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

Teddy: A Sign of the Times

Marketing has never been a particular strong suit for the Nationals, but The Rushmores, also known as the “Racing Presidents” were an instant success back when they were introduced in 2006. When it comes to fan entertainment at baseball games, the mid-game mascot race, whether you’re talking about variety meats, dinner pastry or presidents, is not particularly new. In a town where national monuments are part of the social fabric, The Rushmores are a perfect match for Washington.

Back when I was in college, one of the first big projects I worked on in communication was a criticism project where we listened to the stories of the employees, and made sense of their narrative using something called Fantasy Theme Analysis. The idea here is that when you talk to people in an organization, they recount their stories using metaphor, as a way to add depth to the example. For instance, an employee might talk about always putting out fires – an indication that someone in the organization is always first to step up, be the hero, but in a reactive way. He or she is responding to crises, rather than showing strategic leadership. Pick your fairy tale or two, and there’s an organization that matches it – whether you’re talking about nurturing parents, authoritarian ship captains or calculating villains. The story-teller uses these metaphors as a way to describe the context in which he or she understands their organization’s culture.

If you were to ask a long-time Washingtonian about the history of sports in the city, it would be the tale of institutionalized, long-term mediocrity. The Senators have their World Series in 1924, but when people talk about it, the narrative is more about how exceptional that event was – Washington’s only World Series. Damn Yankees is the literary parable that memorializes the lovable loser. The Washington Generals are the perpetual foil of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Washington Capitals are holders of numerous milestones of mediocrity, including the worst regular season record ever, and no Stanley Cup Championships in their thirty-five year history. Even the Redskins, with three Super Bowl wins and two NFL championships  in their history, have become more about the hype and preparation, and less about winning. I would even suggest that the Redskins get more and better media exposure when they lose than when they win; a disincentive to winning for a team that is so successful in its merchandising.

Despite our history and culture, Washingtonians certainly have an appetite for winning teams. When the Nats made their improbable run in the first half of 2005, RFK was packed every game. The Caps recent success has filled The Phone Booth. The Redskins sellouts of today were built on “The Future Is Now” philosophy of George Allen. But Washingtonian sports culture has an excuse and tolerance for losing, to the point of accepting it as destiny.

Culture doesn’t change overnight, and it often takes generations. But while mediocrity might feel like destiny, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Joe Gibbs proved that (the first time).

Fairy tales are morality plays we use to teach our values. Which brings me back to Teddy. The Rushmores are the Nats’ fairy tale. They would be cute, even if all of the presidents won from time to time. But the current narrative, where Teddy loses every race, resonates with us because Teddy has become a metaphor for the Nationals. We see ourselves as Washington sports fans in the results of every race. The narrative is protected and continued because there’s a sense that if Teddy were to win, the joke would be over, and if the joke is over, what does that mean for Teddy and the other presidents - and what does it mean for the Nats? The problem is, every time Teddy loses, he reinforces the stereotype of Washington sports as the laughing stock of the nation.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that we “Let Teddy Win.” It isn’t as simple as staging a win for Teddy, and suddenly the Nationals fortunes will be reversed. What I am suggesting is that we reject the mindset that it is acceptable that Teddy lose every race. In a world where we stop placing value in the Washington sports stereotype, the perpetual loser Teddy ceases to be the compelling character that he is.

I’ve been to nine Nationals games this season. Teddy has lost all nine of those Presidents Races. The Nats have lost eight of those game. Coincidence? Perhaps… but less than you might imagine.

If we start thinking about Sports in Washington, and the Presidents Race differently, is that the end of the joke? Perhaps. But what it needs to be is the end of the Washington Senators, and Washington sports in general, as the iconic model of what the Nationals should be.

So the catchphrase shouldn’t be “Let Teddy Win.”

It should be “Free Teddy. Free the Nationals.”

