The last gift of this season for Washington baseball fans was the realization that the World Series now has an immediate relevance to us. The games in October are no longer just a spectacle involving teams from other cities. Now, we look at the White Sox and Astros for instruction, not just a few days of entertainment. What can the Nationals -- that would be the Washington Nationals, who play in RFK Stadium, we sometimes remind ourselves -- learn from these two franchises that are almost identical to this area in revenue and resources.
When the Nats finally get their new owner, one of the first orders of business should be to examine how the Astros and White Sox, who had the 12th- and 13th-highest payrolls in the game, were able to play for a World Series title while teams with far deeper pockets, like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers, were left at home. In their first season in the District, the Nats had the 11th-best attendance in baseball -- a hair behind Houston, which was 10th and nearly 5,000 a game ahead of the White Sox. So, Washington should be able to operate from a financial base at least as strong as either Series team.
With a guaranteed local TV revenue stream that will rank in the sport's top 10, as well as a new ballpark on the verge of being born on the Anacostia waterfront, Nats fans have every reason to look at the teams in this postseason and think, "In a few years, that might actually be us."
Just a year ago, when the big-budget bullies from New York and Boston seemed to rule the sport, such optimism might have seemed considerably too cheerful. And, without doubt, unlimited budgets should always have an edge over more sensible team-building methods. But it is Washington's good fortune to have gotten back a big league team at a time -- with wild cards, improved steroid testing and an increased emphasis on pitching and defense -- when the teams with the biggest muscles, both economic and physical, no longer have an inseparable advantage.
The White Sox lineup in this Series started with Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. This isn't even a Muggers Row. The Astros began their "attack" with an aged Craig Biggio, rookie Willy Tavares, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane. The only thing these guys could "murder" would be the postgame clubhouse buffet. Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez alone makes more than the top five hitters in either of these lineups.
Suddenly, a Washington lineup in '06 that includes a healthy Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson and, sometime soon, Ryan Zimmerman, doesn't seem so overmatched, as long as the first-rate Nats pitching gets even better.
What defines the White Sox and Astros, of course, is their exceptional pitching. And that, by luck, is the Nationals' cornerstone as well. Washington, with its lack of a fourth or fifth starter, and a minor league system with few starting pitching prospects, has miles to go before it reaches the level of the Series teams or the Cardinals, who expect all five of their starters to win at least 15 games. Nevertheless, Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza, plus a bullpen with Chad Cordero and several quality set-up men, is a vastly better foundation for the future than Washington fans had any right to imagine at this time last year.
As many big leaguers mysteriously shed a layer of muscle this past season, with home runs decreasing by nearly 10 percent, the sport has quickly learned to appreciate a wider range of virtues. Suddenly a leadoff man like Podsednik, who stole 59 bases but didn't hit a home run during the regular season, looks like a player of real value, especially in October when small ball carries the day as often as the long ball. The only run in the final game of this World Series scored on an opposite-field pinch single, a perfect sacrifice by Podsednik, a groundout to second to advance the runner to third and a 10-hop groundball single to center.
It may not make your heart pound. But it's exactly the way the Nationals won all those one-run games when they went 50-31 in the first half. Now, with hindsight, we realize that Washington was not in first place on July 4th (by 51/2 games) by a fluke. The Nats were in first place because they were playing the game exactly the way the best teams in the sport are currently prospering. The Nats' second-half problems came from injuries, exhaustion, clubhouse friction, poor hitting and, in September, injuries to starting pitchers. But the club's style of play was exactly in tune with the times.
At the All-Star Game, the White Sox' Paul Konerko said, "It seems like the Nationals play exactly like we do." The White Sox, however, kept right on playing that way all season. Chicago finished with a stunning 61-34 record in games decided by one or two runs -- the same sort of dominance in close games that the Nationals experienced for half a season.
In the Series, the Astros were continually exasperated by the White Sox' tenacity in tight games. As long as the score was close, Chicago seemed certain that it would find some imaginative, aggressive or just plain lucky way to win. And they did, 5-3, 7-6, 7-5 and 1-0 in what tied for the "closest sweep" in Series history, a mere six-run differential (20-14). In 1950, the Yanks also swept the Phils by only six runs (11-5).
This postseason also showed that in October, when so many games are low-scoring and tense, the value of less expensive but still talented players on the bench can be critical. While Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield watched on TV, the White Sox won in the 14th inning of Game 3 on a solo homer by utilityman Geoff Blum and a bases-loaded walk by backup catcher Chris Widger. Willie Harris scored the only run in Game 4 after his pinch single.
In the future, pennants and world titles will be bought, as much as won, as they have always been, though naturally baseball never likes to admit it. But the lesson of the last five years has been that a wide range of teams can compete for a title. No, not the poorest. You can forget the Royals and a half-dozen others. But teams with less wealth, perhaps far less, than the Nationals will command in the future will continue to populate the postseason in the next decade. In recent years, we've watched the October exploits of the White Sox, Astros, Marlins, Twins, A's, Giants and Angels -- all of whom have built contenders with resources equal to or less than the Nats will have.
The paths to the top are now varied and widely available. The White Sox got there with a team constructed almost exclusively with trades. The young, powerful Indians, whom Chicago barely outlasted for the AL Central Division title, have been built with a deep, talented farm system. Other teams, like the Cardinals, retool almost every winter, finding ways to replace players as they become too much of a financial burden.
Just one year ago, when Washington finally got a team after a third of a century wait, almost no one discussed -- or even dared imagine -- a time frame for reaching the postseason. Even .500 seemed like a fantasy. Then, the idea of the Nationals playing games in October any time in the foreseeable future seemed like a pipe dream. Now, thanks to the example of teams like the White Sox and Astros, it is simply a project.