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Baseball Most Foul: The Nats Reinvent Bad

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Can Washington learn to love a bunch of baseball losers?

And by "bunch of losers," we mean the Washington Nationals. They are just not very good so far this year. In polite terms: They stink.

In fact, if the Nats play their cards -- and the Cards -- wrong, they could turn out to be absolutely, conclusively, without-a-doubt drop-dead dreadful. Not just losers, but looooozzzzers. The possibility has not escaped sportswriters.

The 2007 Nationals:

" . . . have reeked this season," notes Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

" . . . have a chance to be one of baseball's all-time bad baseball teams," writes Bob Matthews of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

" . . . make the 1962 New York Mets look like a touring all-star team," according to Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun.

When they are at their worst and hitting on no cylinders, the Nats, like the classic bad-as-dog's-breath teams, find new and creative ways to lose. In a recent game against the New York Mets, the Nats blew a ninth-inning, two-out lead and wound up losing by four runs in the 12th inning. In another game, they were down by one run in the bottom of the eighth inning. The bases were loaded and the Nats couldn't score.

They'll take their'n and lose to your'n and they'll take your'n and lose to their'n.

The Nats Fan is still trying to figure it all out. Season ticket holder Joe Baker, 46, of Falls Church, was in a red Nats cap and jersey at a home game on a recent wind-swept weeknight. Though he doubts this year's Nats will be the worst team ever, he says, "I see them losing 90 games. But that's okay. We're building for the future."

Indeed. If the Nats aren't careful, they could be working toward becoming even worse.

It's still early in the season. After last night's loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nats had dropped six straight. At 9-23, they are on track to win about 50 games and lose 110 or so, which wouldn't make them the all-time rottenest team. But as the season slouches on, there could be more injuries. Losing can lead to bickering, finger-pointing, clubhouse tumult and more losing. Other teams will discover Washington's weaknesses. And some top players could be traded to successful, needy/greedy teams as the season skids toward the playoffs. It could get tobacco-plug ugly.

The 2007 Nationals might rival some of the sorriest teams on record. The 1962 New York Mets, who won 40 games and lost 120. The 2003 Detroit Tigers, who lost 119 games. The 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who went 36-117. Or, if you believe what goes around comes around, another Washington team that went 38-113 in 1904. They were called the Nationals.

Arguably the most loserly team in American sporting history is the nightly opposition to the Harlem Globetrotters. Fielded by general manager John Ferrari, the Globetrotters' Atlantic City-based opponents have lost more than 5,000 games since 1971.

"I tell the players that we are not defined by winning and losing," says the eternally optimistic Ferrari. His team, by the way, is called the Nationals.

This year's Washington Nats have every reason to be called awful. Nick Johnson, the team's premier hitter, is out with a broken leg. Former all-star pitcher Chad Cordero is a closer who depends on the team to get runs (which they don't) before he gets into a game. The five starting pitchers are neophytes. Their combined record in the majors coming into the season was 44-58. Can you say base pathos?

They did not score in the first inning of any of their first 22 games, setting a new National League record. That's Little League bad. Maybe they should be called the L'Enfants Terribles. They are having trouble in the pitching, hitting and fielding departments. But other than that, they are dynamite.

So we return to the question: Can Washington love a losing team?

Maybe not on paper. But in this town we take paper and we shred it.

There are two kinds of sports fans in Washington -- the Wild Ones who root for the Redskins, and the Mild Ones who cheer for the Nationals. The Wizards, the Capitals and the United have a mixture of both archetypes.

Traditionally, this city loves winners, not losers. When the Wizards went to the second round of the NBA playoffs in 2005 -- for the first time in more than two decades -- the city went crazy. The capital tipped caps to the Capitals in 1999-2000, when the NHL team won its division. And, of course, Washingtonians so gloried in the glory years of the Redskins, 1981-91, that many fans still think of them as a winning franchise, though they have gone 104-135 in the 15 years since the Super Bowl championship in 1992.

The city's fans were so ho-hum about the Washington Senators that the team moved out of town twice.

The only way Washington could really get behind the Nats is if the team wins the World Series in the next five years.

Or . . . if the Nats were to become the best losing team ever -- an epic, historic, unforgettable bomb squad for the ages.

A team that the Wild Ones can get behind, because it's so much fun to drink beer and laugh at ineptitude, and Mild Ones can support because the team would be statistically exceptional. The best worst team ever fielded.

It has worked in Chicago, where the Lovable Losers draw huge crowds all season long.

The Cubs management, says Eve Geroulis, "would be chagrined to invest in players that would actually revive the franchise. I swear to God."

Lifelong Chicagoan and Cubs fan Geroulis, 44, teaches business and marketing at Loyola University in the city. In a phone interview, she says she is fascinated by how Cubs fans have embraced what she calls "the Lovable Loser mantle."

She says: "In America, we love the fallen hero. The Cubs live up to that. We love them for their losses."

Wrigley Field, she says, is the epicenter of chic. People go to the games for the experience, and part of that experience is watching the Cubs -- who even after spending a truckload of money in the off-season -- continue to lose in all kinds of ways.

Sam Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern near Wrigley, agrees. "The Cubs can be in last place and still draw millions of people. It doesn't matter if they lose . . . the fans will follow them."

Losing is important to the team's identity, Geroulis says. "We bathe ourselves in it. It's a blanket of comfort, in a disturbing sort of way."

She says the Cubs used to feel a kinship with the Boston Red Sox, but now the Sox are winners. "We're all alone, man."

Unless, of course, the Nationals can get their act together. And really fall apart.

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