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Nats Are Searching for a Punch Line

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.

The unknown state of Vidro's knee has been the driver behind this entire situation. When last season ended, the team had three questions. Would Vidro work hard enough in the offseason to lose weight and strengthen his legs? The offseason and extensive fanatical workouts have never been concepts that coincided for Vidro. But he's also never been on the wrong side of 30 before with a knee that's ruined two seasons and a waist that was getting pudgy.

Even if Vidro reported fit and strong, would that be sufficient? Or would the knee sideline him again?

When the Nats got a chance to trade for Soriano, they not only saw it as an insurance policy at second base but also as a move that would ensure a motivated Vidro on reporting day. And that's what they got. "We've tried everything, including surgery, and nothing worked. I decided the thing to do was not more surgery, but hard work. Then work harder than that," said Vidro. Becoming a fitness freak was suddenly a necessity, not just an option.

"My belt is an inch [tighter]," Vidro, 31, said wryly. "This year and last year, when I reported, it's no comparison."

But will the knee hold up? If it does, then the Nats have an all-star second baseman or else a player many teams will want in a trade. If the knee goes, then that's part of why Soriano has arrived.

There's only one problem. We have to wait -- probably at least until Opening Day -- for an answer. In sports, everybody wants an answer yesterday, even when there isn't one. "We expect instant gratification, especially in sports," said assistant GM Bob Boone. "Everybody wants to know, 'What are you going to do?' And 'We don't know yet' isn't what they want to hear."

It isn't what Soriano and Vidro want to hear, either, though both were gallantly diplomatic on their first day in camp. "What's going on here is not [Soriano's] problem. What's going on here is not my problem. It's the team's problem," said Vidro. "Some way, some how, we need to get this worked out."

In this regard, the Nats have stumbled into one lucky break. Robinson knows exactly how Soriano feels. In 1959, after three years of stardom, Robinson was asked by the Reds to move from the outfield to first base to help the team.

"No," said Robinson at first.

"You have a comfort zone. You try to make yourself the best at your position," recalled Robinson. "You think, 'I put in all this time learning my job, now all of a sudden, I have to change?' You don't jump up and say, 'Yes, I will!' It's not easy to accept. It's very difficult. For me, in the outfield, you can sit down and take a siesta. At first base, you're always involved."

But Robinson switched, playing 203 games at first base in two seasons. "I was over there because I had to be over there," said Robinson. "I was never comfortable."

Few think that, on Opening Day, the Nats will have a healthy Vidro at second base and a reconciled team-centered Soriano in the outfield. Even though that would give Washington an offense -- including Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Schneider and a Marlon Byrd-Ryan Church platoon -- that might be significantly stronger than last season's offense. Of all the possibilities, that pleasant outcome would get the longest odds in Vegas.

Don't rule it out too fast. The new Vidro may resemble the old Vidro. And, with star players who have issues or tender skins, Robinson has a special touch, as he showed with Guillen last season. If anybody can bring Alfonso around, it's Frank. After all, if Soriano says, "Why," then his 70-year-old Hall of Fame manager can say, "Because. I did it for my team. Can't you?"

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