What Scott Boras Could Learn at a Grocery Store

Walk into almost any grocery store, and watch the shoppers… especially the families. When they get to the checkout aisle, while mom and dad are looking to the left, and unloading the groceries onto the belt, the kids are looking to the right, scouting out the candies and toys placed in convenient reach of  the children. Watch the children ask their moms and dads, “Can I get M&Ms? Pleeeaaase?”

Mom and dad are placed in an unfair, but very familiar situation: relent and get the kids what they want, or risk a loud and possibly embarrassing tantrum.

It is with that in mind that I read Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal about the drafting of Stephen Strasburg. It seems that Scott Boras is intent on retaining control of how his client appears in public. That’s an excellent strategy, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Boras, especially when he represents  a player as highly-regarded as Strasburg. But in the process, Boras is creating a divide. A divide between player and team, and between player and the fans.

I think he’s on the verge of sending the wrong message.

I went back today and looked at the Nationals number one draft picks since they moved to Washington. If you look at that list, you notice something every interesting. Almost every one of those first round picks are players that even casual fans would recognize, because at the time they were drafted, they appeared in the media and in person, where the fans could get to see and hear from them. The players I remember most from their media tours were Ryan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Both appeared on MASN and sat in the booth for a while during games… but other first rounders also came and visited Nationals Park, took questions from the media, etc. I remember thinking at the time, just how exciting it will be to see such a highly touted draft pick like Ryan Zimmerman grow and develop into a star with the Nationals. I thought the same thing about Ross Detwiler, too.

And then there’s Aaron Crow.

Of course, there was never any thought that Zimmerman or Detwiler wouldn’t sign with the Nationals. Part of that was because they stated publicly that they were excited at the prospect of playing in Washington… and it was just a matter of time and working out the details. And of course, there’s the news this morning that the Nationals other first round pick in the draft, Drew Storen has signed with the Nationals. But for Crow, who was invited to visit with the team, see the new stadium, meet the fans, wax poetic about his future in Washington – none of those things ever happened… and while it didn’t go unnoticed that Crow didn’t sign, for a lot of us, it wasn’t like we’d left a family member off the family reunion guest list. Crow’s negotiations were about the business of baseball, and not so much about the fans. You can be upset that Crow got away, but it wasn’t like Ryan Zimmerman getting away. The fans weren’t in love with Crow – they’d never met him.

And this, really, is the lesson that Boras needs to learn from the supermarket. Baseball teams pay the players salaries, but the fans are the consumers. The reason that the Nationals need to sign Stephen Strasburg is not because the Nationals need him, but because the fans want him… which is the same reason that mothers and fathers buy M&Ms for their kids. In fact, from a purely business standpoint, the Nationals don’t need him. It is only for the marketing and public relations value that Stephen Strasburg commands the price tag he does. For the kind of money Boras is talking, the Nats could sign a top-shelf free agent pitcher with a lot less risk.

So my message to Scott is this: If you want to get the best deal for your client, put him at the checkstand, right at eye level with every one of the Nationals instant-gratification-short-attention-span fans. Let Carpy and Dibble and Charlie and Dave interview him. Let him sign autographs. If you really want to be over the top, get the Nationals to have Strasburg be a guest of the team and throw out the first pitch at a Sunday afternoon game. Let Washington fall in love with Stephen Strasburg. Make it so that when the Natosphere whines and cries to mom and dad for M&Ms, there’s no real choice.

The mistake that Boras is making is that by trying to make an example of the inequities of the draft system, he risks convincing the consumers – you and me – that there is a price that is too high for a player… but the price is not a dollar price, but rather the price of the drama. The average fan wants to see Stephen Strasburg on the field. The average fan doesn’t particularly care if he signs for $15 million or $50 million. The average fan is inclined to blame the Nationals if contract negotiations fail – unless Boras calls so much attention to himself and his client that the casual fans see the absurdity in the argument that a $50 million contract in unfair – to the player!

