analogy. The Federalist volumizes, crafting a remarkably workable Star Wars connection. Divided loyalties at backup catcher? Misschatter feels your pain.

Far be it from me to buck the herd. I like LeCroy. The Nats need a jolly fat 1B to replace Carlos "Cheeseburglar" Baerga. I'd say this was a great signing, but Marlon, Robert, Damian, Royce, Bernie, Wiki and Michael might disagree. (What? You think Michael Tucker can't play 1B and catch? He's f****n' toolsy!)

Increasingly desperate attempt to discern the future in the chicken entrails of Trader Jim's transactions have given rise to rampant trade speculation:

  • Marlon + Robert + Matt = Nicky takes a walk.
  • Alf + Damian + Marlon = Adios Vidro.
  • Royce + Damian + Jamey = a Goooz cruise.
  • Sammy + Brandon + Michael = Separation of Church and team.

Moving some or all of these guys might be a good idea. But do we really want Jim "Wilkie for Alf? I'll buy that for $12M!!!" Bowden pulling the trigger? Or maybe JimBo's just spinning off an alternate roster that MLB can move to Vegas next season.

February 8, 2006

Now He's Gone and Done It

Tip o' the cap to the Distinguished Senator for uncovering the latest kick in the groin to Nats fans. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, overgrown children of all ages... Here's Sammy!

It seems like only yesterday (really it was about 2 weeks ago) that I was outlining the Old Yeller solution to our Trader Jim problem. Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their team. You bring the shotgun, I'll bring the shovel.

February 7, 2006


Arbitration, here we come... right back where we started from. C'mon folks, you ought to know the tune by now, sing along. At least the Council had the decency to end this thing here, instead of stringing it along for a few more weeks. Or did they?

DC's favorite politicos went on yakking deep into the night, even after David Nakamura went to bed. Mayor-for-Life Marion "Red Cap, White Nose" Barry was at least as coherent at 11 pm as he had been 12 hours earlier, which ain't saying much. Catania and Fenty were still leading the No-Fun-On-Principle Brigade. I'm pretty sure the pro-baseball council members were drinking under the table. As for the rest of the council, stradling a fence for 15+ hours must be mighty uncomfortable.

JaNF and Capitol Punishment, bless 'em, are live blogging this donkey show. Time for random thoughts:

  • Marion Barry should do public service announcements explaining complicated topics. His views on value engineering (linoleum is cheaper than marble) ought to be widely disseminated.
  • David Catania is not a principled opponent of publicly-funded projects, he is an ass.
  • I may have wildly underestimated Linda Cropp's skill at wrangling the Council.
  • Marion Barry just said baseball money cannot be used to buy toilet paper for our young people.
  • Shut up, Shut Up!, SHUT UP!!!
  • Adrian Fenty is not a principled opponent of publicly-funded stadiums, he is an ass.

Final score: The stadium lease agreement passed the council by a vote of 9-4. Pending MLB's approval of the new terms, we have a stadium!!! (in theory).

February 5, 2006

Natosphere News Roundup

I've been remiss in not highlighting some of the very good stuff going on in other Nats blogs this week, especially since I've been reduced to fantasizing about alternate, Bowden-less universes. It may not be breaking news, but if you've been too lazy to check it out, it's news to you:

Ballwonk has
photographic evidence that jerseys over dress shirts is a bad look for everyone, even pro ballplayers. Of course, it looks good on you Jose!

Banks of the Anacostia spent a day attempting to use the
power of positive graphing to get Jose Vidro traded, and followed that up with an inside look (courtesy of Baseball America) at the Nats questionable "strategy" for their 3 first round draft picks. Here's the gist: don't expect to see any of this years picks in DC in September, and be grateful to see them anywhere in the organization by the time the new stadium opens.

Curly W has an update on the
disjointed mess that is the Nats middle infield. It's bitter and jaded; I highly recommend it. Clearly Brandon's transition to the dark side of the Natosphere is complete. Any day now I expect him to become more powerful than we could have possibly imagined.

