A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Plan A

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience,Organization,Personnel,Players — Wigi @ 4:36 pm December 3, 2010

While my ties to Washington baseball are long and deep (and limited only by my middle age), I admit that I did not follow baseball as closely as I do now through the Dark Years. I was an ultra-fanatic as a child, took a thirty-four year break, and became an ultra-fanatic again in the fall of 2004, as the Nats came to town. Certainly there are those among us that followed every baseball season meticulously, but I was not one of them, and I suspect that for the vast majority of Nationals fans, the Dark Years were dark years.

When you’re a ten year-old kid, and you live, eat and breathe the Washington Senators, your focus is on your favorite player – for me, that was Frank Howard. I was only vaguely aware of who Bob Short was, and it was not until late in the 1971 season that I any appreciation at all for what his bumbling ownership meant. From the perspective of a child, he was an adult who had done me wrong, even if I was unaware or incapable of understanding how he had done it. I was hurt, and it was personal.

After Short came Bowie Kuhn, Ray Kroc and Peter Angelos – all three conspiring against me and other Washingtonians to keep baseball out of the Nation’s Capital. Perhaps it isn’t fair to lump all three into the same basket of disdain – after all, Ray Kroc was just trying to save the Padres for the city of San Diego, rather than deny them to Washington. But really, it didn’t matter, since I didn’t have a home baseball team.

When the Nationals came to town in 2004, it was only after Washington and a half-dozen other cities begged and pleaded with Major League Baseball to be allowed into the club, and the city of Washington paid a ransom of over $600 million, in the form of a new stadium. And in many respects, the 2005 Nationals were less than you would expect from an expansion team, since the entire organization had been gutted top-to-bottom. Washingtonians were starved for baseball. We were made to beg to get our team back (and our victory was at the expense of the fans in Montreal). The organization we got in the bargain has proven to be hobbled for what will likely be ten years because of Major League Baseball’s willful mismanagement of the team.

Now that I had a home team to root for again (even though I live 4000 miles away), I looked at baseball differently than I ever had before. Sure, I still had my favorite players, but of equal or even greater import was how the organization ran. For the next four years it ran not well at all. Under the ownership of MLB and then the Lerner family, Jim Bowden was part General Manager, part sideshow barker. His three tenets of management seemed to be to give the fallen a second chance, make a big splash, and “it’s about Jim Bowden, stupid.”

As a Nationals fan who watches the organization, the four major baseball holidays – Spring training, the entry draft, the trade deadline and the Winter Meetings – were times when you could always count on Jim Bowden to come up with something. Even his inaction, such as his inability to trade Alfonso Soriano, was structured to be a Jim Bowden publicity stunt.

More than once, both to friends and in this space, I made the argument that we as Nationals fans should be thankful that we have a team at all. Certainly that is true. But our gratitude should not be confused with blindly accepting the Nationals without looking at them with a critical eye – and I now admit that I was not as critical as I should have been. When SmileyGate broke in 2009 I realized what many before me had been saying – the Nationals were in the midst of an organizational crisis, and a big part of the problem was Jim Bowden.

When Bowden left, and Mike Rizzo became  the General Manager, Nationals fans finally caught a glimpse of what competent organizational management was all about. Rizzo couldn’t be more different than Bowden. Rizzo is all about building a top-shelf major league organization, and came to the position with a great resume’. Rizzo is quiet and thoughtful… and in fact, listening to him speak and trying to make sense of what he says is a bit like listening to Alan Greenspan talk about the economy – he is oracle-like in his obfuscation.

A year and a half with Rizzo at the helm has been just what the doctor ordered for Nationals fans. While the team as a whole has shown only modest progress under his leadership, the Nationals have a top-notch bullpen, and have drafted two of the most highly-touted prospects in many years in the form of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. In addition, other homegown talents such as Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond all made the Nationals in 2010, showing that the organization is indeed growing and maturing. Whatever angst Nationals fans had about the organization during the Bowden years has probably been assuaged.

Until yesterday.