Many fans and bloggers will correctly point out that the $500,000 difference that kept Aaron Crow from signing with the Nationals was a trivial amount, and that it shouldn’t have prevented him from signing. But suppose in that alternate-universe reality that I am so fond of, that Aaron Crow had made those public appearances at Nationals Park, been interviewed on MASN and on the radio, met the team, visited the stadium, seen Washington… given the fans a chance to fall in love with him. Do you think he wouldn’t have been signed? Do you really think that the Nationals could have let Crow walk away, while the casual fan pined for Crow in a Nats uniform? Do you think that $500,000 would have stopped the Nats?

Not a chance. Just the marketing and promotional value of those appearances would have been worth the $500,000, especially as poor as last season was.

My approach works for both parties. The Nats are desperate to show forward progress as an organization. Trotting Strasburg out at Nationals Park would be a huge win for them. And it would be a win for Strasburg, too. It serves to gloss over the monopolistic organization that is Major League Baseball and its inequities, and puts free samples of M&Ms in the hands of kids that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when they cry for more. We want M&Ms! We want Strasburg!

A quick, fair, and probably record-breaking contract negotiation is a win for everyone. A drawn-out, acrimonious, tedious negotiation full of the minutiae of contract law and the inequities of a monopolistic system, argued on behalf of a college kid with no Major League experience that might make $500 million in salary and endorsements over the course of his career – that would be a loss for everyone.

Remember who the consumers are.

After Further Review (Updated)…

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games — Tags: , — Wigi @ 8:33 pm May 27, 2009

… instant replay is toxic to Major League Baseball.

In baseball, every officiated call is subjective. It is the opinion of the umpire whose job it is to make that ruling. His (or her) opinion is the one that stands. That is fine. In fact, it is more than fine – it is part of the perfection of the sport. It isn’t about a calculation, or empirical evidence. It is a drama that plays out over time. It is an ebb and flow of events. It is human.

And it is precisely that reason that there is no room in baseball for instant replay. Because while an umpire may make a mistake, the umpire is never wrong. That is the basic premise that is at the core of the sport. The umpire is the last, final arbiter of what happens on the field. The umpire is, by definition, always right.

Allowing instant replay allows for the possibility that if an umpire makes a mistake, someone can review a video to determine whether that umpire is  wrong. Now that we’ve allowed for the possibility of an umpire to be wrong, every call is now open to interpretation. If you can use technology to determine whether a hit is a home run, why can’t you use the same technology to determine if a player beats a tag, or if a pitch is a ball or a strike? The technology exists to get these calls “right” all the time. Why don’t we use them? If it is appropriate in one case, shouldn’t it be appropriate in all cases?

The bottom line is, the mistakes that umpires make are random events. They’re professionals. The circumstances that arise that put the umpire in the position to make a judgment call – one about which he or she is absolutely right, by definition – occur randomly and in equal numbers for both teams. Instant replay doesn’t make the umpire’s calls more accurate or the outcome of the contest more fair. It doesn’t remove a bias. And at the same time, it slows down the game, polarizes the fans, and reduces the stature and authority of the umpires.

In the last three games, I’ve seen two instant replay scenarios. Having watched the video, I feel that the umpires ultimately made the wrong call both times. I am incensed, because they got it wrong both times, even with the help of technology. I feel cheated. And had the decisions gone the way I would have liked, Mets fans would feel the way that I do. But in both cases, I could live with an umpire making a judgment call without the aid of video, and having that call be a mistake.

Umpires making judgments is a part of the elegance of the game. The fact that they occasionally make mistakes is unfortunate, but it is also part of what makes baseball the wonderful game that it is. The technology and philosophic basis that underlies instant replay in baseball tramples on that elegance.

I am totally at peace with the idea that umpires make mistakes.

I find it completely intolerable that umpires can be wrong. Instant replay allows for umpires to be wrong. If they can be wrong, they’re not umpires.

