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.

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.

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.

We All Get a Little Pudge Around the Holidays

Filed under: Organization,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 1:46 pm December 8, 2009

If it weren’t for Paul LoDuca, we would all be thrilled about the signing of Ivan Rodriguez.

Pudge isn’t LoDuca. Pudge (presumably) knows what his role is… I’m not sure LoDuca did.

This should be a no-brainer for Nats fans.  As much as we all love Wil Nieves, Pudge is in a different tier than Wil.

Pudge will be in the clubhouse as much (and maybe more) for what he knows and who he is, than for what he can do. In the most recent Nationals Journal posting, Chico Harlan quotes Jack McKeon about Pudge:

“What a leader he was,” McKeon said. “He not only leads by example, but he was really positive with the Latin players. He’s a guy that took charge. He took charge of that [2003] club. Good guy, comes to play, unselfish, does all the little things. He’s a winner. I heard about the move and I couldn’t wait to see Rizzo to say, ‘Damn, you got one of my favorite guys!’”

Later in our [Harlan and McKeon's] discussion, McKeon explained Rodriguez’s value in relation to the young pitchers he can potentially help.

Speaking about the Nationals, McKeon said, “You’re probably going to get a half a year quicker development from those young guys and that’s where he’ll really pay off. That’s where you’ll really like him.”

As for the salary – critics of the Nationals payroll over the years complain both that it is too low, and that the Nats are wasting their money. As for the wasting part, we can point fingers directly at Jim Bowden, who today said:

“Following in the footsteps of Paul LoDuca and Dmitri Young, another bad [signing] by the Nationals,”

quoted from Dan Steinberg’s D.C. Sports Bog

Seems to me, if anyone would know a bad signing in this world, it would be Jim Bowden…

On the other hand, if Bowden doesn’t like the move, how bad could it be?

If the Nationals get the kind of leadership from Pudge that he’s brought with him for his whole career, $6 million will be a bargain.


Abe Pollin

Filed under: Organization — Tags: — Wigi @ 4:49 pm November 24, 2009

When you’re a season ticket holder – and it doesn’t really matter what team you hold tickets for – you get to know your home stadium pretty well. You have your secret stairwells and exits, and parking spaces. The last out is made, the final buzzer sounds, and you’re off to the races, into your car, and ahead of 95 percent of the  fans.

So it was with me back in the early 80′s when I was a Capitals season ticket holder. I had my tickets in section 208 at the Capital Centre. When the game was over, it was down the stairs, straight across the concourse, through two sets of double doors, and then into the night.

There was a special part of my ritual that I was reminded of today. When I walked across the concourse there at section 208, I would always look to my right, because I would always see Abe Pollin leaving his seats and heading for his office. Abe was always there.

I never bothered to say hello to Mr. Pollin when I saw him, though I wish now that I had. The Washington Post has a photo gallery on their website now, and wading through the photos brought back some incredible memories. In many ways, he was just another fan, just like me. He was at the games, just like me. He was proud of his team, just like me.

Mr. Pollin made an incredible contribution to sports in Washington, and the community as a whole.

We’ll miss him.

The Intangible Value of Stephen Strasburg

What are you doing Saturday afternoon?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the Desert Dogs – Javalinas game on television*.

And for that, you have Stephen Strasburg to thank.

The Nationals are pretty psyched about it too, I bet. After all, here it is just a week before Thanksgiving, and quite a few fans are going to tune in a baseball game to watch Strasburg and the Phoenix Desert Dogs try to win the Arizona Fall League Championship. It is probably safe to assume that interest among Nats fans has never been higher, and I confess, a big part of why I went to Phoenix was to see Strasburg. But like they say in advertising, “Come for the Strasburg, stay for the rest of the Nats.”

Between Strasburg and the Desert Dogs, and the splash that Mike Rizzo is making revamping the front office (more on this soon), it is likely that the Nationals have never had a better November. Okay, November 2004 might have been better, but that was technically the Expos, and from the Montreal perspective, that wasn’t a good month at all.

The only downside: High expectations. We’ve had them before – search my blog for “irrational exuberance”. But I think we’ve all been hurt enough now that our expectations are more in line with reality.

The Nats paid a lot for the privilege of signing Stephen Strasburg. When they weighed the cost and the benefit of signing him, I wonder how much they considered the good feelings and attention that would be generated in the offseason with his participation in the AFL. In most other years, the AFL action would be an obscure afterthought for most people. But this year, a lot of attention has been called to AFL, and Nationals fans are getting to “see” not only Strasburg, but also Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Danny Espinosa, Josh Wilkie, Jeff Mandel and Sean Rooney.

So Saturday afternoon, a lot of people will be watching college football. The hardcore of us – most of you reading this – will be watching the AFL Championship Game on television.

This is very good news.

———-

*The AFL Championship Game can be seen starting at 2:30 Eastern Time/10:30 Alaska Time on MLB Network (cable) and MLB.TV (Internet).

Christmas in November

Nationals fans got some of their Christmas presents early this week, with the announcements that Ryan Zimmerman was honored with both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for his amazing play in 2009. Add to that the announcement that Jim Riggleman has been chosen as the permanent manager for the Nationals, and you’d be hard pressed to find a week with more Nationals news that didn’t have seven lineup cards and a few home runs.

Bloggers got an extra gift this morning – a telephone press conference with Jim Riggleman.

After having spoken to Drew Storen last week in Arizona, I was curious if Riggleman had some advice for those young players that were hoping to crack the twenty-five man roster this spring. Riggleman pointed out that the players in the Arizona Fall League are the cream of the crop and that the majority of them make it to the Major Leagues – though not all make it right out of spring training. Riggleman added that Storen’s path through the organization – signing early after the draft, getting considerable experience in the minors, and then an additional stint in the Arizona Fall League has done nothing but help his chances. And while Riggleman said it was too early to say exactly where Storen might land in the spring, he suggested that there might be opportunities for him if he earns it in spring training.

Some other notes from the press teleconference:

  • Riggleman hopes to have Cristian Guzman play at second base this year. Guzman’s September injury to his shoulder prevented the Nats from trying Guzman at second at the end of the season. Guzman’s surgery was successful and the damage found was minimal, so there is every hope that a healthy Guzman will move to second base in the spring.
  • … which brings us to shortstop. Riggleman mentioned that he would be comfortable with Ian Desmond at shortstop, but there has been some recent rumors that the Nationals may be interested in other shortstops that might be available on the free agent market.
  • Scott Olsen is recovering well from his surgery, and is expected to be ready for spring training.
  • Jordan Zimmerman is also recovering well from his surgery, but Riggleman does not expect Zimmermann to be back before 2011.

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.”

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