And by yesterday, I mean, the day Adam Dunn signed a four-year contract with the White Sox.

Truthfully, that anxiety has been building since the summer, when it became clear that the Nationals weren’t all that interested in signing Adam Dunn. I think a lot of us thought that the Nationals would come to their senses and sign Dunn, and that the low and/or short-term offer was a strategy to get Dunn at the price they wanted. And perhaps it was, but you would think that Mike Rizzo wouldn’t take that stance without a Plan B.

Actually, I think that it is the other way around – Adam Dunn was Plan B.

Which brings me to the angst. If Adam Dunn was Plan B, what is Plan A?

I think, to most casual (and perhaps serious) observers, Plan A isn’t obvious.

I can tell you this, if Plan A is Carlos Peña or Adam LaRoche, I don’t think the fans are going to be happy. I won’t be happy.

I’ve said this before – I am not a Major League General Manager, and neither are (almost) any of you, so I am not, and you are not qualified to make an informed judgment about the merits of who the Nationals have to play first base. But given that most fans had a strong opinion on whether the Nationals were going to keep Dunn, I think that most fans would agree that Plan A better be some kind of plan. Nationals fans liked 40 home runs and 110 RBIs a season. Nationals fans liked the affection and respect that Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn shared. Nationals fans thought that Dunn made Willingham and Zimmerman and the rest of the lineup better hitters.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

What is different today is that the bar is set a lot higher for Mike Rizzo than it was for Jim Bowden – and rightly so. Nationals fans are done with rebuilding, especially when, from their perspective, the rebuilding is being preceded by demolition. I am willing to take Rizzo’s actions as an indication that one of baseball’s best minds has a plan, and that 2011 will be better (by a lot) than 2010. In the meantime, I think I need to express my expectations.

The only rationale that works for me is that by letting Adam Dunn walk, the Nationals are going to be a better team… and not in three or four years, but the day pitchers and catchers report. Of course, Rizzo isn’t one to articulate his plans to the public – after all, he’s like the oracle. We have to infer his intentions from his actions.

We suffered through Bob Short, and we suffered through thirty-four years of no baseball. We begged for our team and paid the ransom. We put up with the dysfunction of Major League Baseball-as-owner, and the dysfunction of Jim Bowden. As fans and as a community, we’ve been at this for almost fifty years, and for forty-eight-and-a-half of them we’ve gotten the short shrift. I was ready to believe that when Mike Rizzo became GM, that we had finally seen the beginning of a new era.

I want to believe that. But you’ll forgive me if a lifetime of rooting for baseball in Washington has made me cynical.

By letting Adam Dunn go, Mike Rizzo has set the bar very high.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

In Arizona, the Nationals Represent – Part 1 – The Team

Filed under: Organization,Players,Teams — Wigi @ 12:17 pm November 22, 2010

I was trading email last week with Mike Henderson, one of my blogging colleagues. I mentioned to him that even if you discount Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper’s Arizona Fall League performances, it seems that almost every time you look at an AFL box score over the last two years, you see the names of Nationals prospects leading the way. Last year’s Phoenix Desert Dogs won their division, a team that featured not only Stephen Strasburg, but Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Danny Espinosa, Josh Wilkie and Jeff Mandel. Strasburg lead the league in wins and Storen led in saves. This year’s team – the Scottsdale Scorpions – has clinched their division and then went on to win the Arizona Fall League championship. Bryce Harper is the headliner of this team, but other Nationals prospects, such as Derek Norris (who was supposed to play on the 2009 squad, but sat out with a hamate bone injury), Mike Burgess, Steve Lombardozzi, Cole Kimball, Adam Carr, Sammy Solis and Brad Peacock have all made their mark in Phoenix this fall.

Bryce Harper hits a triple into the gap on November 10 against the Peoria Saguraros

Bryce Harper hits a triple into the gap on November 10 against the Peoria Saguraros

Perhaps it was just my perception – after all, most of the various media sources I follow are Nationals-centered. But I watched four AFL games in person this year, and two last year (see here and here), and Nationals fans had plenty to cheer about in all of the games. But rather than blindly trust my perceptions, I decided to find out.