Federal Baseball has stumbled upon the kind of
cookie cutter format that can carry a blogger for months. Sure he stole the idea from the Oriolistas, but I don't begrudge him that. I just wish I'd thought of it first.

Just a Nats Fan continues to have the most
comprehensive coverage of le affair du stadium, for you masochistic types. Me, I miss the lighthouses.

Nasty Nats wins the rarely awarded Dennis Quaid Cameo prize. Stay tuned next week to see if he turns two by working in a Randy Quaid reference.

Nationals Enquirer is becoming one of my favorite sources for quick hit Nats news, with production values that make Nats Triple Play look like Mrs. Orshansky's 2nd grade class project. Be sure to keep an eye out for their regular "Enquirer Answers the Mailbag!" feature, which could frankly use just a touch more snark.

OMG gets the prize for the most concise analysis of Jim Bowden's management philosophy, and special props for gratuitous Simpsons usage.

Meanwhile, I assume the Nationals Farm Authority boys are still busy redecorating their new home, because they haven't weighed in on these signings. They are however, doing a stellar job keeping the increasingly bloated Nats Big Board up to date.

February 4, 2006

Playing the Expectations Game

Watson's review of the Bon Jovi concert got me thinking about the nature of fan expectations. The concert, which I enjoyed, was widely declared subpar by local media outlets (or at least DC101 and the guys in my office.) The criticism could be grouped into two camps: A) they played too much new stuff and neglected the fan favorites; or B) they just didn't seem to put 100% effort into the show. Whether or not these are fair criticisms of Thursday night's concert, they are emblematic of two quick routes to losing a fanbase: fostering unrealistic expectations, or failing to meet realistic ones. I think the Nationals are guilty of both.

Fostering unrealistic expectations is tough to avoid, because it is a natural by-product of the intersection of success and fandom. Having seen excellence once, fans naturally conclude that success is a reasonable outcome, and expect to see it again. Returning to the concert comparison, Bon Jovi is simultaneously blessed and saddled with an iconic body of work from the 1980s. Most fans would be happy if the band never played anything produced in the 21st century. But they have a new album out, with songs they're probably every bit as proud of as
Slippery When Wet. So it's unrealistic to think they won't promote their new work, and frankly, they're probably sick to death of playing Livin' on a Prayer anyway.

The Nats improbable run to the top of the NL East last season engendered what ex-Fed chair Alan Greenspan might have labelled irrational exuberence in Nats fans, skewing our view of the team. Our opinions of players became inextricably linked to memories of clutch performances and 1-run victories. Nats fans look at Jamey Carroll and see heart, hustle and unselfish play. The rest of the league sees a AAAA utility infielder. If Rick Short really had the potential we wanted him to have, some major league team would have offered him a contract before he left for Japan. Even Brad Wilkerson, a solid everyday player, was undeniably ill-suited for the leadoff role the Nationals needed him to play.

Falling short of legitimate expectations is a much more damning sin. It implicitly demeans your fans, suggesting that they have nothing better to do than pay to watch your half-assed performance. And while that may not be a fatal blow to an established organization, it is near-suicidal for a franchise with tenuous ties to even its most ardent supporters. I don't think Nats fans really expect the team to compete for the NL East crown in 2006. They'd probably even accept a little regression with good grace. But the Nats offseason under Jim Bowden provides no roadmap for future success, and no plan more sophisticated than digging an infinite number of holes in the blind hope of striking oil.

No matter how bone weary Bon Jovi is of
I'll Be There For You, if they're going to charge people to hear it they need to put out 100% effort. And since the Nationals most assuredly are charging for the 2oo6 season, somone in the front office owes us a reason to watch apart from morbid curiousity.

February 3, 2006

NTP Rocks out to Bon Jovi

So the NTP crew, accompanied by Lisa and Emily, rocked out with Bon Jovi at the MCI Center on Thursday night. This was the Have a Nice Day tour supporting their new album. The show was a good time and we had a blast.

