Need Reasons to Endure the Nats? Try Martis, Zimmermann and Lannan.

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, May 24, 2009

As they play the Orioles this weekend, the Nationals dream of becoming contenders, but for competence, not pennants. Their time frame: Someday. Their present: more losses.

Why hope?

Why not?

Tomorrow, Nats right-hander Shairon Martis, 22, from Willemstad, on Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, will try to beat Baltimore to raise his record to 6-0 and improve his rookie-of-the-year status from implausible to conceivable. His pitching model, he says, has been Greg Maddux, all brains and changing speeds, with a dash of Pedro Martínez. Martis speaks four languages but the wise rookie says, "I try not to say too much in any of them." He remains a promise and a mystery -- maybe a flash in the pan, maybe real.

On Friday night, Jordan Zimmermann, on the eve of his 23rd birthday, held Baltimore to two runs in seven innings with seven strikeouts on only 97 pitches. "I want to come back with this kid's stuff," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who has seen three of his starts.

Team building is the work of years. For fans, watching the process requires patience, forgiveness and delayed gratification -- the last things you want at a ballpark, where a cold beer, a hot dog and a standing ovation were more what you had in mind.

Some, perhaps wisely, have turned their eyes away. For the rest of us, a breed far larger than seems sane, we stay tuned. Bad teams are a heritage, a burden, a secret pleasure, a baseball laboratory and, when kept compartmentalized in just one ventricle of our hearts, seldom actually fatal.

Fifty years ago in Griffith Stadium, I was initiated in the rites. The Nats and Orioles were locked in a similar battle of bad and worse. I loved it then, knowing no better, and am determined to enjoy it now, since I have no choice. It's an odd pastime for a lifetime. Yet, for a century, millions have shared it. In a world with the Yankees, everyone else in baseball is born more likely to lose than win.

How do you enjoy losing teams, seeing them for what they are rather than wasting years of energy, mocking them for what they are not? How do you hold the owners and front offices who guide these Titanics accountable for their disasters, yet respect the athletes who man the lifeboats as best they can, going over the side into the icy waters of .400 baseball 162 times a season, knowing the long odds against keeping their dignity or jobs?

Most of all, since baseball should be fun, how do you squeeze a dozen laughs or cheers out of a 95-loss season for every time you curse at the TV?

For many teams, the answer is complex. As a child, I isolated the excellence of home run champion Roy Sievers from the comedy of Herb Plews or the unfulfilled potential of Pedro Ramos, who carried a Wild West six-shooter on road trips (sometimes loaded).

But for the Nats, it's simple. The biggest reasons to watch, to study, even to believe in a future, all sit in a row, locker to locker. There we find those rookies Martis and Zimmermann, plus steady lefty John Lannan, 2008's pitching discovery.

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