======

Note on the home run from last night’s game: I went back and watched the SNY feed of the home run, and there is a very good angle that they had in that feed that shows clearly that the ball DID NOT change direction as it passed in front of the Subway sign. The SNY feed “rocks” the ball back and forth as it passes the sign, and the ball is taking a straight trajectory.

Also… while this is going on, Mets broadcaster Ron Darling comments that he doesn’t think it hit the sign, because he says that the fans in right field would have been reaching out to catch the ball if it was that close to them… and also, none of the fans are pointing to the sign to ‘help’ the umpires with the call. He thinks those fans know it didn’t hit the sign… and of course, Debbi Taylor went out there and interviewed some of the fans, and they said that they didn’t see or hear the ball hit the sign.

Sloopy… (er, Sloppy)

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 2:50 pm May 26, 2009

A big part of being an organizational communication consultant is about reading between the lines. It isn’t about what people say or write, but rather, about what they do. The assumption here is that the culture of an organization will emphasize the values that are important to it, and reward people for furthering those values, and de-emphasize those actions that are not important, or even contrary to their values. By watching what an organization does (and paying less attention to what it says), you learn what the organization values.

I recently wrote a piece called The Font of Accountability, where I suggested that the quality of Nationals play on the field was indicative of the organizational culture as a whole. While I stand by my speculation, I admit there is a certain danger in it all, because a baseball team has many organizational arms, and it is the one that is on the field that is most visible. So, it might be a bit if a stretch to say that the entire organization is sloppy, just because the on-the-field team is sloppy.

So imagine my lack of surprise when I read this piece in Dan Steinberg’s D. C. Sports Bog about how the Teddy Roosevelt bobbleheads being sold in the team store are labeled ‘Teddy Rossevelt’. [sic]

Don’t get me wrong. As organizational sins go, this is almost insignificantly small – except that of all the things the Nationals marketing department has done since the Lerners took over, the Rushmores (the Racing Presidents) are probably one of the few unabashed successes. Add to that the fact that Teddy’s losing streak has become a metaphor for Nationals baseball, and you’ll see that Teddy Roosevelt has become an integral part of the Nationals brand. And unlike most of the products that are sold in the team store, which is apparel – whose manufacture and quality control  is conducted by national (or global) brands, such as Antigua, New Era or Majestic, the bobbleheads appear to be team-specific items. Presumably the Nationals stated the specifications for the product, approved the packaging copy, accepted the product (after inspection), and stocked it on the team store shelves. It is probably safe to assume that the Nats had numerous opportunities to insure the quality of the product… and in this case, the packaging. Somehow the error got through the quality checks.

Some of you will correctly point out that even Majestic makes mistakes, shipping jerseys to the Nats with the team name mis-spelled: ‘Natinals’. Very true. But, the Nats have some culpability here, too – they accepted the jerseys and sent their players on the field with them.

No process is perfect. Mistakes are made. In many organizations, the mistakes are caught and rectified. In some organizations, people fail to be accountable to their processes and the organization, and the processes fail. In some organizations, the processes just aren’t that rigorous, because there is no demand that they be.

In the case of the Nats, I am not sure what exactly is going on. But the Nationals have  reached the point where isolated instances are no longer isolated. Whether you’re talking about misspelled packaging on a product in the team store, or team jerseys, or errors or tentative pitching, or interminably long losing streaks or blowing leads in the ninth inning, or corruption in your overseas baseball academies… one or two.. or even three of these constitute isolated instances. But they don’t all happen to one organization, unless there is something about the organization that allows them to happen. What conclusion should we draw from that?