First off, none of us is a huge Bon Jovi fan. We all own their greatest hits and we know their songs but none of were really into the new album. Our real connection to Bon Jovi is that they are one of our bar bands. Whenever we’re a couple of beers deep and I find a juke box you can bet money I’m playing “You Give Love a Bad Name” or “Livin’ on a Prayer”. We then proceed to sing at the top of our lungs along with the rest of the bar. When I heard they were coming to town I polled the group and we decided we needed to see them. Dave has seen them before but that’s his story to tell.

Our seats were on the floor in section 4. We were about three quarters of the floor back from the stage on the outside aisle. The seats were pretty good. We had plenty of room, good sightlines, and with the giant TV screens every band uses it was a good place to be. Lisa and Emily were sitting behind us in the first section of the bowl.

The show started out with a bang. The lights came down and the crowd went nuts when we saw figures walk on stage. When the lights came up Jon was no where to be seen. Then we turned around and he was singing from a platform at the sound board. He was about 15 rows from us and closer than that to Lisa and Emily. They opened with one of their new tunes but it sounded good. After he finished, security escorted him up to the stage and he walked right by us. Nate gave him a solid high five. He was wearing a ton of makeup, but it was more for the TV than a tribute to their glam days.

The set list was predictably heavy on the newer material. The group is pimping their new album and they seemed to put a lot more energy into their newer stuff than their old classics. At some points it even seemed like Jon was mailing it in, but as Lisa pointed out “at one point he said that he was tired and later Richie asked him how he was doing, and he said he was holding up”. I also saw him coughing during some of the songs so maybe he was under the weather.

The crowd was an interesting mix too. You had teeny-boppers that weren’t alive when Slippery When Wet came out, you had twenty-somethings catching them live for the first time (myself included), and you had thirty and forty-somethings reliving their glory days in their old concert t-shirts. The crowd didn’t put out as much energy as I was expecting. I think it had something to do with the set list. “You Give Love a Bad Name” was the second song. While it was nice to give the crowd what they want early, there wasn’t any momentum behind it. It’s like having a death scene for a main character at the beginning of a movie. It doesn’t give you the payoff you want. The band did make up for that with a great version of “I’ll Be There for You” and a real crowd pleaser in “Raise Your Hands”. The encore was the acoustic version of “Livin’ on a Prayer” that morphed into the album version with the audience singing the tune. It had the potential to be one of those transcendent concert moments but it didn’t quite make it. Still it was a great number. The final number was “Wanted Dead or Alive”. This was another potential great moment but it didn’t quite come together. Jon let the crowd sing most of the words and the audience didn’t really hold up their end of the bargain.

In retrospect, I’m really sorry that I missed Bon Jovi in their heyday. I really do enjoy their music and I saw flashes during last nights show of what it must have been like when they were in their prime. Still the band did deliver on a good show and I think the album name really does fit. I think we all can say we had a nice day.

The Twilight Offseason

Imagine if you will, a parallel offseason. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Offseason.

In this offseason Jim Bowden retained Brad Wilkerson saying, "Wilkie is a valuable and versatile player on the field, and is becoming the new face of the franchise in the community." An offseason where Rick Short and Jamey Carroll were signed to guaranteed minimum contracts "because their hustle and sound fundamental play will serve as an example and inspiration to the team." Long winter months when Michael Tucker, Daryle Ward and Royce Clayton were signed to minor league deals "as veteran insurance policies against the struggles of our established starters and mentors to our developing youngsters."

Bowden resigned Esteban Loiaza for 3 yrs/$18M, noting that he expects the free agent market to be out of control, and in that light "this contract is a smart investment is a veteran pitcher who was invaluable to our rotation." Other veteran starters were signed to minor league deals with Spring Training invites to compete with Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch for the 5th spot in the rotation. Felix Rodriguez headlined a group of veteran relievers offered minor league contracts to supplement a Stanton, Eischen, Majewski, Ayala, Cordero bullpen.

Brendan Harris, Larry Broadway, Bernie Castro, Bill Bray, Jason Bergmann and Darrell Rasner were offered Spring Training invites and a chance at a spot on a 25-man roster uncluttered by redundant position players and reclamation pitching projects.

Now, if you dare, compare that parallel 40-man roster to the bloated monstrosity that Trader Jim has constructed in reality. And weep.