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.

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.

(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.

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.

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.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Filed under: Fan Experience,Players — Tags: , — Wigi @ 3:51 pm March 17, 2010

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

Back in 2007, when Bowden traded for Elijah Dukes, the fans of the [Devil] Rays couldn’t have been happier to get anything in trade (in this case, Glenn Gibson) for Dukes. Tampa Bay fans, and the Rays organization had given up on him. Nationals fans, while wary, were willing to give Dukes a chance. The team made efforts to give Dukes a support system. Over time, Elijah grew on many Nationals fans.

Today, as we digest the news that Dukes has been unconditionally released from the team (here and here and here), most fans are expressing shock and sadness. In the three seasons Dukes played for the Nationals, we saw numerous flashes of brilliance, struggles at the plate and on the field, a demotion, a call-up. We saw Dukes make halting steps forward as a person. I think most Nationals fans were rooting for Dukes as a player and as a person. We were ready for another Dmitri Young story – a disturbed and troubled man finding his way, finding redemption in his God-given talents. Coming into spring training, we all wanted to believe that we were a few weeks away from seeing the complete transformation of Elijah Dukes.

And we (he)  may well have been that close.

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

The problem is, Nationals fans should never have been put in the position of having to mortgage their hopes on (one of a series of) Cinderella stories. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you want to use for Elijah Dukes – the kid deserving a second chance, the low-cost, high-upside gamble, the misunderstood and unpolished superstar (oh wait, that was Lastings Milledge). Because of Bowden’s need to weave together getting something for nothing and a morality play, success for Elijah Dukes has always been defined as something more than just becoming a successful baseball player. That is unfair to Dukes (though he has some control over how his morality play turns out) and it is unfair to the fans.

All of that additional drama, heightened expectation, and now hand-wringing is courtesy of Jim Bowden. Bowden couldn’t acquire a player (or make any kind of a public move) without inviting controversy. Pick your player/story: Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, Chad Cordero, Aaron Crow, Wily Mo Pena, Paul LoDuca – I could go on (and on… and on) – they all seem to have some BowdenDrama back story that makes them more about Jim and less about the player.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love Elijah Dukes, and nobody wants him to be successful more than I do… and nobody is more crestfallen about his release. But it is easy as a Nationals fan to accept that the development of a player was not only good for the team but good theatre… because that is the bill of good that Bowden sold us, over and over. That isn’t the way it has to be.

If you look at Elijah Dukes’ career thus far, but forget that it is Elijah Dukes, there really isn’t anything all that surprising about his release at this point. The Nats are flush with outfielders, many as young and promising as Dukes, but with a lot more potential and organizational flexibility. Dukes had to come into spring training and own right field. He didn’t. He’s gone. We’re only in a dither about it because he’s Elijah Dukes.

As I read the news this morning, I couldn’t help but think that if Jim Bowden had spent as much time evaluating talent and charting a course for the team as he did weaving the BowdenDramas he wove, the Nationals might be in a much better place today than they are. Most of us might never have learned the full Elijah Dukes story, and at one level that would be sad, but that story wasn’t about baseball.

Over the years I gave Bowden the benefit of the doubt – as a rule, I don’t think I have much grounds to comment on what a GM does, because I don’t have those skills or tools. I think now I was wrong not to be more critical.

I am really going to miss Elijah Dukes. But I think that his release was both the right decision and a gutsy one on the part of the Nats.

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

Remembering A Friend

Filed under: Fan Experience — Tags: — Wigi @ 5:20 pm December 24, 2009

I was a nineteen year-old kid back in 1980 when I took a job with WRC-TV in Washington. I worked in Local News for Bob Ryan, the meteorologist. Weather was all I thought about when I was a kid, and working in weather at a television station was my life goal.

Many nights I would stay past quitting time, and sit in the studio and watch the news from just behind the cameras. It was there in the studio I got to know George Michael.

If you weren’t paying attention, you might think that George was a little disconnected from the people around him. He would appear just moments before he was to go on air, put on a tremendous show, and then disappear to his basement lair. To find the real George you had to follow him to the basement.

His office was wall-to-wall monitors and tape machines. His staff combed every piece of video from every game looking for highlights. There was no interrupting him or his staff, because they had a job to do – find every highlight, and get it ready to put on the air. George seemed a little disconnected from me, but he was totally engaged in his work – and he was doing it for us, his viewers.

This seems rather commonplace now; the action-packed sports highlights program. But it was revolutionary in 1980. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was witnessing was the changing of an industry.

The thing about George was, when he was on the air, you felt like he was talking just to you. What very few people knew was that he was just as engaging in person. I was a nobody at WRC in 1980, but he always made a point to say hello, and  as busy as he was, he always welcomed me into his office.

Even though George was new to Washington in 1980, I already knew who he was. As a radio geek, I often stayed up and listened to AM radio from stations across the country, and I often listened to George when he was a jock at WABC in New York.

I moved away from Washington in 1986, but George was considerate enough to follow me everywhere I went – even to Alaska. The George Michael Sports Machine was everywhere, and his program was a reminder of my Washington roots.

George Michaael interviews Jim Bowden at Nationals first-ever game at RFK Stadium in April, 2005

George Michaael interviews Jim Bowden at Nationals first-ever game at RFK Stadium in April, 2005

The last time I saw George in person was at the Nationals home opener in 2005.

You changed the world for us all, George. I think that is all any of us can ever hope to achieve. You did it.

