Thomas Boswell on the Path the Nationals Should Not Follow

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In the bottom of the 11th inning of a 10-10 farce of blunders at Nationals Park yesterday afternoon, a shroud was put over the field. Okay, a tarp. At the sight of the Nats and Astros bullpens, the sky had laughed 'til it cried. The remnants of a crowd of 19,328 -- symbolic of a drop in attendance this season by almost one-third to a next-to-last-in-baseball average of 19,403 -- splashed toward the subway and parking lots.

Eventually, this game was suspended and will be resumed in progress in Houston in July. Ha, make Texas watch it! Now, the Nats can leave town for an eight-game trip to the anonymity of the West Coast where they will not be met, in the words of Manager Manny Acta, with the "negativity and sarcasm" that has so far engulfed their 7-17 season.

"Go Caps," said Acta, as a sincere farewell. Little did he know the irony.

In the Caps' first season in '74, the team explained its grand designs to Washington. With hindsight, it sounds painfully akin to The Plan that now bedevils the "Natinals." The Caps said they'd be bad for a few years. But be patient, please. They'd develop young talent. With a new Capital Centre arena to boost revenue, plus the great sport of hockey selling itself to a novice NHL town, the Caps would soon be a rich perennial contender.

What could go wrong?

Soon, the Caps were the worst team in hockey, the laughingstock of the '70s. For nine years, they couldn't even make the 16-team playoffs. Then, when they did, the Caps spent the '80s being dubbed the chokers of April. The Caps' hardcore fans, enough of them to support a franchise, loved the team. But nobody else cared. The media, knowing a stock joke when they saw one, played the Caps for chuckles, just like the Nats now.

So, the Capitals lost the capital for 33 years.

Do the Nats want to follow that road? Can the Nats afford to lock their image in place as the worst team in baseball, as the player-to-be-named-later, mess-up-anything "Natinals"? If the Nats think they are not in danger of "losing the town," as the Caps once did, they only have to look at their own box scores. After a packed-house Opening Day, their crowds are down to a bemused group of hard-core enthusiasts, just the kind who used to sustain the Caps.

Some of them suspect, hard as it is to believe, that the Nats are fairly close to being fairly decent. "I'm the one in here in this room. I like this team. We're a couple of arms in the bullpen and a legit number one starter away from competing for the playoffs," Acta said yesterday. "We can hit right now. As the year goes on, we'll field better than we have. And we have four good young starting pitchers that many teams would love to have."

But a franchise that only appeals to the die-hard faith of true believers has picked a brutal path. Right now, the Nats only fill half the seats in a pretty park where the paint is barely dry. They have standard excuses, like their record (worst in the game in '08) and second-season syndrome in a new park. But all of baseball, even with the recession, is only down about seven percent in attendance; the Nats are down more than 30 percent.

Is the problem Washington? It's much too early to tell. Just four years ago, playing in RFK Stadium, the Nats averaged 33,728 per game in their first year. That's more than Cincinnati or Pittsburgh has drawn since 1901. Tampa Bay and Kansas City have never had a season that good. The A's and Twins franchises have each done it once since 1901 and the Tigers twice. The Marlins have won two World Series but had only one better year. Whatever D.C. eventually turns out to be as "a baseball town," it's not going to be 29th.

But this season's numbers are more than ominous. If the Nats wants to avoid another dangerous step down the old Caps path, then they must act decisively. They should start next month by drafting Stephen Strasburg No. 1 overall -- then sign the San Diego State right-hander with the 100-mph-plus fastball. In the Nats' minds, as almost every scout, he will either be, or become, the legit No. 1 that Acta wants.

The price may break the old record for a draft pick of $10.5 million by several million dollars, but it needs to be done. Pitchers make risky high picks. Since the draft began in '65, no pitcher taken in the first 10 overall picks has had a Hall of Fame career. Kevin Brown and Dwight Gooden are closest. Against that are arrayed many great hitters including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas.

Next, the Nats need to admit to themselves that looking out over the next several years, they don't have a top-flight closer, or perhaps even setup man, in their entire organization. Yesterday's blown leads of 8-4 after six innings and 10-9 in the ninth are the latest evidence. Facing a problem doesn't solve it, but it opens the way. Making a trade, signing a free agent or using their No. 10 overall draft pick in June for a young closer is needed.

Teams constantly rewrite their internal history after major personnel changes. Sometimes, new bits of truth leak out, sometimes, just new mythology. In the case of departed Jim Bowden, a new tale is being told. The Nats now note how the ex-GM boosted every player he'd acquired, sometimes leading the team's owners to think they didn't need to spend for free agents when they only had to wait for fabulous prospects.

View this with plenty of grains of salt. But as soon as acting GM Mike Rizzo replaced Bowden, he called a red-flag meeting to say the Nats' bullpen was a potential disaster. Within a day, the Nats signed free agent Joe Beimel, their only effective late-inning reliever, who comes off the disabled list today.

"When we brought up Jordan Zimmermann, that was probably the last player we had in the system who was ready to make a big impact right now," Rizzo said. "We probably have 10 real prospects -- about average. But there's no more help coming quickly."

The Nats don't think they need much help. To a man, including the guilty relievers, they look at five games worth of blown saves and, like Acta, say: "We should have about 11 wins. Then nobody is making jokes."

"This is the best hitting team I've been on," said Ryan Zimmerman, batting .333, on pace for 33 homers and 124 RBI. Adam Dunn, on pace for 45 homers and 130 RBI, plus better health have transformed the lineup. So far. Elijah Dukes is on track for 118 RBI. The Nats now project to 784 runs, an improvement of 143 runs over '08. To stat geeks, that's worth 15 more wins. Or it would be to a team with a bullpen.

As the Caps discovered long ago, once you get an extreme reputation for being inept or comic, nobody cuts you many breaks. Your internal views of progress are discounted.

"Everybody loves winners," Acta said. "I understand."

Or, to be exact, teams that are within sight of winning. A year from now, with Strasburg, with the development of rookie pitchers Zimmermann and Shairon Martis and with a better bullpen, the Nats could begin to rebuild their fan base.

But if, like the old Caps, they dawdle, they could be in the wilderness a long time. The Nats are in their fifth season in town. A window of opportunity is a horrible thing to waste. If empty seats could talk, they'd say it's closing fast.

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