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

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.

Will History Repeat Itself?

I make an effort not to put myself in the position to be an armchair General Manager. I figure that there are probably fifty people in the world who are qualified to be a Major League GM, and I am not one of them. For me to comment would be a little like me commenting on major surgery – Take that spleen out! You can live without a spleen, right?

But there are aspects of being a GM that isn’t about evaluating talent or negotiating contracts.

One of them is, what happens when one (or more) of the Nationals’ prospects ends up playing themselves onto the big club’s roster?

The gaudy (in a bad way) start of spring training is setting up the scenario where it is entirely possible that a player like Ian Desmond or Drew Storen so handily outperforms the incumbent that Mike Rizzo’s biggest April worry is what to do with Cristian Guzman and Jason Bergmann. It wasn’t so long ago – 2008 – that this very scenario played out as Jesus Flores played himself onto the big team’s roster, even when his ticket seemed irrevocably punched for AAA.

Back in November, I traveled to Arizona for Arizona Fall League, and I interviewed Drew Storen about his plans for spring training. At that time, he said his plan was to come to Florida and make an impact. While he’s had only one appearance so far, it was notable for both its success and brevity. He’ll pitch again tomorrow – and while his appearance may be overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg, a strong performance will almost certainly get the attention of the front office. An impact, indeed.

Ian Desmond is doing the same thing… and as a position player, he’s getting a chance every other day or so to show that perhaps Syracuse isn’t the place for him.

The problem that Rizzo faces is that the business of baseball – assigning players to the minors in order to both foster their development and slow down the arbitration clock – seems to be in conflict with the actual performance of the players. I suspect it is tempting to not let a player’s emprical performance on the field interfere with a perfectly good business decision. But the fans don’t see it that way, and people like me are rooting for Drew Storen and Ian Desmond.

I am not saying that Storen or Desmond… or any other Nationals rookie… deserves to make the team. What I am saying is, if they have game, they don’t deserve to ride the bus in the minors because the Nats have expensive contracts with veterans. The fans don’t deserve it, either. I think we deserve the best available team… and I think that the take home message from 2009 is that  it is a mistake to assume that any player on the team is a lock at his position on the first day of spring training (see Milledge, Lastings). Albert Pujols comes to spring training believing he needs to earn his spot. It seems to work out for him.

So will history repeat itself?

Let’s hope!

Another Set of Eyes

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 12:08 pm February 8, 2010

If you’re reading this blog, you’re clearly an over-the-edge, hardcore Nats fan. You’re probably reading this at work.

Does your boss know? Do you have to use an alias when you post comments?

I thought so…

Well, here’s an opportunity to feed your addiction. Mark Zuckerman, the former Nationals beat writer for the Washington Times is now out on his own. He recently started a blog called Nats Insider, and he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback about it… so he’s going to make the trek to Viera for Spring Training, and cover it from beginning to end… and he’s accepting donations to help finance his coverage.

I know,  we’d all like donations to finance our trips to spring training. But there’s one difference – he’s a professional journalist with a proven track record. Admit it, he’s very good. And since the Washington Times has given up sports for… well… “sports”, it would be great to have another set of eyes and ears out there, asking the questions we all want answers to.

Mark has a PayPal interface set up to make payments easy. You can donate at any level you like, but there are some tiers that grant you some additional access to his exclusive content.

I contributed $20.49. $20 is the first tier. I added $.49. I figured he might need to buy a blank CD or two while he was there.

As an aside, what happened at the Washington Times Sports Department  is probably indicative of what we’re going to continue to see out there when it comes to print media. The suuccessful business model is changing. I am not sure that public fundraising to send bloggers to Florida is a viable business model either, but until we know, this is something that we as consumers and colleagues can do to support new media.

Mark, will we get restaurant reviews, too?

O-Dog

Filed under: Personnel — Tags: , , , , , , — Wigi @ 3:38 pm February 4, 2010

There are some deals that you just feel bad about when they don’t happen, but for me, the Orlando Hudson deal wasn’t one of them. Not that I am the first to say this, but there are reasons that Hudson isn’t with the Dodgers, and there are reasons that the Dodgers acquired Ronnie Belliard last season.  Hudson was/is asking top shelf money,  and I think there are good reasons to believe he isn’t top shelf anymore.

I totally agree that the Nats have gaping holes at middle infield, but they have had them for a long time, and it isn’t an easy problem to solve. What is different now is that at least we have some prospects - Ian Desmond - who is in the neighborhood. After Desmond put on an encouraging showing at the end of last season, a lot of fans would probably settle for an Ian Desmond – Cristian Guzman middle infield. Clearly that isn’t what Mike Rizzo has in mind, but there is still time to work another deal, whether through trade or free agency. The worst we’re going to end up with is Desmond and Guzman. There are worse possibilities. Think Felipe Lopez and Jose Vidro.

