Somebody tell the Nationals to relax. Nobody is going to lock the gates to RFK Stadium and send them back to Montreal and Puerto Rico. As Robert Frost said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." When the Nats think of their 11 one-run losses in July and fall into a funk, they need to get some perspective. When fans gaze gloomily at the standings and see that the Nats, so recently in first place, aren't even leading the wild-card race after their 7-19 slump, they also need to look at the bigger picture. This sure beats the hell out of last summer, doesn't it?
Not to mention the 32 before it.
For a month, the Nats have played as though they thought they were on double-secret "Animal House" probation and might get shipped back to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan if they stranded one more runner at third with one out. At the All-Star Game, Livan Hernandez made a bizarre comment that indicated he thought the team might not even be in Washington next year.
Last week Jose Guillen said, "We're letting all the people of Washington down."
If the Nats sometimes sound tense and confused, it's because they are. Nats fans may not realize it, but their team has an extra layer of anxiety that no other team in baseball carries. The team has only a vague sense of its future here. Or if it even has one. Players haven't followed this baseball-for-Washington saga for eons. So, they're constantly worried about the unknown. That anxiety filters back into their play, as if playoff-race tension weren't enough of a burden for a $48 million team.
Players routinely ask me if there will ever really be a new owner or a new stadium or a normal TV deal. To a Jamey Carroll, Brad Wilkerson or John Patterson, the whole Washington baseball situation is one enormous mysterious black box about which they know almost nothing. With whom will they negotiate their next contracts, and when? To a man, they love the reception they've received. "I want to stay. I would take less money, defer money, to stay in Washington," said Guillen this week. But to whom should they express such loyalty when no one knows if President Tony Tavares, GM Jim Bowden or anybody else will return?
Not one player on the club, except perhaps Brian Schneider, has enough local roots to have any sense of Washington baseball history. Nor do the new Nats have contacts high enough in baseball to realize how secure their future now is. They have almost no sense that their attendance level this season (which keeps rising) has already knocked the socks off skeptical baseball owners and executives. They don't understand that, far from lacking an owner, multiple groups are actually battling to buy them.
So, their slump carries a double weight. They aren't just messing up what had been a magically happy season. They also wonder what damage they are doing to their nascent relationship with their new fans. Will their crowds turn on them and boo? Or disappear? Like 25 Cinderfellas, they wonder if a few losses will turn their brand new world of Washington carriages and horses into pumpkins and mice. Are they ruining their chances of getting a strong committed owner who'll help them build a winning franchise or perhaps even a champion? If they flop, will that $540 million stadium deal collapse with them? And how many games must they win to preserve the jobs of Manager Frank Robinson, Bowden and Tavares, all respected men in the same foxhole?
The Nats' peculiar predicament -- an almost unimaginable 50-31 first half, followed by a full-blown 7-19 crisis worthy of an exorcism -- has its effect on everyone, even a veteran of 50 seasons.
On Tuesday night, Robinson was leaning against the dugout railing an hour before the game, talking about how he thought that, once his club broke out of its excruciating hitting slump, there was enough talent to pick up where the team left off and stay in the hunt. "That trick stuff, like pulling the lineup out of a hat, never works," he said. "You just have to wait it out. Tell yourself, 'I hit before and I'll hit again.' When you're in a slump, gimmicks don't help."
As he spoke, Robinson kept craning his neck, looking for somebody in the stands.
"Now where are those priests I had coming here to bless us?" he said.
Good timing, Frank. Got a laugh.
A few minutes later, a clubhouse man came up behind Robinson.
"Frank, the priests aren't out here," he said. "They're already in the clubhouse waiting for you."
Maybe the Nats should go for the bargain rate and throw in Last Rites, too.
At the moment, the Nats may think that they are under far greater pressure than they really are. As their slump has grown big, hairy legs, their performance has become increasingly embarrassed, confused and tense. Which means that a return to baseball first principles might be useful. The game requires a blend of relaxation and concentration. But those contrasting qualities are hard to keep in balance. In the first half, the Nats epitomized this blend. Their new home and fans, plus the novelty of their success, ensured their relaxation. Their chip-on-the-shoulder Expos heritage took care of concentration. Now, the pressure that comes with being "taken seriously" has drained them of their ability to relax. So, they're way out of balance. A fine team must be both intensely competitive, yet also playful. That's no easy combination either. Care deeply, but not too much. Have fun and enjoy the process of performing, but watch the scoreboard, too. "In the first half, I felt like a kid," says pitcher John Patterson. "You allow things to happen, you let yourself play."
At the moment, the Nats are so out of sync -- out of balance -- that they may not even realize that their tough-guy manager wishes they'd cut themselves some slack. "You should also have fun when you are in a bad streak. But you can't outwardly show it," says Robinson. "People will say, 'Look at that idiot. His team is losing and he's laughing. Is he a crazy man?' You still have to be upbeat every day and have fun, just in a different way."
The last thing the Nationals should feel during this slump is that, as Guillen said, they are "letting all the people of Washington down." No, Jose. Maybe Herb Plews and Reno Bertoia and hundreds of other old-time Nats let the people of Washington down. This team, in 100 games, gave Washington more baseball pleasure than the old Senators did in their last 6,000 here. Doubt it? Washington hasn't been in a postseason race in August since 1933.
So, get over it, Nationals. You're here. You're staying. A new owner is coming. A new park is going to get built. Nobody in Washington expects you to make the playoffs. Do we fantasize about it and dicker with the numbers? Sure. But nobody's demanding it. We're just having fun. There hasn't been much of that in a third of a century. It's allowed.
In fact, the Nats could even go back to having a good time, too. If they'd relax and let themselves do it.