As it turned out, finding out was a bit easier than I imagined. Of course I expected that there would be Nationals representatives in Arizona. Last year’s Desert Dogs were managed by Gary Cathcart and Paul Menhart was the pitching coach, so the Nationals front office was well- represented on the field, and this year’s Scorpions are managed by Randy Knorr, the manager of AA Harrisburg. Finding Nationals representatives wasn’t very hard – they are standing in the dugout. But for the observant Nationals fan, a look around the stands was an even better place to look. In  Scottsdale we happened to look behind us and standing at the top of the section was Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Sitting behind home plate in a Nationals jacket and holding a clipboard and a radar gun was noted scout and noted dad, Phil Rizzo.

I asked Rick Eckstein about the the Nationals success, and whether the Nationals placed a greater emphasis on making the most of AFL. Rick said he didn’t think that the Nationals did anything really different than any other team, but that the Nationals’ success at AFL indicated the strength of the organization at this level. I then asked him about the decision to send Bryce Harper to the fall league. He said that it has been a huge success – Harper has gotten the opportunity to experience a higher level of competition and be exposed to the work habits of other top prospects. On days that Harper doesn’t play, he’s chomping at the bit, pacing in the dugout, and asking questions of his fellow players and coaches, and drinking up the experience.

When I talked to Randy Knorr about the how well Nationals players were doing in AFL, he didn’t necessarily agree with my premise that the Nationals players always seem to be leading the way. In fact, the Scorpions have a great team, and perhaps Knorr was not in a position to single out Nationals players when he manages a team with players from five different organizations. But as the results of the AFL championship game pointed out, it was Nationals players who were leading the way.

Another indicator of the Nationals influence in Arizona is demonstrated in a rather roundabout way. The Scottsdale Scorpions were comprised of players from five teams – The Nationals, Orioles, Rockies, Giants and Diamondbacks. There was always a strong contingent of Diamondbacks fans at the games, and they remember Mike Rizzo from his days with the team. Many of the fans I spoke with saw Mike Rizzo at a number of the early AFL games, as well as Pat Corrales, who was working with the team.

At one point when I was speaking with Randy Knorr, he made the point that one goal for the Nationals in 2011 was to stock the AAA roster with predominantly Nationals prospects. In past years, the team has had to fill the AAA roster with a lot of minor league free agents, and Knorr pointed out that this was an indication of the strength of the Nationals farm system. This is changing, and Knorr thought that the AFL performances over the last two years are an indication of how things are changing within the Nationals organization.

As much as the Nationals organization wants you believe that the Nats aren’t doing anything special in Phoenix, it is hard to argue with the results. Last year’s Desert Dogs went to the final game and this year’s Scorpions won the championship. Nationals coaches managed the teams, and the front office had an everyday presence in Phoenix. You could argue that a lot of the organization’s attention to AFL had to do with their high-profile top draft picks participating in the league, but it has been all of the Nationals players that have been making an impact on the field, not just the Harpers and Strasburgs.

Most Nationals fans focus on what happens in the Major Leagues, and certainly that is the metric that matters the most. But I think it may be hard for many of us to understand how badly pillaged the farm system had been and that it takes many years to turn that around – and that success in the majors is highly dependent on a healthy farm system.

If Arizona Fall League is an indicator, perhaps the Nationals luck is about to change.

Beyond the Bottom Line

Filed under: Fan Experience — Wigi @ 11:11 pm September 27, 2010

In my real life, I own a tour company. I spend a lot of time and effort creating tours for my customers that make for a positive experience from beginning to end. I can’t do anything about rain, or what the wildlife does, but I can make sure that all of the things that are in my control are the best they can be. I choose nice, safe, clean lodging. The vendors that offer services are friendly and helpful. I stand behind my product, and if anything ever goes wrong for my guests, I make it right… but more importantly, I do everything I can to make sure that nothing goes wrong in the first place.  My guests pay their hard-earned money to get a premier experience. If something interferes with that, I am going to fix it for them.