In fairness to the Nationals, my two most recent posts have suggested that at least where the on-the-field product is concerned, there seems to be considerable improvement in the areas that I have found most troubling – relief pitching and fielding. As I pointed out in my post from earlier this morning, Manny Acta’s team meeting last Thursday seems to have made some difference. Additionally, when organizations make a concerted effort to change – for example, to embrace excellence and accountability as core organizational values, change does not happen overnight. It takes weeks or months, and perhaps years. It isn’t like throwing a switch, it is like turning around a ship. There is a lot of momentum carrying the ship in one direction, and it takes time and effort to point it on the proper course. So it may be that ‘Teddy Rossevelt’ is a vestige of the old way. It may be more of the same. It is too early to tell.

It isn’t for me to tell the Nationals what their core organizational values should be. And they’re not in danger of losing me as a fan – I followed the Senators as a kid, and if I can follow them, I can certainly follow the Nats. But here is the red flag for the Nats: I am the ninety-ninth percentile fan, and there are a lot of people who are a lot less committed to the Nationals than I am, and I believe they’re losing faith in the brand. All of these little miscues, whether on the field, in the media, in the team store, isolated by themselves, are nothing. But a brand is not discrete pieces, it is the umbrella under which everything resides. You can’t look at the miscues in isolation, especially when they pop up everywhere you look. Consumers may not ask themselves explicitly what it is that the Nationals stand for. But consumers make choices, and the reputation of that brand figures in the calculus.

It is time for the Nationals to ask themselves, “What do we stand for?”

The Quiet Revolution

Before the Nationals game last Thursday against the Pirates, Manny Acta held a team meeting.

Since that time, the Nationals bullpen has an ERA of 2.30 (4 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings). Of those four earned runs, two were charged to Kip Wells, who gave them up in the twelfth inning of last Friday’s game against Baltimore. He was pitching his second inning in relief, and after a fluke base hit by pitcher Danys Baez of the Orioles, Wells gave up two doubles.  The bullpen has  struck out nine while walking eight – and if you throw out Daniel Cabrera’s performance last night, they’ve walked only five. Joel Hanrahan has two saves. Jason Bergmann, Kip Wells (despite giving up those two runs Fiday night), Ron Villone and Joe Beimel have pitched very well. Even Jesus Colome had a scoreless inning last night.

The team as a whole has had two errors, and given up no unearned runs.

That is quite a turnaround, and we would be feeling a lot better about it if the Nats were hitting the way they have been all along this season. What we’ve seen instead is a struggling offense. My theory is that the Nationals sorely miss the bats of Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores. In the meantime, we’re left with a team that looks a bit like last year’s team -  a team that opponents can pitch around a bit, leaving our lineup without protection. The Nats are a very different team at the plate with Flores and Dukes in the lineup.

Add to it all the strong performances by callups Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler – both of whom have pitched well as starters, and suddenly the Daniel Cabrera situation seems a bit less urgent. Cabrera didn’t make a strong case for himself last night… but at the same time, that probably means he could probably be DFA’d without risk of losing him, and perhaps some time in Syracuse would be good for him. And maybe that would be as good for him as time in Washington has been for Stammen and Detwiler.

The Nats rotation has enough depth to survive an injury or two. We’re playing better defense, and our bullpen has started to show their stuff. Later this week we should have two big bats back in the lineup.

I am not crazy enough to declare the disaster over… but there are certainly lots of reasons to be hopeful.

It may have all started in the Nats clubhouse last Thursday.

—–

On a different topic, Chico Harlan posted in Nationals Journal about the Reviewed, Debated Home Run. Here is what I commented:

This situation is the shame of instant replay.

It isn’t that the umpire made the wrong call. In my biased opinion, he did make the wrong call. But instant replay gives umpires the opportunity to make a mistake twice, under the guise of trying to get it right once.

With no instant replay, mistakes are made. With instant replay, mistakes are affirmed. And in fact, the instant replay rule detracts from the game. It isn’t as if instant replay eliminates bias – it eliminates a random event.

