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

Turn Back the Clock

Frank Robinson’s appointment to a position in the Commissioner’s Office has opened the door to a lot of reminiscing about the good old days… you know, the ones with the bouncing RFK Stadium and the 51-30 start… and this Opening Night:

First Pitch at RFK Stadium, 2005

First Pitch at RFK Stadium, 2005

That season was magical… especially the first half. And it begs the comparison between that .500 team, and our lovable Nats of 2009.

I am sure that nobody would want the old 2005 team back. The ride was exquisite, but our current team is much more talented.

The thing is, the 2005 team played excellent fundamental baseball. And last night’s game was a perfect example of both how much more talented this year’s team is, and how much better they need to play.

Despite giving away five bases on miscues and errors, and a bases-loaded walk, the Nats brought the tying run to the plate twice in the ninth inning… against Johan Santana, the NL leader in ERA, and the Mets bullpen, including Francisco Rodriguez.

The 2005 team doesn’t give away those five bases or walk in the winning run. Now I am not necessarily saying that the 2005 fundamentals and the 2009 talent beats Johan Santana… But it beats the Marlins three times last week.

Lets see if it can beat Mike Pelfrey today.

The Case For Hondo

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 1:06 pm December 5, 2008

This is one of those things that seems, on the surface, for which there should be universal support – and certainly, in my head, that is how I feel. As evidence, I direct you to the planetnj online petition – hondo.planetnj.net. Mike Henderson also has a Facebook ’cause’ you can register with to show your support – Bring Hondo Home!

All of this started, thanks to Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal, where he informed the world that Frank Howard is no longer employed by the Yankees… and then advocated that the Nats hire him.

What a grand idea! Howard would link Senators history to the Nationals, who are admittedly struggling on the team culture front. I was a kid in the 70′s and Hondo was my hero. I even carried a 36 ounce bat, just because I saw myself as Hondo when I played ball. I could barely lift it, much less swing it. On opening day in 2005, I sat in the upper deck of RFK just above the left field foul pole as Howard took the field, and then handed his position to Brad Wilkerson.

Tears streamed from my eyes as I watched the Senators take the field that night, and surrender their positions to the Nats players… and then the Nats went on to win that night and start an amazingly magical season. It was a great way to bridge 34 years of empty summers in Washginton.

Frank Howard was the hero, and the face of baseball in Washginton for an entire generation of baseball fans. He needs to be a part of baseball in Washington once again.

But there’s a problem with all of this. The rationale for hiring Hondo is almost entirely an emotional one – at least from the perspective of the fans.

Comments in Nationals Journal yesterday were monolithic. Everyone wants Howard back. But what would he do? Quite a few Nationals Journal readers commented that it would be great to see him “. . . in a Nationals uniform.” But that is unlikely. Certainly there is room for him as a scout. But in some respects, that defeats (at least some of) the purpose of having him in the organization in the first place – the fans want to see him. Scouts rarely get to chill in the home park – and this is what made Howard valuable to the Yankees. Howard lives in Loudon County, and could head up to Camden Yards to scout the Yankees upcoming opponents. He certainly wasn’t a fixture at Yankee Stadium. I am sure he was at Nationals Park quite a bit more often.

In some respects, Hondo’s sudden availability poses some problems for the Nats. The “Lerners are Cheap” crowd would argue that the organization is unwilling to commit money to anything worthwhile, including Frank Howard’s salary. But clearly this isn’t the case – I think it would be safe to say that the fanfare over Howard’s hiring would generate enough revenue in season ticket sales to cover whatever it might cost the Nats in salary. It isn’t a revenue issue. But if you remember, it also wasn’t a revenue issue with Frank Robinson. The Nats seemed ready to retain Robinson in some semi-ceremonial capacity – one with a salary – but without any real responsibility. This wasn’t what Robinson wanted. While nobody has suggested that Hondo would feel the same way, it should be a real concern for the Nats. And not to take anything away from Frank Robinson, but Robinson is an icon of baseball history and tradition, while Hondo is an icon from our history and tradition. Getting this right – assuming it happens – is important.

