May 18, 2007

The Birds are Back in Town

Look, I know what you're thinking. The team (despite recent improved play) is lousy. The weather is iffy at best. The stadium is still a dump, and the opposition is almost as pathetic as the home team. So why should you spend your hard-earned entertainment dollars watching two 5th place teams beat up on each other in a 3-game interleague regional (non-rivalry) series?

But here's a better question: Why watch at all? Did you watch Jay Bergmann's almost no-hitter against John Smoltz and the Braves? Why? You couldn't reasonably have expected the rag-tag Nats to best Atlanta's veteran ace. But they did, and topped that by taking two of the next three from the formerly frontrunning Braves. Did you stay up till the wee hours to see Zimmerman's walk-off granny against the Marlins? Okay, probably not. But if you had, you'd be telling everyone about it, and the resulting series sweep of foundering Fish.

Fans, like players, can get tight. They root too hard, want it too much, live and die with every GIDP and blown save. But fans of bad teams have the luxury of rooting loose. We can go to the ballpark and just watch the game unfold before us in all its majesty and farce. It's not that we expect to lose, exactly, it's just that we've made peace with the possibility. The wins really are more sweet, because they aren't taken for granted. Why not celebrate when we throw a roadblock in front of the division-leading Braves? These are our playoffs. Which brings us to the Orioles.

I said everything I had to say on the subject at this time last year. Others have expanded on the theme. Angelos and the Orioles stuck it to DC baseball fans but good. And more than that, Peter Angelos ruined what had been one of the flagship franchises in all of baseball. I don't know if he did it intentionally, or just couldn't help himself, but he did it just the same. So you don't even have to dislike the Orioles to root against them this weekend. You just have to like the Orioles of Powell, Palmer, Dempsey, Ripken and the Robinson boys more than the Orioles of Angelos, Thrift, Duquette and Flanagan. Really, how hard is that?

And on top of everything else, They Killed Barbaro! So...

Once more unto the breach, Nats fans, once more;
Or close up the wall with our injured pitchers!
And baseball fans in Washington that stayed away;
Shall think themselves accursed they were not at RFK.
And hold their fandom cheap while any speaks;
That cheered with us the Battle of the Beltways.

May 12, 2007

Our Long Nationals Nightmare is Over

Win a game, lose a pitcher? Not quite a fair trade, but Nats fans can't really afford to be picky, now can we? It was nice to see somebody else's team implode under the weight of bad defense, ineffective relief pitching and utterly absent bats.

Shawn Hill's elbow problems cost him at shot at the no-hitter, but given his medical history I wasn't expecting him to make 30 starts this season anyway, were you? Still, it's no stretch to say Shawn's been the staff "ace" so far. When he joins J-Patsy on the disabled list (and he will) the Bergmann, Chico, Williams, Simontacchi rotation he leaves behind will be less than imposing. But that's a problem for another day.

Today we celebrate the return of the Nats offense, long thought by the scientific community to be all but extinct in North America. And who was right in the middle of this run-scoring renaissance? That's right folks... Cristian Guzman. 3 for 5 with 3 runs scored. Ok sure, it'll probably be his best line of the season. But, c'mon... GUZMANIA! It's worlds better than BATISTERIA!

Is this instant offense the mystic influence of Lenny Harris? The all-time pinch-hit leader, the veritable Sausage King of Chicago? Maybe, but let's not get carried away by one good outing. Remember, the Nationals touched up Scott Olsen for 10 hits and 5 runs in 5 innings the last time he pitched. Maybe Scotty's just not that good. In any case, while Mitchell Page deals with some fairly scary medical issues, it's nice to know that Lenny is on the case.

May 6, 2007

The Owners are (Still) Cheap, the Stadium's (Still) a Dump and All the Players are Broken (Again)

About half a year ago, in the wake of the new stadium parking garage fiasco, I posted some thoughts on the rush to judge the Lerners. It was too soon, the available evidence was scant and open to conflicting interpretations. But I'm over that now.

Ken Rosenthal's 4-part column on the state of the Nats ownership and front office has provoked volumes of commentary, ranging from thoughtful to downright cursory (but in a good way). I'm a latecomer to this particular pity party, but I do have a few things to say on the subject. Thanks to the wonder of teh internets, and the fact that there's no contemporary Nats news of note anway, I could always backdate this by half a week. I won't, because I'm lazy. But I could.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of cheap in this world. Frugal, thrifty cheapskates are creative thinkers, bargain hunters, and those with a keen understanding of the difference between price and value. Parsimonious, flinty cheapskates are penny wise and pound foolish, they know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. My kneejerk reaction was that the Lerner's must be the former, after all, they are enormously successful businesspeople, they negotiated MLB's labyrinthine ownership audition, and aligned themselves with an established baseball hand in Stanford J. Kasten IV.

Maybe I spoke too soon. Perhaps Stan Kasten is an unwelcome interloper into the tight knit Lerner family. Perhaps, in spite of his best intentions, Stan can't make the improvements that he believes need to be made, in everything from payroll to marketing to food service. Maybe the Lerner's themselves aren't interested in adjusting the hard-driving, penny-pinching financial practices that served them so well in the real estate market, but are ill-suited to the looser, more flexible operational style of a professional sports franchise.

The major league payroll has been cut nearly in half. The minimal improvements made to RFK last season seem to be slowly evaporating. The product on the field is, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible, with no prospects for short-term improvement. Stadium parking in 2008 is still a combination of myth and wishful thinking, while the price for the parking we do have this season went up again.. Asking Ronnie Belliard to justify his request for 12 additional bats, to supplement the 36 he already has, is one thing. Having someone in the front office fisk the sunflower and bubblegum budget for Potomac and Hagerstown is something else entirely, something that borders on farcical.

So the Lerner's appear to be willing to put what meager fan goodwill they've accumulated at risk to save a few million in payroll and a few hundred more in snacks. At one time this looked like a defensible if controversial strategy. Sacrifice 2007, build for 2008. And maybe it still is. But, as our Distinguished colleague observed, I'm a bit less sanguine than I was this time last week.

While all this is going on, cracks are beginning to show in the team's paper-thin on-field facade. Just as Jerome Williams put together a decent outing he went down with a bum ankle. So instead of sending Matt Chico, who's clearly overmatched right now, to Columbus to work on not throwing into the dugout, we have to bring up someone to replace Williams, who will likely be "rehabbing" for the next month. The two leading contenders, Jason Simontacchi and Joel Hanrahan, have been alternating adequate starts with low-grade injuries for the past month. And now, to top it all off John "Big Pansy" Patterson has finally succumbed to his latest/pre-existing arm injury, and will likely need time off as well.

In the words of the not-quite-immortal Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."