I don’t think it was a home run. But nobody is served by instant replay in this situation. The kind of remedy that instant replay gives you here is the same kind that technology might one day automate the calling of balls and strikes. It offers the illusion of objectivity… and it is just that, an illusion. Baseball is the most human of sports. Adding technology to the mix does not make the game better. It separates us from the game.  That the umpire made a mistake last night isn’t nearly as bad as the idea that technology only served to affirm that mistake.

I’ll take my chances with the umpires.

Bittersweet

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Players,Teams — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 11:38 am May 14, 2009

I tuned into yesterday’s game in the 8th inning. I usually watch entire games, but between the game time and some family obligations, I didn’t get back to the office until late. The Nats were leading.

It was excruciating.

Ryan Zimmermanwas hitless, and once he came up in the 9th inning and grounded into the fielder’s choice, the reality of it all settled in. The streak was over. As Zimmerman stood on first base, the fans in San Francisco gave him a standing ovation. Bay Area, you guys are class.

Far from being a sure thing, the Nats had to just survive the bottom of the 9th, and they’d head home winners for the day, and .500 for the west coast road trip. They survived. And if you think about it, first place teams are happy to go home splitting a west coast road trip. The Nationals should be absolutely thrilled.

After the game, I wandered through the current thread on Nationals Journal. It was full of fan posts rooting for the Nats to blow the save and go to extras, so Zim could get another at bat. How strange! I secretly felt the same way.

I imagined the post game interviews, and I imagined that every time someone asked Zim about the end of the streak, he said, “We won the game.”

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so melancholy after a win.

A little later in the day, I got an email from a friend who had taken his three year-old daughter to her first Potomac Nationals game. It put it all into perspective for me. Here’s an excerpt:

[My daughter,] She had a ball! At first she was a bit cowed by the large crowd — there were literally scores of strangers packing the stands. Soon enough, though, she was peeking at the action. She saw a batter swing and miss (a Red Sok, fortunately) and giggled uproariously. Then a foul ball? Forget about it, the kid was hooked. By the end of the game, as the sound-effects guy pulled out all the stops, she was clapping along to the clapping thing and imploring us to “Do the charge again!”

We got there dreadfully late — big trouble getting out of bed and out the door. The upside of that is, we stayed till the end. I just did the math, and I’m pretty sure my three-year-old just spent almost two hours sitting and watching a ball game. That does my heart good. And as we left the stadium, some random woman walking the other way was appropriately smitten with Herself’s copious charm and handed her a Nerf-type baseball. Just because, as far as I could tell. So sweet.

As I loaded her into her car seat to drive home, my daughter announced, “We see baseball tomorryow.”

This is what separates baseball from every other sport. There is a complex web of story lines. At one end of the spectrum, we see a struggling team packed with talent. We see one of its young players start to edge onto the stage with the immortals of the sport. We watch one of our most talented pitchers continue his undefeated streak – on a last-place team. We see a hitting streak end. We see our fans torn between the success of the team and the achievements of one of its stars. And at the other end of the spectrum, we see a father and daughter start a tradition that will last a lifetime.

More importantly, those story lines don’t exist in a vacuum. They are all tied together – even when they occur 3000 miles apart at different games, in different leagues. By watching, we become a part of it.

It is fitting that today is an off day, because it feels like the end of a chapter of an incredibly compelling story. The Nats will be home tomorrow. Zim’s streak has been wiped clean, but not before we’ve glimpsed greatness. Spring is over, and now it is summer. A new baseball fan is born.

What time is first pitch?

The Case For Pedro

Does Pedro Martinez have an ego?

Uh huh.

Is Pedro a Hall of Fame starter in 2009?

Nope. If he was, do you think he’d be sitting the spring out?

So why would the Nats be interested in him?

Because they need him… in the ninth inning.