I would expect none of this would be beyond the grasp of the Lerner family or the Washington Nationals organization as a whole. I am sure that at some abstract level, they would completely agree with me. However, from a practical standpoint, the Nationals organization either doesn’t get it, or, more disturbingly, gets it, but doesn’t care.

The Nationals fan experience at games like last night are transformative. Transformative in the sense that fans who experience the kind of rudeness, discomfort and humiliation that occurred last night (and also the Opening series this year) choose not to come back. The cynical view of last night’s events might be that most Nationals fans just stayed home, but really, that just proves the point. Why would a thinking fan subject himself or herself to an evening like last night, if you could just stay home and avoid it all? The outcome last night – the fan experience – was completely foreseeable, and it had nothing to do with winning and losing.

Mark Zuckerman wrote that if the team is so embarrassed, they should start winning. And yes, at one level, that is definitely an answer. A better team would be more competitive, draw more fans, and represent Washington better than the thousand or so of us did tonight – and honestly, there wasn’t much to cheer for. But the problem is much bigger than just winning. The problem is that the fan experience is toxic. The thousand of us that were there are presumably the Nationals best customers. We’re the ones that come out on a night that threatens rain, at the end of the season when there is (apparently) not even pride to play for anymore. Not only did we see a team that was just going through the motions, the thousands of Phillies fans in attendance berated us… to our faces… in our own home.

When Nationals Park was being built, Stan Kasten emphasized how important the entire fan experience was. You can have the best concessions, the best merchandise, the best parking and public transportation available, and yes, all of those things contribute to the positive fan experience. But none of that matters if your customers go home insulted.

The Nationals will probably point out that it isn’t fair to hold them responsible for the actions of a few (thousand) Phillies fans. Perhaps not. But my response would be, regardless of whether it is fair or not, can the Nationals afford to allow this to happen with every Philllies series?

If I were the owner of the Nationals, I would do everything in my power to insure that it doesn’t happen again. As much as some fans might like to after last night’s game, you can’t really restrict sales to just local people. The solution is to sell out the Nats – Phillies games. Obviously, making the Nats more competitive on the field would be a good start, but that isn’t going to solve this problem for years. The Nationals need a solution right now. Better local marketing, targeted at the Phillies series would help. Advance sales to local organizations…  heck, if you have to give Nats – Phillies tickets away to every school kid with a B average just to get their parents to drag them down to the stadium…  for  heaven sakes, DO IT! There should be 40,000 fans in the stadium for every Nats-Phillies game, and 39,600 of them should be Nationals fans. Will it cost the Nationals money? Of course. But at least it won’t cost the Nationals fans.

Phillies fans are Nationals customers nine days a year, and they couldn’t care less about the Nationals. Nationals fans like me are customers every day of the year. We purchase Nationals merchandise and wear Nationals logos on our clothes, write about the team in our blogs, read everything we can get our hands on and travel long distances to see our team on the road. Nationals fans have done more than their share. We’re the ones the team should be trying to make happy.

Sometimes when you run a business, you have to do more than meet your best customers half way. Sometimes that means doing things out of the ordinary. Sometimes that means losing some money. Sometimes that could mean losing a lot of money.

What Nationals fans want right now… today… is a stadium full of Nationals fans at every Nationals – Phillies game.

We don’t care how you do it.

Mining Entertainment From the End of the Season

Filed under: Fan Experience — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 9:21 am

The Phillies magic number is one.

Not that I care about the Phillies winning the division – actually, I care about the Phillies NOT winning the division – but here is a way that Nationals fans can glean a little satisfaction from the last six games.

  1. The Nationals have to sweep the Phillies. Sounds like a tall order. Sounds like hitting the lotto. But for my pie-in-the-sky improbable end to the 2010 season, it has to happen. If the Nats do their part, the best the Phillies can do is back into the division title with a Braves loss, which brings me to…
  2. The Braves have to sweep the Marlins. They are playing in Atlanta, so there is some home-field advantage there. On the down-side, the Braves didn’t look like giant-killers during their visit to DC, but you have to admit, a Braves sweep of the Marlins is a more likely outcome than a Nats sweep of the Phillies. If those two things happen, then…
  3. The Braves have to sweep the Phillies in Atlanta over the weekend. The Braves have three games to get their giant-killer game in order before facing the them.
  4. The icing on the cake would be a Nats sweep of the Mets over the weekend.

