Ask Boswell: The Caps, the Nats, the Redskins, More

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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was online Thursday, April 30 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the Caps, the Nats, the Redskins, the latest sports news and his columns.

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Navy Yard: Do you think the Lerners are serious about building a winner? Or are they trying to turn a profit for a few years and then sell the team? Does their agreement with MLB say when they can sell the team? They just don't seem interested in fielding a winning team.

Tom Boswell: The Lerner family intends to own the Nationals until the day after forever. They see this as multi-generational. They say that they will not take any money out of the team __net-net__ for the first 10 years.

The X Factor that is frequently missed is that the Nats have a high debt load because they paid a high price for the team. But plenty of other teams face a similar load.

I have mentioned to Ted and mark Lerner, and others in the family, that any baseball owner who thinks he/she can make money, or even break even, during their years of ownership will probably be unhappy that they bought the year. You make money through tax advantages, "psychic income" (I own a MLB club!) and long-term price apreciation. ver the long history of baseball ownerships, that appreciation at the time of sale has made MLB a good long-term investment, comparable to any other asset class (stocks, real estate, etc.)

I think we have seen a fairly significant shift in their views on spending in recent months. Is it enough? The Strasburg draft will be informative. But, as I have said, unless you play in NYC or LA, the only way to win in baseball is to lose __money. You "get it back" when the franchise value of the team you own goes up over the years because you own a business with huge loyal following and a vast (anti-trust and oligopoly) moat around it.

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Skeptic: Still think the Nats will win 77 games?

Tom Boswell: Baseball Prospectus went with 77. I was a bit lower. So far, the Nats have probably knocked 2-3 wins off whatever "prediction" anyone might have made. That's all 5-15 means. You knew they'd have "-10 streaks," probably two or thee in a season. But when you have it in April, it feels worse.

BUT the problem with bad Aprils is that they can infect the entire season. THEN you can have real cascading failure. That hasn't happened yet. If the bullpen gets semi-straightened out, it probably won't. But a 5-15 opens the door to ugliness.

The other side of that is that almost the entire Nats lineup now thinks that it may have a fine season because it has had a good April. Projections off stats so far: RBI Zimmerman 113, Dunn 120, Dukes 104, Kearns 88, Flores 80. Kearns has a .917 OPS and Guzman is hitting....a lot.

That doesn't mean they will hit those numbers. It means they are in a good frame of mind.

Yeah, but what is the frame of mind of the bullpen!

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Boston, Mass.:Bruins fans clearly lost entertainment value to the Caps fans when the Canes shocked Brodeur and the Devils in the last minute of that series. Would the Caps have been better off facing the Devils?

Tom Boswell: Everybody is better off with the Caps facing the Penguins. There are some head-to-head confrontations that you want to see very badly. Everybody was talking about the Caps BEFORE the Ovechkin-Crosby series. Now, it's just going to go higher.

Also, it the risk of picking a hockey fact off the top of my head, I think the Caps were 3-0-1 against the Pens this year. That's probably more relevant than the previous seven times the two teams have met in the playoffs with the Pens ahead 6-1. I feel like I covered every one of those final losing games. (And I probably did.) You just knew the Pens had the Caps' number (often on talent alone). I suspect those days are over. All new history. But the Caps are still the far less experienced playoff team. They can't be as nervous as they were against the Rangers when they were in close games. And they were REALLY nervous in the first two periods of Game Seven.

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Downtown D.C.: If the Lerners are now counting debt service as not taking any money out of the team, that is big news, Tom, and I hope you write about it and don't just allude to it in a chat. They have the debt because they paid very little in cash to buy the team, and they are basically guaranteed a return when they decide to sell it. Is this really what is going on here? They are using their yearly profits to finance their initial purchase of the team? Wow.

Tom Boswell: Whenever they mention the debt service to me I simply say, "Oh, you mean the LEVERAGE that you CHOSE to use? The leverage that will increase your 'return on invested capital' when you SELL the team someday? Is that the debt you're talking about?"

One reason that homes are a decent investment __okay, not the last few years!__ is because it is the only time that average people are able to use financial leverage. They get a tax break on their interest. (And team owners get different kinds of tax breaks for depreciation.) And, if they put 20% down on a home, then it amplifies the capital gains that they may make when they sell their house. And (I think) the first half-million in cap gains on a home is tax exempt.

So, fans, there IS a (small) similarity to the financing of a home and the way they use taxes, debt and leverage to buy a ballclub and make it a fine long-term investment.

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Davidsonville, Md.: Leonsis, accessible to fans by many means, answers questions ... team in playoffs, and probably will be for a few years to come.

Snyder, mystery man ... team in doldrums.

Lerner, local but still a mystery man ... team in basement.

Angelos, ivory tower ... team in flux.