Honestly, the Nats don’t really need starters. Lannan, Martis and Zimmermann are good now, and may well be great in a couple years. Olsen is better than his statistics show, and would be better still if the defense would come to his rescue a bit. Cabrera… perhaps a lost cause… but the Nats have a slew of starters that are as good (or better) either languishing in the bullpen or in the minors. Pedro would be an improvement there, but only a marginal one, I think. If you look at the cost of Pedro, versus the cost of starters already in the system, you’re probably talking like $500,000 to $1 million per additional win with Pedro in the rotation – if you could get him for $2 million.

But imagine Pedro as a closer… He’d have his mug on television every other day. Opposing batters respect him, he’s fearless, he has the poise and demeanor to be in the game when it is on the line…

… and we got nuthin.

Suppose he really did cost $5 million for the rest of the season. Would it be a bad investment, if you could get him to be a closer? I don’t think so – he and Beimel would be anchors in the bullpen. I think anyone would suspect his ability to go five or six innings, but he could probably be counted on for one… not to mention that he’s not pitching now, so even if you were going to use him as a starter, you’d need to stretch him out a bit. Why not just leave him at 25 pitches an appearance?

To sell it to Pedro, you’d have to appeal to his vanity and ego: you’ve done everything else… finish your career showing that you can do this, too… and do it as only Pedro can.

To sell it to the Nats, I would point out that the Nats have a marketing problem – their team can’t play in a close game, and they need a closer. [As an aside, I think the Nats need a closer more now than ever in their history. This team's offensive strength is going to get them and keep them in games that they've never been competitive before. If they can solve the head problems they have with their fielding, the problem that is left will be left is the bullpen. It is the only problem that needs to be solved with personnel changes.] $5 million is a lot of money, but you could take it out of the marketing budget rather than personnel. It isn’t that people will come to see Pedro, but they’ll come to see the Nats win (or be competitive). If the Nats can’t put a .480 team on the field this year, they’re going to be in terrible trouble with the fan base. They’re not entertaining to watch right now. You’re sending fans home feeling worse about the team than when they walked into the park.

Does signing Pedro fix that? I don’t know… but maybe. The Nats can’t really afford to trade away the Major League-ready players (except for an outfielder, and you know how I feel about Lastings Milledge), and there really aren’t any prospects in the system that you’d want to part with. You could sign Pedro without giving up talent.

Of course, all of this presumes that he can actually still pitch. But assuming he can, I would remind the Nats that they’ve spent $5 million on a lot less than Pedro.

(Paul LoDuca)

The upside is, Pedro could be to the bullpen what Adam Dunn is to the lineup – his presence might make the whole team better.

But then, I could be wrong.

Fantasy Baseball

I am going to take you back in time a few weeks… in an alternate universe. The date: April 18, 2009.

In this alternate universe, the Nationals played the Marlins at Nationals Park. The Nats won, 6-2. Scott Olsen went eight innings, giving up two runs and six hits. The Nats had a five-run first inning, including a grand slam by Austin Kearns. Joe Beimel came in and pitched the ninth, giving up a hit.

What is the difference between this universe and the universe that we live in? In this alternative universe, the Nats had no errors in this game, and in our “real” universe, the Nats had three.

Here’s the thing: Even in the universe where there were only two errors in the game instead of three, if the error that is missing is Nick Johnson’s dropped popup in the fifth inning, the Nats still win, 6-5, with Joel Hanrahan getting the save.

I bring this up because there are a lot of people who are only too happy to pile onto the bullpen problems as the cause for the Nationals woes. I am among the first to point out that the bullpen has not been a stellar part of the mix. But in their defense, the bullpen has been asked to come into games and pitch in situations where they never should have. And when you’re a pitcher, and you’re worried that your shortstop is going to boot a ball (or two) in a game, you start pitching for strikeouts. You start pitching not to make a mistake. You start pitching not to lose.

Which, by the way, is different than pitching to win.

I know that my example is both not statistically valid and an exaggeration. But my point is, you can’t give teams – especially National League East teams – extra outs, extra bases, extra runs, and then be upset with the bullpen about giving up a lead… if you’re not first upset with your defense about not protecting the lead you’ve built in the first place.