If those four things happen, the Braves and Phillies have to play a one-game playoff, the Nats finish with 73 wins and a seven game winning streak (also, eleven of their last twelve).

In the Nats favor is today’s weather. The Nationals and Phillies have some historic rain-enhanced games in their history. For it to work in the Nationals favor, they have to get the game in, but they need a long and messy rain delay that chases all but a hundred of us fans from the stands. A rainout doesn’t work – a doubleheader just about guarantees at least one Phillies win.

Is that going to happen? Are you going to win the Pick-Six at Santa Anita? Probably not.

I think it says something a little sad about the Nats season that I’m relying on the least-likely scenario to bask in some schadenfreude. If the Nats had won just one or two more of their games against the Phillies this season, this series would be a critical one all the way around. The Phillies have to be liking their chances. Even if the outcomes were coin-flips, they only need one heads out of six.

But you gotta admit, it would make for one awesome end of the season.

Trade Deadline Post Mortem

Filed under: Media,Organization,Personnel,Players,Teams — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 2:56 pm August 2, 2010

I am not a GM, nor do I play one on television… so I don’t have (an informed) opinion about how the Nationals did leading up to the trade deadline. Certainly the two trades the Nationals made make a lot of sense, and in terms of Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, I think it was definitely a case of selling high.

What bothers me about it all is that the pundits seem to be critical of Mike Rizzo for sticking to his guns with regard to the trade value for Dunn (and presumably Willingham). In Rizzo’s blog, he addresses (and essentially dismisses) the criticism.

I can’t help but wonder if the team were some other… say, the Yankees or the Phillies, or the Cubs… whether the “conventional wisdom” would be so strongly lined-up against the Nationals and Rizzo.

Does (the collective) baseball somehow believe that the Nationals don’t deserve to be shrewd players in the marketplace?

Rizzo is right: if the criticism is that the other teams didn’t get Dunn at the price they wanted to pay, that is their problem.

(Next) Spring is in the Air…

Filed under: Fan Experience,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 11:36 am July 29, 2010

This isn’t much fun for me.

Back in 2006, when Jim Bowden was shopping around Alfonso Soriano, we watched and waited every day… waiting for news… waiting to hear about the trade that would send our reason to come to the ballpark off to a contender, in exchange for prospects. Soriano smiled and worked hard, swiped bases, swatted home runs, and threw out runners from left field as if he was turning the 4-6-3, and we all knew that it was a charade. Soriano wasn’t staying, Bowden was asking for the moon, and Nationals fans pretty much knew that the rest of the season was really about showcasing the healthy trade pieces, and not about putting a winning team on the field. We heard the whispers, we read the rumors. Major League Baseball’s contenders were the vultures, and the Nationals were carrion. Bowden stood between them, looking to strike a deal that would send the choicest parts away, for a handful of magic beans.

No, July 2006 wasn’t much fun.

In a lot of respects, 2010 is worse. The Nationals aren’t quite dead,  but they’re not well, either. The vultures are circling, looking to pick up The Last Piece, in exchange for prospects. Bowden is gone, replaced by Mike Rizzo. He, too is asking for the moon. He’s asking for the moon for Adam Dunn. He’s asking for the moon for Matt Capps. Who knows who else is in the trade mix. One of the things that makes it worse is how ubiquitous Twitter has become. Rumors and whispers travel the InterTubes in nearly instantaneously in 140-character chunks.

