Nats Are Searching for a Punch Line

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, February 24, 2006

VIERA, Fla.

Every baseball fan knows "Who's On First?" So, of course, they also realize that "I Don't Know" plays third base. Except in Washington where, apparently, the Nats never heard of Abbott and Costello because they've got "I Don't Know" at second base.

Costello slapped himself in the face in exasperation when Abbott said, "I Don't Know." The crowd would laugh because that was the punch line. Unfortunately, every time Frank Robinson, Jim Bowden and Alfonso Soriano said, "I don't know," on Thursday -- and they said it dozens of times -- they got a different kind of laugh: a horse laugh, the old raspberry. And it's the fans of the Nationals who are slapping themselves in the forehead in exasperation.

If only the Nationals had simple problems, like "Tomorrow" pitching to "Today" with (in honor of Cristian Guzman) "I Don't Give a Darn" at shortstop. But it's more complex than that. A team can do without an owner. And that new Anacostia ballpark wasn't due to be done for a few years anyway.

But when you have two genuine all-stars in your lineup -- Alfonso Soriano and Jose Vidro -- and they both play the same position, then you've got problems. Every time the Nats ask Soriano to move to left field, he answers, ironically enough, with the name of Abbott and Costello's left fielder: "Why?"

In rebuttal the Nats can only shrug their shoulders and say, "Because." That doesn't help much. "Because" was Abbott's center fielder. And the Nats' secret wish is that Soriano would volunteer to play center field.

What the Nats are playing out is farce, not drama. And it's going to stay that way for the next month, at least. After a half hour of deflecting questions, Bowden said mischievously, "We've been pretty clear about being unclear."

"Is [Soriano] going to play left field? . . . Who knows," said Robinson. "We'll play with five infielders and two outfielders."

Actually, the Nats know that one of four scenarios will eventually play out. None is terrible. Most are good. Soriano can agree to play left field so Vidro can play second. This is the Nats' fantasy. Believe it when you see it. Or Soriano can play second and Vidro, if he demonstrates over the next four to eight weeks that his knee is healthy, can be traded. This is a high-probability outcome. Or Vidro, if healthy, can play second and Soriano can be traded. This is less likely. Soriano, with 35-homer, 30-steal skills, is a better fit for the Nationals' desperate offensive needs than the more subtle Vidro.

"Are they tradable? A couple of all-stars?" Robinson said incredulously. "Of course they are."

The fourth possibility, the nightmare scenario, is that Vidro's right knee will blow out for the third straight year, in which case Soriano will play second and Bowden will look brilliant for anticipating the problem and preempting a disaster.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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