A quick perusal of today’sÂ Nationals Journal and The Washington Post (and here) point out that the Nationals have painted themselves into a corner at a rather bad time. It is Spring Training, the Nats have some moves they need to make, the roster is filled with unanswered questions, and a cloud hangs over the General Manager.
The Nats have a problem.
There are the obvious ones. Smileygate (I hate the ‘gate’ suffix, but it just sounds so funny in this case) is the obvious one, but my issue is actually much larger. In fact, if you think about it, Smileygate isn’t all that big a deal if you look at it by itself – the Nats investment in real dollars is comparatively small, there is about zero chance that the organization did anything wrong, and the worst case scenario is that Bowden (not the organization) pocketed some of Smiley’s bonus – again, highly unlikely. Some would argue that the Nats reputation was already trashed, and this doesn’t really make things any worse than they already were.
But here is the problem – Whatever one might think the solution is, the Nats are paralyzed. For the moment, they can neither fire Bowden nor endorse him. They put themselves in that situation, in my opinion, because they made the choice to put off ‘good’ and instead accept ‘good enough’.
When you’re an entrepreneur, ‘good enough’ is usually good enough. You go to Costco to get your cups for your espresso stand. But once you get a little bigger, or more successful, you might want your logo on the cups. On the other hand, when you’re at the elite level of your industry, the things that separate the top from the bottom become a bit more esoteric. Logos on your cups are a given. Logos on the napkins, too. You now start to worry about other things – the things that differentiate your business from all others. The things that makes people choose you over your competition, and things that make you out-compete your competition.
When Major League Baseball awarded the Nats to Washington, and then selected the Lerners as the owners, we (Washington fans, and the Lerners) received an eviscerated franchise, burnt to the ground by the league. MLB was essentially saying, here is your ticket to play in our league. It is up to you to make of it what you will. In a New York Times piece written on opening day, 2006, Murray Chass writes about the impact of adding Stan Kasten to the Lerner’s ownership group – and speculates that by doing so, the Lerners guarantee success. I think that was a very astute observation then, and it is still true today. The thought was that Kasten added a level of gravitas to the ownership group that made them credible within the world of Major League Baseball. But as Kasten has said all along, the process of making a success of the Nationals is a long term project, especially given the state of the organization at the time they took over… and nobody should expect instant results – hence, the birth of “The Plan”.
The Lerners and Kasten inherited Bowden from the days of MLB’s stewardship, which was the definition of ‘good enough’, though just barely. At the All Star break in 2006, the Lerners should have replaced Bowden – not because he had done a bad job… in fact, I would argue that he did an amazing job with nothing at all.Â The Nats were the Stone Soup of baseball in 2005 and 2006. The reason that the Nats should have replaced Bowden is because it would have signaled an end to the ‘good enough’ era, and the beginning of theÂ ’good’ era.
Today they are suffering from that legacy. The Nationals ownershipÂ has had numerous logical opportunities to replace Bowden, but did not. The argument that one would make to replace Frank Robinson with Manny Acta would be the same one you would use to replace Bowden – it is time for a new direction, time for a new philosophy, time for a new tradition of excellence. Instead, the Nationals took a pragmatic approach to the operation of their front office – and let’s be clear here, there was a certain logic to keeping Bowden. If your team is going to be bad, no matter what… and cobbling together a Major League roster is going to be the modus operandi for a year or two, why not keep the person who has done it both the best and the longest – Bowden? But this brand of pragmatism comes at a cost – the reputation of the organization… and not because Bowden had done a bad job, but rather, because his retention signaled that the Nats weren’t prepared to commit to the level of excellence that was expected of an elite organization… the kind of organization that the Nationals aspire to be. By not replacing Bowden as a part of a new era for the team, they squandered a good potion of the reputation that they brought to the table.
So here we are, at Spring Training, 2009. I think it is clear that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore. You can argue, as Boswell did today, that Bowden has done at least an average job. But as Chico Harlan reports, the organization is now looking for that excuse to cut their ties with Bowden.
The thing is, the Nats don’t need an excuse, and they never did. It was always the right thing to do, and I suspect that they knew it. It is just that now, they can’t do it ethically without convicting Bowden in the court of public opinion – and if my gut is right, Bowden is guilty of nothing more than being duped by those intent on defraudingÂ the Nats for a million or so dollars.Â So the excuse they’re waiting for is really the excuse they need so that they don’t have to be accountable for their own poor choices.
The mistake was that the organization made a commitment to mediocrity, with the idea that mediocrity was all the Nats could muster for a few years, no matter what. The right course of action might have been to embrace excellence, put the proper front office together that you want for a long time,Â and be dissatisfied with that mediocrity. It might have been frustrating and painful, as viewed from within the organization. But from out here, in the world of the fans, we probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. There would have been a unity of purpose, and the Nats could have spent those two years cultivating their reputation within baseball. Would it have made a difference? Who knows. But the fans, and the pundits, and I think perhaps the baseball world world would feel a lot more at ease with where the Nats are now.
Unfortunately for the Nats, getting rid of Bowden does not in and of itself solve the problem. The Nats could get rid of Bowden, and still settle for another mediocre solution. The problem is understanding the difference between the pragmatic course, where you operate the team in one way (rebuilding) until you’re ready to operate the team in another way (contending), and the course of excellence, where you assemble the organization that will build and maintain excellence from the first day, and settle for nothing less.
When I first started this blog, I posted a page and another page about my professional and academic training, and how that colors how I view the Nats. One of the things that I bring up in those pages is the idea of a “Clear and Elevating Goal.”
There is nothing clear or elevating in mediocrity.