The fans seemingly universal craving for adding Howard to the organization hints an important nutritional deficiency in the Nationals’ organizational diet: the need to connect deeply to Washington and its baseball traditions. Clearly, hiring Hondo does that. But it needs to be done in a way that respects and celebrates Howard’s talents and all that he meant (and still means) to Washington baseball fans.

So what would be the proper position for Frank Howard? One where his efforts make a real contribution to what happens on the field. After all, in addition to his greatness on the field, he has coached, managed and scouted (among other things), and this will be his 50th year in baseball. And second, but almost as important, kids of all ages should be able to walk into Nationals Park, and know that there’s a chance that when they stand in line for a half smoke, they might be standing next to “The Capital Punisher”.

Hire him for his baseball skills and knowledge. Celebrate him for what he did for baseball in Washington, and all he meant for Washington baseball fans.

(and by the way, sign the petition!)

Holding a Grudge

Do you remember where you were on the evening of September 30, 1971?

If you do, then you know exactly why today is an important day in Washington baseball history.

I remember where I was on that night – I was in my room, with my transistor radio, listening to the last Senators game ever. I was ten years old. They left town. I’ve never forgiven them.

“They” were so embarrassed by the shabby and thoughtless way they treated me and the thousands of other Senators fans that they left behind, that they had to change their name. Now they’re known as the Texas Rangers. And they’re coming to Washington tonight, after 37 years, pretending like nothing happened.


What’s wrong with them? Do they think that ten year old kids just forget about being left to fend for themselves to complete their discovery of baseball?

At some point when I was in my early 20′s, and I was mobile enough to make rather frequent trips to Memorial Stadium to watch the Orioles, I realized that the Senators moving to Texas had made a huge difference in my life. When I was a kid, I remember carrying my transistor radio around while my mother was grocery shopping, listening to spring training games on the radio, and at the same time wishing that the thermometer would inch up to 50 degrees. I didn’t go anywhere in the summer without my baseball glove, and there was a certain rhythm and routine to my day, that always ended in a baseball game, or a game of catch. Televised games were a rarity back then, but my childhood schedule revolved around those televised games, and of course, I would listen on the radio whenever I could.

When I was a kid, trips to RFK Stadium were relatively rare – perhaps two or three a season. I remember my first game as if it were yesterday, and I remember being in awe of the incredible green that was the inside of RFK Stadium. I remember watching sitting in the mezzanine with my mom and dad and two brothers on a Sunday afternoon against the Yankees. I remember the last opening day, where the Senators shut out the Oakland A’s, 8-0.

That night in late September, as the Senators took the lead against the Yankees, I was thrilled. I remember thinking that perhaps something would change, and the Senators would stay after all. I remember Frank Howard hitting that home run, and listening to the crowd roar on the radio. I remember the chaos as the fans twice stormed onto the field. I remember the Senators led 7-5, but the official final score was a 9-0 loss by forfeit.

There was no spring in 1972. Add to that, the renaissance of the Redskins and the tenure of George Allen, and the transformation of a baseball fan into a football fan had begun. I no longer carried my baseball glove with me in the summers. I think I went to a baseball game at Memorial Stadium that next year, for “Safety Patrol Day”, but I can’t even remember who played, or any of the details of the game. As great as the Orioles were then they weren’t ‘my’ team, and they weren’t going to take the place of the Senators in my heart. And I tried to find love for the Rangers, but there was something definitely wrong with trying to love someone/something that had abandoned you.

It wasn’t like my love for baseball died, but I have often wondered how my life would have been different if baseball had been a bigger part of my youth – or at least, the part after 1971. Instead of getting dusty and dirty at the diamond, I hung out at the swimming pool. Who knows what other forms of juvenile delinquency might have been avoided if we’d only had a local baseball team?

When the Expos moved to Washington at the end of 2004, I was caught by surprise at how strongly I reacted to the news. And while most of my family still lives in the Washington Area, I live in Alaska, and lead a decidedly un-east-coast existence. But I have made room in my life, and in my heart for the Nationals, and I follow them as closely as I might if I lived in Silver Spring, rather than Anchorage. Heck, it’s only June, and I’ve already seen them in person six times this season (I am 6-0 in games I’ve attended this year… are you paying attention, Stan?).

