Washingon Nationals’ firing of Rick Eckstein is a frustrated swing and miss

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Nationals firing hitting coach Rick Eckstein will make any difference for the team’s disappointing offense. (Post Sports Live)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 23, 2013

You can get drunk on anything, even a fizzy summer drink like Natitude.

Once you think just a little bit too much of yourself, you start to make emotional misjudgments out of frustration. That’s what the Washington Nationals did Monday when they made a scapegoat of their hitting coach, hurt their manager deeply and diminished themselves in the eyes of some of their own players.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nationals had every right and some reason to fire Rick Eckstein. But they should never have done it in a mean midseason kick-the-family-dog moment that you would expect of the Yankees or, worse, the Redskins.

As much emotional maturity and adherence to best practices as the Nats showed last summer when they stuck to principle and shut down Stephen Strasburg when things were going good, that’s how much the Nats lost their bearings amid industry criticism and mockery when things went bad.

Eckstein’s canning quickly will be yesterday’s news because such sacrificial acts are an ingrained ugly part of sports. If you can’t fire the players or at least take a bullwhip to the wealthy miscreants, you can at least mortify the hitting coach, the offensive coordinator or the field goal kicker.

When teams act this way, they send a short-term message of anger to their employees that may give a jolt of energy, if only from self-preservation: I don’t want to be next. But it also sends a long-term message: We sacrifice our own when things go wrong. That can stain a team’s reputation in its game and in its own eyes. The Nats have done many things in recent seasons that were, in part, designed to make them attractive to free agents, hot young players in the amateur draft or international talent. That was smart.

This message is dumb: See how we throw the little hitting coach, who shows up every single day at 11 a.m. and leaves at 11 p.m., under the bus when the team ranks 29th of 30 teams in runs-per-game.

When owners have a general manager as smart and industrious as Mike Rizzo, they should listen to him. The Lerners, in recent years, have done it. But that cuts both ways. When a GM has a manager as decorated and decent as Davey Johnson, with a 50-year sense of what’s honorable in the game and what’s not, then you should listen to him when he takes a strong stand.

This week, Rizzo didn’t. Maybe he felt pressure from above. Don’t know; don’t care. As he says, it’s a production league; he owns his actions. Every GM makes bigger mistakes than crushing a coach under heel. But it’s still short-sighted. Always pick on somebody your own size or bigger.

Rizzo has been annoyed at Johnson for his off-the-cuff, not always correct comments to the media about injuries. The GM thinks that’s proprietary info; Davey believes in candor — and he’s a blabbermouth, too. But everyone is a package of qualities. If you want great strengths, they come with connected weaknesses. A big part of Johnson’s managerial success is that intrinsic honesty. He’s the anti-Mike Shanahan, who thinks the sunrise is his personal secret. As much as anyone in baseball, Johnson means exactly what he says and accepts all consequences.

So how upset is Johnson? First, he asked to be fired instead of Eckstein.

“You could do away with me if you want to change the scenery or change the philosophy,” Johnson said. “I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career. I’ve been traded. I’ve been released. I’ve been sold. I’ve been fired. But today is arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball.”

After Monday’s loss, he was still blanched and more troubled than when I’ve talked to him soon after his own firings.

“This is not the way I wanted to go out,” he said. Pausing, he added, “It’s all about caring.”

Three key people in the Nats clubhouse explained the Eckstein problem in similar words. Sometimes a team has a great season, like the Nats did last year. You can’t explain exactly why, but everyone shares the joy. You’re in it together. Sometimes you have lousy seasons. That’s the game. Maybe the Nats are in one now, maybe not. But when times are tough, you act the same way you did in the glory days: everybody in it together, nobody quite sure why the bad is so bad — but no scapegoats.

The Nats will get over this, in part because Eckstein was typically classy, saying, “It’s the nature of the business. . . . I gave every ounce every day. . . . It doesn’t matter how hard I work . . . how good of a person I am. . . . It’s how well people do. That’s kind of a tough pill, but that’s the pill I chose.”

As context, big league hitting coaches don’t do much except endless grunt work. Every Nats hitter has been coached from 12 to 25 years before they ever met Eck. A coach who tries to blow up that foundation is a menace. You tweak, toss flip, break down film and cheerlead. Johnson says Eckstein was top-drawer. Close enough.

Once, ex-Yankees manager Stump Merrill was made a first base coach. His wife asked, “What does a first base coach do?” Stump said, “I pat the guys on the butt when they get to first base. So, honey, want to practice?”

The circus will move on. The Nats will make jokes like that again. Those who initiated or signed off on scapegoating Eckstein will make better decisions. And one bad day — when a frustrated franchise lapsed into a nasty little baseball cliché, the family sacrifice as motivation — will recede.

But this one will leave a mark, even if many fans won’t get it. For several years, the Nats have done wise things to set a winning tone and encourage good players to come or stay in Washington. Showing up the guy who was in the room eight hours before the national anthem isn’t one of them.

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