I suspect that the problem is not one that is solved by changing personnel, including the manager. I believe it is one where each player needs to be focused and accountable for their outcomes. That is more a leadership issue.

Errors happen, and teams win games where they make errors. In last night’s game, Anderson Hernandez made an error on the second half of a double play, throwing the ball away and allowing the batter to advance to second. But the Nats won, and while Hernandez probably should have swallowed the throw, he made the throw trying to be aggressive and get the second out. A mistake of youth. The Nats survived the inning, and the game.

If the Nats can reduce their erros, if the pitchers – both starters and the bullpen – can start to relax and trust their defense, if the whole team can start playing the way they know they can… this will be an interesting season.

If they can’t… well, my head hurts already. It will be a long, hot summer.

… and a thanks to Jeff Bergin at NationalsPride.com for the seed of this idea.

… and one other thing – the picture at the top of this page was from that game.

Spring Returns to Washington

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 6:28 pm April 12, 2009

Sometimes I wonder if all the traveling is worth it.

I make two trips a year to Washington. I come in April for the opening homestand, and again in September, for the last one. I’ve done that for five straight years. In addition, last year I ran down the road to Seattle to see the Nats play at Safeco.

In all, I catch about ten Nats games a year in person. If you ignore the thirty-three year break between the Senators and the Nats, I’ve been to every opening day since 1971.

Two years ago I didn’t see them win… Not once, in nine games. On the other hand, last year they only lost twice out of the nine games I saw in person (including opening day at Nationals Park, and the next day at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia).

Things aren’t looking so hot for the home nine this year, either. It matters to me if they win or lose. But it matters more to me that I be a part of it.

As cities go, Washington is a bit strange, in that there are so few people who are from ‘here’ – and I can say ‘here’ because I am ‘here’ for Opening Day. So many of us are from somewhere else. For those of us who were born here, there is an awareness of place that very few people share. Baseball was a part of that place for me as a child, and after the Senators left in 1971, I have to admit, the Orioles did help to fill some of that gap for me. But for a lot of people, baseball is not enough in itself. Baseball is wonderful, but it must also be about the place… our home. As wonderful as it was to watch the Orioles in the 70′s and 80′s, Baltimore is where you went to watch the O’s, and you came home to Washington. That long commute down I-95 after a night game served to remind me – the hundreds of times that I made that trip – that I had to leave home to watch baseball.

When the Nationals moved to Washington in 2005, it was a restoration of that piece of Washingtonian life that had been missing since my childhood. Even though I lived 4000 miles away, I was drawn to the reality that I could once again watch baseball in my hometown. I’ve been a part of it ever since.

My hometown has a baseball team again. Tomorrow, something wonderful happens. It is a sure sign that summer is about to be here… a summer we went without for thirty-three years.

Does it matter if they win or lose? Absolutely.

But not as much as it does to be a part of it.

It is definitely worth it.

Be a part of it.

Wishful Thinking

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 10:43 pm April 10, 2009

Wil Nieves takes ball four, and the Nats win.

You’re right, they should never be in a position where that situation costs them a game… in a game where they load the bases three times with one out… and squeeze out only a single run.

But on the other hand, the Nats are loading the bases three times in a game… and battled back twice to tie the game.

This year is not last year. Some experience and poise are going to right this team.

One other thing… I have heard others say it… but I thought I would chime in. Rob Dibble is really growing on me. I liked Sutton, but listening to him (Sutton) was like listening to your favorite professor lecture. Dibble has the knowledge, roots for the team, criticizes freely… and the careful listener tonight heard him tease Carpenter about declaring a hit before the ball hit the ground. He would be fun to watch a game with. With Sutton, you were embarrassed if you weren’t taking notes.

Maybe he’ll keep Carpy honest.

One other other thing… Elijah Dukes is making a case for himself, don’t you think?

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