So tonight, I am faced with the homecoming 37 years in the making – the night that the Senators return to Washington. Admittedly, these are not the same Senators that left in 1971; ownership has changed hands at least a couple times. I couldn’t be bothered by the exact details. What matters is, it is them. They are the ones that abandoned me, and abandoned Washington.

We might not have realized it, but we suffered those 33 seasons without baseball. A whole generation of Washingtonians never got to know what Washington Baseball was all about. Girl at work (June 19, 2008 at 4:30 PM) had it exactly right. Bad baseball is better than no baseball, and thirty-three years of being told that black-and-orange was more than good enough for us… was simply not good enough. And while there are a lot of people who feel anger and animosity towards Peter Angelos for preventing the relocation of baseball to Washington for so long, it is time we remembered how we got to that situation in the first place.

I wish I could be there.

I would boo. I would root against them as hard as I could. I would bring signs to the game. I would think of caustic things to say. I would hope that 30,000 of my fellow fans will feel the same way, but was I said above, Washington is a generation removed from the Senators, and for some, memory is mercifully short.

I hope we kick their ass,  9-0 in each game. I hope they beg to get out of town on Sunday. Seeing them again in Washington in six years will be too soon.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you leave.

The Blind Date

One year ago today, you and I, and the thousands of Planetarians that faithfully rotate around the centerfield gate on Half Street, SE (some of us from afar), were in a different universe. A year ago today, the center of our universe was on East Capitol Street, and many of us were making the soggy walk from the Stadium-Armory Metro to RFK on Little League day, to see the Nats play the Padres.

It was a very different year last year. Or was it?

Nats 2007 record on June 3: 23-34, 13 games behind the Mets.

Nats 2008 record on June 3: 24-34, 9.5 games behind the Phillies.

So why the heck are we, the Planetarians,  so cranky this year? The Nats are essentially at the same place, standings-wise, as they were last year (to be correct, we’re actually a half game ahead).

It is because last year, we had very low expectations of the Nats. We expected 120 losses, and except for the first month of the season, we got something better than our expectations. Basically, 2007 was a blind date – we expected very little, but got about what we hoped for.

So here we are in 2008, and our date has new clothes and a new doo, in the form of a shiny, new stadium. Add to that the national television exposure and a dramatic walk-off win on opening day, the 3-0 start, and the perception that the Nats had helped themselves by acquiring lots of young talent, and it didn’t take long before the fans thought that this was going to be quite a different year from last year. When Barry Svrluga asked us to “Pick Your Won-Loss Record”on March 29, most of us (including me) had the Nats’ record quite a bit above .500 – though quite a few were below, too. So far, it seems that none of us are too pleased with the results.

Here’s the difference: The Nats should be better. Regardless of what Ryan Church is doing this year in New York, Milledge is a better talent. Does he need some work? Yes. But I think we’re seeing the best you’ll get from Church, and there’s still plenty of upside with Milledge. Flores is at least as good as Schneider. If Dukes finds his stroke and stays out of trouble, Bowden robbed the stage picking him up. Guzman is having a year that has people wondering whether he should be extended rather than allowed to walk at the end of his contract. Certainly, at $4 million a year, he’s a bargain, playing as he is now. The Nats bullpen will be better when Cordero is back, and all signs point to the fact that the Nats actually have a credible starting pitching corps, and the depth to take an injury or two. If only we could get another third of an inning out of the starters… All in all, the Nats since-the-slump .500 play just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The recurring theme that we hear about the Nats is frustration. But I am concerned.  I suppose that it is good that we’re not hearing ‘panic’ coupled with the frustration. But as a dedicated and thorough consumer of the media surrounding the Nationals, there seems to be a certain laissez-faire attitude surrounding the team, as if the lack of offense was just a period of time to be endured, rather than a problem that needs to be addressed. I don’t know that Lenny Harris is the wrong guy to be the Nats hitting coach, but the terms “growing into the job” and “on the job training” don’t instill confidence in the fan base, and certainly not in me.

Say what you will about Paul Lo Duca, but I think he’s the only one that has expressed any public embarrassment about both his play and the play of the team. Of course, he’s on the DL, and has essentially been beaten out for his job by Jesus Flores – an opportunity Flores would never have had without Lo Duca’s injury.

I am patient, an I’ve drunk “The Plan’s” Kool-aid. But even I am having my crisis of faith.