The trade deadline is the point where most baseball fans (and all Nationals fans) have to come to grip with the fact that the sweet dreams that are born in Florida and Arizona in the spring are dead. General managers knew this in April, but fans hold out hope and root for their favorite players until the end of the season. Rizzo is thinking about 2011. The fans are thinking about the next game. As the trade deadline approaches, and the rumors fly, it isn’t very pleasant for Nationals fans, who spend the days leading up to the deadline contemplating the loss of their favorite players.

I think I can handle the rumors and hand-wringing. If the Nationals can make themselves a better team through trades, I’ll swallow a little disappointment now for a shot at the playoffs next year.

But I am not ready for more of the same.

Remind You of 2005?

It shouldn’t.

The Nationals of 2005 were a very different animal than the Nationals of 2010. In many ways, it feels the same, and Mark Zuckerman wrote today of the last time that the Nationals were four games above .500. But on September 18, 2005, the Nationals were riding the escalator down, while our 2010 Nationals are riding the escalator up.

The Nationals in 2005 were the bare bones leftovers that Major League Baseball decided to impose on its thirtieth city – in many respects, worse than an expansion team, because there was no need for MLB to create the illusion of fairness of an expansion draft. The league, with the able assistance of Omar Minaya and Jim Bowden gave Washington a team with a  slashed payroll and traded away every significant prospect. Even if the 2005 Nationals had found their way into the post-season, nothing between 2006 and 2009 would have been appreciably different.

Our Nats sucked, and they would have sucked, no matter what.

But here we are in 2010. The Nationals are about in the same place in the standings as they were in 2005. But the Nats’ future looks very different.

The problem is, nobody really anticipated that the Nationals would be all that different this year. I think most of us had absorbed the idea of 70-92, and most of us would probably have be OK with that. We were ready to accept twenty-two games below .500, knowing that we would be better next year.

But we’re better this year.

Which makes me wonder. At what point does Mike Rizzo decide that the Nationals need to make a run at this season?

The Nationals shopping list is actually rather short. While the Nationals desperately need improved starting and relief pitching, they have ample reinforcements on the way, in the form of Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Marquis, Ross Detwiler, and perhaps Jordan Zimmerman. Last night’s game exemplifies why the Nationals need to shore up their pitching. They won, but the bullpen made things exciting… perhaps a little too exciting for some people’s tastes. If we can wait out three weeks of Super-Two purgatory (and several rehab stints), the Nationals pitching will be getting a lot better very quickly.

The other glaring hole is in right field, where there is no in-house answer. The platoon of Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina, Willie Harris, Willy Taveres and who-knows-who-else (actually, I do know, Cristian Guzman) has been adequate to good defensively – and defense is a big part of the Nationals success in 2010. But at the plate, well… not so hot. There are some who argue that we should just let Willie Harris play the position.

I am torn. I think that Willie Harris will be a better hitter if he plays every day. But what he won’t be is the guy that offers protection to the lineup… and I think that the Nationals need one more feared bat in the lineup. Say what you will about Elijah Dukes, opposing pitchers at least respected him. Sure, you could throw breaking balls at him, but you couldn’t make a mistake to him.

The Nationals will be Also-Rans if they don’t solve their right field problem. The question is whether Mike Rizzo is going to be satisfied with meeting the 70-92 expectation, or whether he’s going to shoot for 92-70. If he chooses the latter, the Nationals are going to have to make a trade. The current winning formula isn’t sustainable… even with better pitching. They need their entire lineup to wake up at the plate. As it is now, there’s a path through the lineup where you can pitch around the hot hitters. A legitimate bat with the defense and arm for right field is what they need.

Right now.

Can They Fill the Vacuum?

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games — Wigi @ 5:36 pm April 29, 2010

In disappointment, there is often opportunity.

In this case, the disappointment is the Capitals premature exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Caps fans and Nationals fans have a lot in common, and I think that you can assume that the Natosphere and the Capsosphere have been of one mind as of late.

I think most people thought that Washington’s collective sports consciousness was going to be focused on the Caps for a while longer. But now, with their Stanley Cup run cut short, fans will spend a few days wringing hands and pointing fingers. But by the end of the weekend, Washingtonians will realize that between now and mid July, there’s really only one sports show in town.