I think it only makes sense to be upset about losing Hudson if you think the Nationals are at 90 wins this year, and signing him gets you to 93… and if your argument is that Hudson is a stop-gap until Desmond is ready, $9 million is an expensive stop-gap. I think there are a lot of acceptable ways for a 75-to-80 win team to fill the middle infield for a year, and most don’t cost $9 million.

I absolutely want to see the Nationals acquire a top-shelf middle infield. But I think there was very little upside with Hudson, and a lot of risk. Hudson was not Mister Right… He was Mister Right Now. If we could have landed him for what (we think) Rizzo was offering, it was a good deal. I like that Rizzo stuck to his guns.

Makes you a little teary-eyed for Alfonso Soriano, doesn’t it?

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.

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.


Twitterview: @Ballystar40 – Collin Balester

Filed under: Players — Wigi @ 3:32 pm December 1, 2009

Attention all short-attention-span Nationals fans! Collin Balester will be available for questions on Planetary Nats Blog’s first-ever Twitterview! Submit questions now, we’ll get started at 7 PM Eastern, 4 PM Pacific, 3 PM Alaska time.

You can submit your questions ONLY via Twitter. To do so, include the hashtag #ballytwitterview, like so:

#ballytwitterview What do you and Flores talk about when you have your gloves over your mouth?

The Twitter stream will be posted here, along with photos and other stuff.

====================================

@HendoDC – what was ur most improved pitch this season?

@ballystar40 – I would say my fastball command because that really improved for me and really helped my other pitches work.

@wigi49 – what’s the current score in your follower race with @JLannan31?

@ballystar40 – 210 to 294 me

@section138 – Where’s my academy award prediction prize, dammit!!?? Who changed your mechanics last year? McCatty? St.Claire b4 he left?

@ballystar40 – It’s comming :). Um I would say a little of both. They are both great pitching coaches and help me in different ways

@J_D_P – Big question, Maryland or Virginia?

@ballystar40 – I like both a lot but I would have to say VA

@J_D_P – Wrong answer Collin. Maryland > the commonwealth

@luckyjarmes – Can you talk on being a part of a very young rotation, and what adding a veteran arm would ad to the staff/your game?

@ballystar40 – Ya it’s an awesome feeling to be apart of a really young and so talented staff that’s gonna only keep getting better so fans will be :) soon

@ndwas – Which free agent do you most want to see on the Nats in 2010?

@ballystar40 – umm really I don’t no. I don’t really no of all the free agents I have just been focused on me this offseason.

@lwb2 – lot of talk about bringing in a vet pitcher to “mentor” #nats young arms. Who are ur top 3 wish-ist mentors among actives

@ballystar40 – I really don’t no. Maybe a John lackey. I really don’t think we need anyone to tell you the truth. I’m ok with all the guys we have

@MissMischief86 – How did you feel when you threw that first pitch in the big leagues? Before and after…

@ballystar40 – I felt great it was a dream come True and I really couldn’t soak it all in till after the game. I really don’t think I took a breathe haha

@wigi49 – what is your ‘stache goal for spring training? Selleck, Fingers, Dali? Do we add Bally to that list?

@ballystar40 – Yes we doo it’s going to be something fierce. It will be growing for 7 months by then

@wigi49 – If there was Major League Kickball, would you play two pro sports?

@ballystar40 – Definitely i can kick that ball like no other. And my fielding is better cause it’s such a bigger ball.

@HendoDC – as a guy with 5+ yrs experience in #Nats system, what’d b ur advice to a 2009 draftee pitcher?

@ballystar40 – Just keep working hard I know it seems like such a huge mountain to climb but the more hard work you put in you will get to the top.

@wigi49 – Pick a day on the calendar: When does offseason end, and spring training start for you?

@ballystar40 – um I would say when I start throwing because thats when It starts getting workouts everyday and throwing so really theres no time for stuff.

@NatsNut1 – How do you keep from getting too bummed when sent down? You seemed to have so much fun up in the bigs,.

@ballystar40 – Umm you just got to no that your coming back and keep working hard, I have fun living so yes its way more fun in the MLB and ill be there.

@J_D_P – Whats the best heckle you’ve heard? Either at you or someone else

@ballystar40 – um in philly when i was warming up they were just crushing me and I really don’t remember what they were saying but they were the best haha.

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.
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