Am I reading too much into this? Yes. But it's fun.

Tom Boswell: We all enjoy man-of-the-people owners.

But how many people who are rich enough to own sports teams are men-of-the-people kind of folks? Or, once they get rich, maybe they aren't so delighted to act the way they did before they "made it."

What's odd to me is that Snyder came from the middle class, went to Maryland and has the perfect bio to be seen as anything he'd like to be seen as __including a regular guy like Leonsis. Ted Lerner came up through McKinley Tech, hard labor, workman's hands and went to law school at night.

As soon as you buy a team, you put yourself in the center of the community conversation. Leonsis actually ENJOYS it. That helps.

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Touchdown Milledge!: Tom, why did you hold the stuff about Bowden's comments about Lastings's "pass routes" until he was sent down? Why did we not hear about Bowden urging the Lerners to spend more until recently? Seems to me you are holding back important stuff about the Nats and their organization that we should be hearing about, and not just when it is old news. What gives?

Tom Boswell: We're in a multi-platform world. Today, I'll chat, blog (on nats Journal) and do a Comcast TV show. Nobody can be expected to keep up with every word say or where I say it. But it means that every anecdote doesn't end up in a column. More TOTAL info gets out, which is good. The Milledge "touchdowns" were in chats, etc., last summer. And I've mentioned many times __in all forums__ that Bowden, like all GMs, wanted to spend more money. GMs want to keep their jobs. That depends on short-term results, in many cases. The only people who are MORE anxious to spend an owner's money than his GM are the fans and the media.

My usual roblem is JUST THE OPPOSITE. I get ready to chat, blog, write a column or do TV and think, "My Lord, what HAVEN'T I told them __in one place or another?"

Maybe it's lucky (for me) that you DON'T read or hear everything I produce beause you'd think, "He already told me that."

For instance, I wrote in a chat last week that Acta isn't close to getting fired and that he shouldn't be fired. But that any manager, if things get awful enough, can get fired. That, in different words perhaps, is what I'll say again today.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Beimel as closer when he gets back on May 6? Will that happen? Good idea? It seems that the reason Manny gave for not doing it (causing holes in 8th inning setup situation and on down) isn't very important anymore given the utter ineptitude of 9th inning pitching and the resurgence (one hopes) of Wells and Tavarz. When in a hole, first stop digging.

Tom Boswell: Even before the pen meltdowns the Nats had decided to go with a closer-by-situation __meaning that Beimel and Hanrahan might work the 8th and 9th or visa versa, depending on the LH-RH matchups. Then, as soon as they'd pretty much made up their minds to that after seeing Beimel go through the 3-4-5, 3-4-5-6 and 3-4-5 hitters for Fla, Fla and Phila in the 8th inning on three consecutive nights, Beimel got hurt.

Now, when Beimel gets back, they'll have a bullen-by-situation-committee-and-prayer. And perhaps sign of the Zodiac, too.

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Former STH: Boz -- I was willing to give Acta the benefit of the doubt for a few seasons, but it's becoming quite clear that his teams do not play baseball with smarts, hustle, and attention to detail. I believe that based on his team's execution (but not on the opinions and whims of baseball insiders), he has not SHOWN that he is worthy of an MLB skipper's position. Do you agree? If not, why do his teams lack MLB level execution in so many ways?

Tom Boswell: Both Rizzo and Kasten are Acta fans. They'll be slow to act(a) based on 20 games. If you see any fast finger-on-the-trigger work in the next week or two, it will come from above __which I doubt.

However, a GM once told me long ago, "if things get stupid enough, any manager can get fired."

On my general views on Acta, I'd just refer you back to last week's chat. I think he's a good manager who will probably become a very good manager someday __though perhaps not in Washington. He's a student of the game, was a player himself but also understands the new-stat-stuff. He's strong with players in private but calm in public.

However, my one real reservation about him so far is that, in '07, when he had a clubhouse of nobodies, he enforced a very strict no-mental-mistakes policy. He demanded effort and mental alertness, but forgave limits of physical talent. His line was, "We're not good enough to make those mistakes and still win." That should ALWAYS be a manager's point of view, regardless of his team's level of talent. Mike Scioscia has a smart team that executes well because he just won't tolerate anything else. I watched the Orioles amass the best record in MLB over a 23=-year period because they insisted on The Oriole Way.

I think Manny let that tight-ship attitude slip somewhat last year because his clubhouse changed and then, after all the injuries, so many people were out of position that it would have been insanity to scream, "How could you make that stupid mistake?" The players could/should have said, "How could I NOT make mistakes like that? I'm playing out of position. You're asking me to do things I don't know how to do. I'm trying. Get off my back."