Our beloved Nats.

Sure, the Nats are playing some inspired baseball right now, and they rightly deserve the attention of Washington sports fans. For most of April, the Nats have been under the radar.  But now, rather than having to compete with the (other) red for a month, they have the stage to themselves. This makes me a little nervous.

For those of us who haven’t completely blocked it from our minds, there is a bit of trepidation as the Nationals head to Miami for a three game series against the Florida Marlins. In the last two years, the Nationals are 9-26 against the Marlins. I haven’t completely absorbed the idea of a Nationals team that is playing better than .500 for a month.

It is just a gut feeling, but not much good happens in Land Shark Stadium.

This presents an opportunity for the Nationals. But it also has risks. If the Nationals can win two of three in Miami,  they’ll return home with a winning road trip and the best start ever since moving to Washington in 2005. But anything less (especially a sweep) could convince the casual fans that not much has changed down on South Capitol Street. In a city that suddenly finds itself starved for a new sports obsession, the Nationals need two wins.

Sure, in the greater scheme of things, they’re just three games, and you don’t make or break a season in a single series. But you can make an impression with fans, and heaven knows that the Nationals need to make an impression with the casual fan base. Back in 2005, it was that torrid June and early July, where the Nationals had streaks of ten in a row and six in a row that made RFK a rockin’ place to hang out – literally! The Nationals had a five and a half game lead on July 3, and they were the darlings of Washington, and all of baseball. Since that day, it has been all down hill for the Nationals, until this season. The casual fans have left.

Here’s the chance to win them back. Win two of three from the Marlins. Come home, win two of three from the Braves, and then two of three from the Marlins at home. Not a ten game winning streak.

Just two-of-three…

Two-of-three…

Two-of-three.

The Nats can change the world in nine days…

If they can fill the vacuum.

A few words with Stan Kasten

Filed under: Organization,Personnel — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 7:13 am April 18, 2010

Lets have a little contest. Without doing the research I had to do to compile these stats, tell me which set of statistics belongs to which season – the first eleven games of 2009, or the first eleven games of 2010:

  Year A Year B
Runs Scored 54 53
Runs Allowed 75 66
Team Batting Average .268 .250
Team OPS .755 .770
Errors 13 9
Team ERA 6.38 5.91

They seem pretty comparable, don’t they? One set of stats (2009) belongs to a 1-10 record, and the other (2010) to a 6-5 record.

The correct answer is, Year A is 2009, and Year B is 2010.

Statistically, they seem almost identical, but not only are the outcomes very different, the fan perception of the season so far is different, too. It is just a different vibe.

I have a theory about this. My theory is that the organization as a whole is a healthier place, and we have been seeing the benefits of it in many different forms, but now we’re seeing it on the field, too. This past winter, players (not all, but some) were lining up to play in Washington. A year earlier, nobody wanted to come to Washington. Whether you talk to players, general managers, pundits or fans, nobody sees this year’s team the same way as they saw last year’s team.

Organizational changes don’t happen overnight, and I wanted to find out more about my suspicions. I imagined that at some point in 2009, the Nationals decided that they needed to reinvent their front office, and from there the entire organization.

Last Saturday I spoke with Stan Kasten at Citi Field. I asked him at what point did he decide that they needed to wipe the slate clean, and reinvent the front office. Kasten said that the decision came in March, with the departure of Jim Bowden. I asked if the organizational reinvention was in reaction to the Dominican scandal, and Kasten was quick to point out that there was no way that Bowden or anyone else in Washington knew about the specifics of the Dominican problems, and that had they been aware, to allow it to continue would be professional suicide. Instead, Kasten suggested that Bowden’s resignation provided the opportunity to move in a new direction, and the Nationals took advantage of that.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, they were able to chart the course in March, but they could not act until the end of the season. Teams cannot recruit or hire people for the baseball operation during the season – most of the potential candidates are already committed to teams. But the Nationals planned through the summer, made note of those who might be available at the end of the season, and moved quickly to expand their front office once the season was over.

