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."

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