Acta and Rizzo are on the same page on trying to get that tight-ship attitude back __but it only started in the last couple of weeks with the Milledge demotion, the Dukes fine benching and the bullpen purge.

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Atlanta, Ga.: As a Devils fan who was excited for the impending Devils-Caps series (so close I could taste it), I'm curious what you think about the incredible choke that occurred. Yes, I get the beauty of playoff hockey, and the comeback by the Caps typifies that, but man, could it get any worse? Tell me you feel my pain!

Tom Boswell: I watched the replays of the last two minutes as often as I could. Amazing. It's impossible to "sit on a lead" in baseball because, as is pointed out ad nausea, there is no clock. But in the sports that have a clock, is t hardest to "run it out" in hockey? Seems like it. I'd be interested in NHL fans views on that.

Yes, everybody feels your pain. Not that you could lose the lead, bt that you could also lose the game without overtime __and with a HOFer in goal!

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Silver Spring, Md.: The way that Jim Bowden has been busting on the Nats on L.A. radio since his departure, I say good riddance. He will never get another management-level baseball job, right?

Tom Boswell: Some good info from those Bowden interviews. I've mentioned several times that, according to my best info, the Nats went to $188-million for Texiera for nine years, which was the highest total dollars and the most years, but NOT the highest salary-per-year and therefore, not the best total contract. But Bowden reinforces that.

Also, it is news, if he's correct, that the Nats have already decided to pick Strasburg. Yes, it's almost universally assumed. But it's useful to hear it from Jim. If the Nats can get Strasburg for $15M, as Bowden has apparently said on the radio, then we can just relax until 11:59 p.m. on the signing deadline because $15M isn't going to stop a deal from getting done. It was the floated number of $50M that made everybody go nuts (as they should have).

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D'Ville: Speaking of the Nats' execution, remember the line I think that was attributed to Bear Bryant after losing a game, when a reporter asked what do you think of your team's execution. And his response was "I'm for it."

Tom Boswell: I've always loved that line. McKay used it with the awful Bucs team in the NFL. Maybe he stole it from Bear.

Over time, then one area in which the "Natinals" absolutely must improve is in fundamentals. I watched the Orioles do it right for many years. So I know it can be done. You just have to INSIST on it. It's boring. It annoys rich players. That's WHY it's important because it's hard to get your team to do it, but if you can, it's a huge advantage. The Rays were an example last year. I just loved watching their passion for doing every little thing right.

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Help Please! From Ashburn: Tom, I will be celebrating a good friend's 50th birthday tomorrow at Nationals Park. So I'll be recording the Caps game at home. Is there any way to let the Nationals staff know to PLEASE not give Caps updates on the board or over the loudspeaker during the game?? It will be much less fun if I know the final score (or even the winner or loser) before I watch the game.

Tom Boswell: I'll be interested to see how they handle this.

Even if I'm taping a game (and heaven knows I tape enough of them), I still want to know the score as it happens. I figure most people do. Besides, the roar (or groan) when the score goes up is a fun part of the game.

But maybe the Nats will respect your point of view. We'l see.

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Washington, D.C.: Boz, I think I read in the WaPo that Zimmerman wanted to be the starting 3B in this years all-star game. Normally, with Zimm tearing it up and the premier NL 3B (Wright) stinking it up, this would be an attainable goal. BUT, with Wright in NYC and with much more national visibility, is this just a pipe dream? It seems like in order to unseat an all-star, you either have to have a meteoric rise or that player has to get injured. Personally, I think MLB should get rid of fan balloting.

Tom Boswell: With fan balloting, huge crowds in NYC and small crowds in DC, Zimmerman has no chance to start. He wants to make the team. He could do that this year with an excellent 1st half. I'm impressed with Z'n's raw power as he develops, but not with his ability to hit for average. I suspect that 30 HRs and 110 RBI should be his goals, especially hitting in front of Dunn, rather than hitting .300.

But his 18-game hitting streak in April __usually his worst month__ is an excellent start. The combination of Good Start and New Contract often equals Break Out Season.

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SoMd: I say hockey is the easiest to run out. Basketball games, with the constant fouling at the end, sometimes seem as if they'll never end. Football games, with the 3 timeouts, the 2 minute warning, the spikes, the incomplete passes, the out of bounds plays, also can last quite a while. Not hockey -- unless there are penalties, saves, or icing, the clock just keeps ticking. Just ask the Rangers!

Tom Boswell: Good points. Thanks. The Rangers certainly were not helped by the Verizon crowd going absolutely nuts for the last 4:59 after the Federov goal. That's the loudest I've ever heard the Verizon Center.