I asked Kasten if the Nationals were done with their organizational overhaul, and Kasten said no, that they hadn’t hired everyone they wanted, and that they expect to further enhance their baseball operations. Look for more additions in the fall. Kasten also added that the new facility in the Dominican Republic is expected to open in May, and that he has high hopes for what the Nationals can accomplish there.

I suspect that the work the Nationals have done over the past year – starting with the reinvention of the entire baseball operation has made a huge difference in the way the club sees itself and how others see the Nationals. Washington is now an attractive place to play, and I think that we are seeing at least a part of that difference manifest itself in the outcomes of the games at the beginning of this season. The statistics aren’t all that different between this year and last, but the results are certainly different.

Other notes from my conversation with Stann Kasten…

One of the topics of conversation that came up was Adam Dunn, and the status of his contract. Kasten mentioned that he thought that it was a mistake for Dunn to insist that he’s a National League player. Clearly, Dunn would be an attractive candidate for an American League team looking for a designated hitter. I asked Kasten if that gave the Nationals some advantage in their negotiations with Dunn for his extension, and Kasten said that the only thing that was preventing a deal was that Dunn needed to show that he could really play first base. Kasten said, “I love Adam Dunn… I really do love him… but he has to prove he’s a first baseman”

***************

Hendo commented that it was easy to tell the difference between 2009 and 2010 because of the errors… but if you only compare the first ten games, they become almost indistinguisable:

  2009 2910
Runs Scored 50 53
Runs Allowed 68 66
Team Batting Average .269 .243
Team OPS .763 .754
Errors 10 8
Team ERA 6.32 6.52

Insulted

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 7:04 pm April 6, 2010

I have been in a daze since I got home from the ballpark on Monday evening.

My family and friends all asked me how Opening Day was, and my universal answer was “horrible”.

I have been a Nationals fan (and a Senators fan before that) long enough to know that 11-1 losses happen. It is part of the territory when you fall in love with a perennial last-place team. I was prepared for that.

But I have never… EVER… felt as uncomfortable and unwelcome at a baseball game as I did on Monday… and that includes my experiences at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. To say that a plurality of the Phillies fans in attendance were rude – that would be an understatement. Many of the things I witnessed were just boorish. Some were insulting and a few were dangerous. Overall, it was an unpleasant day all the way around.

I could have sat in my office in Anchorage and watched it on the Internet and enjoyed it more.

The Nationals should be concerned – very concerned. Because when the live experience ceases to be more compelling than the television experience, people stay home. When a family has to weigh whether the excitement of a baseball game is worth the risk that you might end up sitting in a section with drunk, foul-mouthed and potentially violent fans, people stay home.

When your customers are not treated with respect, people stay home.

The part that the Nationals don’t get is they bear some responsibility in making sure that the fan experience is a positive one, and that responsibility goes beyond making sure that the ballpark employees were friendly and helpful – on that the Nationals get a passing grade (but no better). But the Nationals created the situation where the fan base was so weak that they had to rely heavily on group sales to fill the park on Opening Day… and in doing so, leaving many of their local fans without tickets.

How could the Nationals not reasonably foresee what happened? Do they care?

Sure, the game was sold out. But in the process, they severely damaged their brand. They offended their best customers. They offended me.

When you consider how invested in this team I am, the fact that I am offended says something.

And while I am at it, let me say this. The best thing you can say about the President’s Race is that it is tired and stupid. If you really look at what’s happening here, the Nationals and GEICO are perpetuating the idea that “Teddy” is somehow loveable because he is incompetent. The problem is, Teddy has become a metaphor for the team. As long as the Nationals believe that mindset is acceptable, the team will be terrible. Think about this – if the Yankees had a mascot race with super-sized taxi drivers from the five boroughs, the driver from the Bronx would win every race, because for the Yankees, that is the only outcome that makes sense.

It is either time for Teddy to win, or to can the President’s Race altogether. I am a GEICO customer. Perhaps I should let them know.

If you tried to get Opening Day tickets, and you couldn’t get them, consider yourself among the lucky ones.

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