Half a Loaf (plus some notes)

Filed under: Fan Experience,Teams — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 10:21 am October 28, 2009

My love for baseball was formed when I was about eight or nine years old. I had a first baseman’s mitt (any idea how hard it was to find a first baseman’s mitt for your left hand in 1968?) and a bat, and baseball was pretty much all I did as a kid. And while playing was fun, what made me a fan was going to the games – especially the big ones, such as Opening Day, 1971. I remember the experience like it was yesterday.

I was reminded of that when I got a note from a friend in Virginia today. Her son’s tenth birthday is tomorrow, and a family friend got him two tickets to the World Series… so he and his father are headed to New York tomorrow for game two (or game one, if it keeps raining).

Another baseball fan is born. That is good.

On the flip side, the game he’ll remember for the rest of his life will be one between the Yankees and the Phillies. How unfortunate.

There’s a silver lining there, however. I am pretty sure I already know where the neophyte’s baseball loyalties will fall. His mother is from Philadelphia, and even though she professes not to like the Phillies, I think the connection will be hard to shake… and even if he did look past his family connection to the City of Brotherly Love*, the alternative is… well… the Yankees. The difference is small, but there is a difference.

I have to admit a reluctant admiration for the Phillies. Part of that may be that I’ve seen the Phillies more than any other team, except for the Nats… But even so, of all the teams I’ve watched this year (and I have seen them all), the Phillies are the one that I was most impressed with. So for no other reason than my gut (and the fact that they’re not the Yankees), I am rooting for the Phillies.

So to my buddy, Andrew… happy birthday! Enjoy the game… but here’s some advice: remember the experience. Find some other Phillies fans and share the high-fives. If you can, get a baseball and head down to the Phillies dugout before the game, and get an autograph or two. When you’re old (like me), you’ll remember every detail, and you’ll be a part of history.

… and lets go to a Nats game this spring.

* Someone has a sense of humor.

—————–

From the “Something to Look Forward To” department:

It is snowing today in Anchorage, so it is not a moment too soon that I head to Arizona on Saturday, where I will take in two Phoenix Desert Dogs games Monday and Tuesday of next week. If the stars have aligned, I believe Strasburg will start one of those games. I am bringing the camera and the computer, and I hope to provide at least a couple dispatches from the desert.

Reminiscing…

I was reading Tom Boswell’s piece in The Post today, and it got me thinking about the Nationals, and their first year in Washington. The return of baseball to Washington had captivated me – as a native Washingtonian and childhood fan of the Senators, I made the trip back to DC for Opening Day – a ritual I have re-enacted every year since.

Back in Late July, 2005, I got a phone call from a friend of mine that lived in Denver. My friend had helped me with my business, and suggested that perhaps I should take a weekend and go to Denver, and take in the Nationals series against the Rockies. The Nats had just completed a torrid first half, had lead the National League East, but were now slowly coming back to the pack, and in fact, they had lost their lead by this time. I, like every Nats fan, was totally wrapped up with the improbable season, and I couldn’t get enough. While it was clear that the Nats had begun their slide back towards the middle of the pack, I expected the Nats to right themselves and stay in the playoff picture to the end. I was wrong, of course… but had the Nats played just .500 ball the rest of the way (a reasonable hope and expectation after a 51-30 first half), they might well have been playing in October – 90 wins won the National League East that year, and 89 won the Wild Card.

I debated the idea of going to Denver, and when I realized I could only make one trip east for the remainder of the year, I decided that I should save the opportunity, and go back to DC for the playoffs. I skipped the trip to Denver (where the Nats swept the Rockies), and instead watched the Nationals at RFK in September, where they lost their last three, to settle at 81-81.

The 2009 season is now over (for the Nats, at least). I watched the Twins-Tigers game yesterday, and couldn’t help imagining the Nats in that situation. Not our current Nats, mind you… but the team of our future. Maybe even next year’s Nats. There is a lot to look forward to, not the least of which is that it really can’t be any worse than it was this year. We have good young pitching today, that hopefully will be great young pitching tomorrow. We have the leadoff-hitting center fielder we’ve wanted since our hearts were broken by Endy Chavez. Willingham and Dukes could play for almost any team, and both are poised to find their place in the big leagues. Adam Dunn is proving to be a better first baseman than anyone ever expected, and while Ryan Zimmerman is proving to be everything we hoped he would be, our hopes are stratospheric. He is our superstar. Once again, the questions are up the middle, and while I am skeptical that Ian Desmond is the answer at shortstop, or that Guzman will thrive at second, I am just a blogger, and not a major league scout or GM… so what do I know? And the question remains whether Jesus Flores can come back from his injuries, and becomes the every day catcher we think he is, or the Nick Johnson of the catching fraternity.

So for Nationals fans, the slate has been wiped clean, and not a moment too soon. If you need a positive message to take forward from 2009, the Nats played .440 ball after the All-Star break (including the end-of-the-season seven-game winning streak, and an eight-game streak in August), compared to under .300 for the first half. And unlike in previous years (thanks, Jim Bowden), instead of needing to cobble together a team comprised mostly of castoffs and second chances, the Nationals have a small but manageable shopping list for the offseason. When you’re 58-103, the playoffs may seem to be light-years away, but the addition of just one or two players can make a huge difference; for example, the Nationals with Nyger Morgan were 22-26 (.458) , and 36-78 (.315) without him.

Boswell’s point today about the playoffs is this: Once you’re in, it doesn’t matter what you did before that. The same is true for the Nationals in 2010. It doesn’t matter what happened in 2009. On April 5th at 1:05 PM, we’ll all be in our seats at Nationals Park, our Nats will be tied for first, and the promise of every baseball fan everywhere will be ours – in April, anything is possible. The difference between 2010 and every Nats season that came before it is that the best Nationals team ever will be on the field.

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