It's hard to compare "crowd volume" from one city and venue to another. The Minneapolis Homerdome of the '80's still holds the record for me. I had to use earplugs to avoid getting dizzy with an upset stomach just from the noise. Some of us were comparing Caps Noise to Madison Square Garden Noise and D.C. isn't there yet. But a few years of this Caps team being in nail-bting series might teach more DC fans how to completely lose their cool. Washington has extremely smart and passionate fans, but I think, as a group, we're a bit on the "civilized" side.

When Tortorella got so mad that he blew his cool completely in Game Five, I said to a bunch of reporters in the elevator, "This may be my favorite moment in the last 40 years of Washington sports. Finally, we make a visiting coach so mad that he goes nuts. Usually, the only thing we do to the visiting team is ask if we can make them dinner reservations."

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For Ashburn: Um, don't the Capitols play Saturday at 1 p.m. in which case if you're going to the Nats Saturday game could be an issue, but tomorrow night, no go.

Tom Boswell: Good point. Both games are at 1 on Saturday. Thanks.

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$15 Million: for Strasburg. Is that the SIGNING BONUS figure?

Tom Boswell: When you see such numbers, you should assume that it's a discussion of the total value of the guaranteed money in the package, which extends over several years and INCLUDES the signing bonus. That's why you've seen $20M/6yrs thrown out as possible.

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Baltimore, Md.: Boz: Be thankful that you work for a class organization. The Baltimore Sun laid off two sports reporters yesterday. While they were at the ballpark. Covering a game. They got the news in the press box by phone.

Tom Boswell: I'm thankful.

At the personal level of long-tiume friends, it's a nightmare-a-day in journalism. We're all trying to find a workable financial model. Ironically, more people than ever read newspapers __but many of them don't pay for it. They get it free on-line. And other revenue sources have shrunk, too. Everything I do today __chat, blog, TV__ will be part of that. And that's as it should be. Things change. And sometimes they change a lot.

However, the broader question of how to maintain high-quality journalism that covers a broad range of topics and has the resources to dig deeply is far more serious. Feel free to root for journalism. "You don't miss your water..."

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Springfield, Va.: Putting the economics aside -- I actually prefer going to Nats games that have low attendance. The lines are shorter, food is hotter and I can usually sit somewhere that allows me to put my feet up. I know Kasten and Lerner don't want to hear this, but what can I say -- at least I'm coming to the games

Tom Boswell: I'm going to my first game with friends on Monday night. I'll be interested to see how this "new experience" feels. It's not what anybody thinks is best for the city, team, etc. But I get your point.

From '53 through 75, the Yankees NEVER drew more than 21,577-a-game and only averaged more than 20,000-a-game three times. Many years were 13,00o-to-18,000. That was typical of the whole sport. Nobody said that it "wasn't fun" to go to ballparks with crowds of 15,000-to-25,000. (Now Nats games with less than 5,000 were NOT fun.)

I think the economics of baseball will undergo a long-term shift over the next five years. It's going to be a huge story. The opening of the latest version of Yankee Stadium __ then needing to cut the most expensive tickets in HALF within the first MNTH is proof of a true seismic shift.

See you all next week.

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Springfield, Va.: Great news the Nats are scouting my son's Little League team for bull pen help this afternoon. They are coming with all the paperwork to allow these kids to work, etc., and will petition MLB to start the games earlier so that they don't violate the child labor laws and have the kids pitching too late.

Tom Boswell: Okay, that deserves to be the last word!

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Too early to panic, D.C.: Tom, help us out with some perspective. It's still early, isn't it? Yes, the team's only won a quarter of its games (egad, it sounds worse when you put it that way) but a couple of those were tough losses that could have gone either way. I know you don't get credit for a "quality loss" but over a long season unlucky breaks should even out, right? Right? (Please say yes. Humor me.)

When do you think it officially stops being "too early" to judge a team based on its record?

Tom Boswell: It's still early.

But, in May, things can get late real fast.

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Tampa, Fla.: I appreciate that a manager will always take heat when a team is losing, but any talk of Manny Acta being on the hot seat seems insane to me (although there are people in Tampa talking about Joe Maddon being in trouble because of the Rays' slow start, which seems even MORE insane to me). The blame for last season's catastrophe should be placed squarely on ownership's utter failure to bring in even a few half-decent players. Likewise this season, where (save Beimel) the FO failed to address the bullpen's weakness. Manny can't go out there and pitch the late innings; he's stuck with the players the FO sticks him with. And I'm certainly no expert, but I get the impression that he has the potential to be a very good manager. Am I missing something, Boz? How is Manny to blame here? What poor decisions has he made?

Tom Boswell: The easiest mistake to make in baseball is to lose patience with good people, who are not the problem, because you can't replace people who are doing a poor job and are the problem.

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Get your O out!: The team should sell Natinals t-shirts for the June Baltimore games.

Tom Boswell: Perfect.

The End. (I promise.)

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