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It's Time To Get Serious

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Phillies, as might be expected of world champions and friends, bid farewell to their beloved broadcast voice of the last 38 years, Harry Kalas, who died yesterday, in the utterly inadequate but nevertheless appropriate way. They won a ballgame they hardly wanted to play. That was the only available testimony to Kalas, so they took it. Seldom has a record crowd, such as the 40,386 in Nationals Park, been so willing to cede the hour and day to the visiting team.

"We lost our voice today," Phillies President David Montgomery said of Kalas, 73, who collapsed in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park.

The Phils bid their farewell with three long home runs, by Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard and Raúl Ibáñez, each of which would have been worthy, on a happier day, of Kalas's trademark call of "Outta here!"

Few things speak more of beginnings, and less of ends, than a home opener in baseball. But no one here, despite an exciting 9-8 game and home runs by Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nats, could, or would even want to, ignore the larger cloud that hung over this affair.

Before the national anthem, a moment of silence was held for Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed in Los Angeles last Thursday by a drunk driver. And, by the middle innings, word arrived that the eccentric Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, 54, who talked to the ball on the mound and had a brief but brilliant pitching career in the 1970s, had been killed in an accident at his home.

One was young and had just pitched six scoreless innings in the third game of the season, then died within hours as a car passenger. One was middle-aged and found under a truck he had apparently been working on at his farm. And Kalas, older but still vital, had just had one of his finest memories, calling the World Series victory last October for the team with which his name is always linked.

These slap-in-the-face moments in life, which don't directly concern us yet affect us more deeply than we might suspect, have a sobering tonic quality. They take us out of ourselves for a moment and let us see matters -- not life-and-death things, just our everyday reality -- with more distance and less anxiety.

Which brings us, by an odd path, to the Nats' locker room, where the only winless team in baseball (now 0-7) finds itself in a thoughtful yet perhaps constructive mood. Perhaps soberness about serious things helps us think more clearly about mere baseball matters.

For example, the Nats are tired of Lastings Milledge, their 24-year-old center fielder, acting like a 10-year veteran who has earned a central position in their locker room when, in fact, he has accomplished little. When he doesn't show up until 30 minutes before team stretching exercises or is late to a team meeting the day before Opening Day, it sends a bad message that honors are given before they are earned in the Nats' world.

So don't be surprised if, fairly soon, the Nats' clogged outfield problem is solved, at least temporarily, in an unexpected way: by sending Milledge back to the minor leagues. He's a gifted athlete but, both in center field and as a leadoff hitter, he is still an unpolished and undisciplined player. The Nats' front office still refers to the zig-zag routes he runs to fly balls, like two more adventures yesterday, as "pass patterns" because he breaks in so many different directions. As a leadoff man, he seems to have no sense of his get-on-base role.

If the Nats take this course, they can put Elijah Dukes, whom one executive refers to as "a warrior," in center field. Milledge is an athlete learning to play baseball. Dukes is an athlete who is both a baseball player and a fierce competitor. That fire has often burned far too hot for his own good, but, if channeled, it could be central force on a good Nats team on some future day.

Though it is still quite uncertain, the Nationals may also be coming closer to confronting, and resolving, one of the core issues of their franchise and their relationship with their often disappointed fans: They need to sign Ryan Zimmerman. At the end of spring training, Zimmerman suddenly displayed as much or more power than he ever has at the plate. His shoulder injury from last summer? What injury? With that four-homer exhibition burst, plus four doubles, an opposite-field home run and a 425-foot blast to dead center field in this home opener, Zimmerman has shown, in just the past couple of weeks, that making him prove his health any further is probably lunacy.

Both sides know what is needed: a contract a notch lower than the six-year, $66 million deal that the Orioles gave to Nick Markakis, the friend and rival whom Zimmerman mischievously calls "the kid down the street."

The Nats, who look so discombobulated at the moment, could go a long way toward a more cohesive locker room if it included: a happy Zimmerman with a long-term deal, a fierce Dukes in a starting role, more playing time for Josh Willingham and Austin Kearns, and the welcome addition of Dunn (now slugging .726 with an on-base percentage of .576), who already is quietly asserting a leadership role.

The final Phils run in this game, which proved to be decisive, scored after a double to left on which Dunn slipped when the turf gave way under his foot. He was not given an error.

"Put it on me," he said after a game in which he had a walk, a double and homer to center. "I'll take the blame."

A firm, friendly and, presumably, temporary goodbye to Milledge, until he gets the message, would also add to the sense that adults are in charge.

This, of course, only leaves one small problem: pitching, the core of the sport. In seven games, Nats starters have allowed 35 earned runs.

"We're going to hit more this year and our defense will improve," Acta said after watching spring slapstick the last eight days in the field. "But we can't give up nine runs a game."

This huge Opening Day crowd, aided no doubt by guests invited to town by President Stan Kasten in his Philly radio misadventure, realized what the Nats thought they would build in D.C. once they had their new park. After 102 loses and an 0-7 start, those imaginings -- of summer nights when 30,000 to 35,000 would just be a normal response to a good team in a pretty setting -- now seem remote.

But on such a sober day, when hyperbole seems out of place, the reality of the Nats is probably not as bleak as it looks at this April nadir.

"If you think we're worried, we're not," Zimmerman said. "We're closer than it probably seems. We need to play defense and pitch a little better. We have to battle through it. Things will turn."

On a day with so much seriously sad news, it hardly seems an insurmountable task to rearrange the outfield a bit and a face tough problem, like the Zimmerman contract. In the scheme of things, 0-7 shall pass. But the opportunity to take lessons from it, and act on them, only comes once.

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