Among most of Washington's pro sports teams, misery loves company

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bad times bring the truth to the surface. And that's good. The truth may not set you free, but if you are the Redskins, Wizards or Nationals, at least it might get you out of last place. No team wants to admit that it is a mess. No owner wants to confess that he has meddled too much or spent too little or trusted the wrong executives. No franchise wants to face that it's built a losing culture or pampered its big stars or that it simply has no identity. Nobody wants to say, "We failed."

However, in the past year, the Redskins, Nats and now the Wiz have all fallen so low, both in the standings and in their public misadventures, that they have become national jokes. Their hideous won-lost records -- 4-12, 59-103 and 12-23 -- have been surpassed by their off-field embarrassment.

As a result, cataclysmic changes, almost certainly for the better, have already shaken the Nats and Redskins. Vinny Cerrato and Jim Zorn are gone, replaced by Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan. Jim Bowden and Manny Acta have departed, too, replaced by Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman. In the glow of Shanahan's arrival and the busy offseason of Rizzo, it's hard to find a fan who doesn't think both shakeups are improvements.

Just as vital, both team's owners give hints that they may alter their ways. Like the billionaires they are, they never quite say, "I was wrong," but it looks like Dan Snyder may want to meddle less and Ted Lerner is willing to spend more. Keep it up, guys. It's a start.

The team that may already have changed its culture is the one that crashed first: the Nats. On Monday, President Stan Kasten said, "We were in it to the end" in the battle to land Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, who signed with the Reds for $30 million. The Nats offered more than $20 million for the 22-year-old southpaw.

"Too bad," one executive said. "Everybody here was excited about an '11 rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Chapman, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis and John Lannan."

Now, at least, the money allotted to Chapman can be used elsewhere.

A year ago, the Nats seemed moribund, almost disinterested in competing for talent. Now, though thwarted in last offseason's Mark Teixeira derby, they have signed free agents Adam Dunn, Marquis, Pudge Rodríguez and Matt Capps and gave Strasburg a record deal.

"This has been a good year for the franchise -- all of it coming out of bad things," Kasten said. "The Dominican [bonus kickback] scandal led to a whole new front office."

Few would prescribe scandal as medication for a bad team. Yet sometimes it works. With the suspension of Gilbert Arenas, who might never play here again, the Wizards and their (presumed) new owner Ted Leonsis face a similar top-to-bottom review.

Like Cerrato and Bowden, GM Ernie Grunfeld is now under heavy scrutiny. Two weeks ago, new Coach Flip Saunders said that nobody on his team could "guard anybody," not even the 54-year-old coach himself. Who assembled that roster? Ernie.

As The Post reported Sunday, in recent years the Wizards' top management, especially Grunfeld, tolerated outrageously inappropriate behavior by Arenas, including accounts that he defecated in a teammate's shoe as a "joke."

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