Nats fans appear split over whether Dusty Baker or Bud Black would have been a better choice as Nats manager. There is likely more consensus on this: that the way the past week played out — with widespread reports that Black was Washington’s choice, followed by a dramatic reversal amid reports of contract disagreements and insulting offers — was not a great look for the franchise.
Some have argued that all this will be forgotten in a few months, and maybe so. But it says here that when your organization was among the World Series favorites, and then stumbled through a nightmare campaign capped off by a dugout fight involving your most important player, the dismissal of your manager, and a brutal series of reports about clubhouse dysfunction, it might be nice to start over with a clean and neat hiring. As opposed to having baseball people describe your franchise as a laughingtstock and a dumpster fire.
Which is why, perhaps burdened by recency bias, I’d be inclined to include this episode as one of the most embarrassing moments in franchise history. Others can (and have) disagreed; this is just one man’s list. The stakes, though, are higher for the Nats now than they were in 2007: they have more fans, more expectations, and more eyeballs watching their every move. A high-profile stumble in 2015’s spotlight is more damaging than a blip in a deserted RFK Stadium eight years ago. And having negotiations with your top choice publicly dissolve counts very much as a high-profile stumble.
That said, here’s my list.
10) Nyjer Morgan’s tantrum
What: During a 2010 game against the Orioles, Morgan attempted to make a leaping catch at the wall. When he failed, he threw his glove in disgust, not realizing that the ball was still in play. Adam Jones wound up with an inside-the-park home run, the second in four games against Washington.
Why: This episode — and the one later that season, when Morgan was suspended for throwing a ball at a fan — was emblematic of the dim days in franchise history, when the Nats were a guaranteed loser, with erratic players and inconsistent support. You could pick many other individual moments from those seasons to best represent the hopelessness — Mike Bacsik giving up Bonds’s record homer? Nook Logan’s baserunning abomination? — but Morgan stomping away from a live ball while Orioles fans cheered in Nationals Park is one that sticks with me.
A quote: “My first instinct was to take him out of the ballgame,” Manager Jim Riggleman said, “and then I realized, you know what, he thinks the ball went over the fence. He thought that he knocked it over the fence, and it’s a home run, and he’s showing frustration. That doesn’t excuse it, and I don’t want it perceived as an excuse, but it explains it.”
9) The 2005 television situation
What: For much of their inaugural season, as they flirted with first place, the Nats could only be seen on TV by 185,000 subscribers to RCN, and 1.3 million customers of DirecTV. Everyone else was held hostage by the dispute between Peter Angelos and Comcast.
Why: It was a virtually unheard of situation for a team whose prospects were then still unclear, and it was part of a broader theme: with a junky old stadium and a mostly junky roster, the effort to build a solid Nats fan base started slowly. Also, 10 years later, the television situation hasn’t been entirely resolved.
A quote: “It was so strange early in the year when we were doing games that nobody was seeing,” Mel Proctor said. “That was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done. Like this one night I gave out my cell phone number on the air and I said, ‘If anybody’s watching anywhere, call this number.’ And the only one who called was the tape operator from the truck.”
8) Game 5 of the 2012 playoffs
What: The Nationals had a 6-0 lead, at home, in Game 5 of the NLDS, with plenty of live arms in the bullpen. Obviously that didn’t work out so well.
Why: It’s hard to find much fault in the 2012 season, and “embarrassment” might not be the right word. But you have to go out of your way to lose a 6-0 lead like that, and that day gave rise to the sense of Washington as a choking franchise that can’t deliver on its promise. There was a sense that fall that Washington was entering a golden age, and yet the team has never been as close to a championship series, repeating its bullpen bumbles in 2014.
A quote: “There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” said Drew Storen, who blew the last bits of the lead. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”
7) Rob Dibble
What: The Nats hired Rob Dibble to provide color commentary for their games. I mean, Rob Dibble. And then they eventually fired him for providing color commentary for their games.
Why: He had no connection to the community, he relished being a noisy and controversial lightning rod, he made watching games feel like an act of warfare, and he wound up getting suspended and then losing his job for savaging Stephen Strasburg, the most exciting prospect the franchise had ever seen, in a move that at once cemented Dibble’s unfitness for the job and made the Nats look thin-skinned and small-time.
A quote: “I was a totally different animal than I think has been created here with Strasburg, where now you’re telling this kid as soon as you feel any arm pain, call us and we’ll come help you. Please,” Dibble said, days before Strasburg was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his elbow. “This is the major leagues. This is not college any more. You’re not on scholarship. You’re being paid to do the job and guys depend on you, and I think it’s unfortunate that the Nationals and the team are in a situation here where this kid now, he feels any kind of arm pain, he’s gonna call you out? That’s scary to me.”
6) Jim Riggleman goes to Caddies
What: The Nats won 11 out of 12 games midway through the 2011 season to surge over .500 in June for the first time in six seasons. Then their manager, Jim Riggleman, abruptly quit, citing the team’s refusal to pick up his option for 2012. “I’m 58,” he said. “I’m too old to be disrespected.”
Why: Well, big league managers of their hometown team typically don’t quit in the middle of the season after one of the best stretches of play in a half-decade, I guess. You can’t really argue with what came next: Davey Johnson, and the 2012 playoffs. But this episode was certainly bizarre, and probably embarrassing. Riggleman’s subsequent trip to Caddies, though, was awesome.
A quote: “I know what the right thing to do is,” Riggleman said. “You don’t keep a manager on a one-year deal in major league baseball. I’m not happy about it. I just feel in my heart it’s the right thing to do.”
5) Baker and Black
What: The Nats intended to hire one manager, and then — after the world had spent most of a week digesting that news — actually hired a different one, thanks at least in part to a contentious contract negotiation that couldn’t be resolved.
Why: Some people think this should be higher, and some people think this shouldn’t be on the list at all. In my view, the Nats have gotten one of the most important offseasons (and important hires) in franchise history off to an unpleasant start, again raising the specter that ownership is not in line with the game’s best practices. And yet there’s no reason this should fundamentally damage the organization in anything other than public relations, and the end result — Baker — could actually be better than the alternative.
A quote: “We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” Ted Lerner said in a statement. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”
4) Stan Kasten invites Phillies fans to Washington
What: With the Nationals still seeking local fan support in the spring of 2009, Kasten went on a Philadelphia radio station to invite Phillies fans to Nats Park. “It will be fun, and I think Philly’s our best, closest National League rival,” he said. “We always have great games with them here, because there’s so many Philly kids in college here. So we always have great, enthusiastic crowds, and we hope you all come back again. We have an opening day here Monday, we’d love for all our Philly fans to come down, because I know it’s gonna be so hard to get tickets in Philadelphia this year. It’ll be much easier if you drive down the road and come see us in Washington.”
Why: There weren’t enough loyal Nats fans then — because of the franchise’s newness, and the team’s badness — and those who had stuck around saw an organization that seemed to prize revenue over loyalty and pride. The outrage over these 2009 remarks was joined by a similar feeling the following spring, when hordes of Phillies fans descended upon Washington for an opening day rout that was among the low points in team history.
A quote: “I don’t think any of us care about losing 11-1,” said Daniel Furth, a Nationals fan who attended that 2010 game. “But, really, to me, the atmosphere just ruined opening day. It just completely ruined it.”
What: Jerseys that spelled the team name all funny-looking. And were also ugly. Although these photographs helped launch my career. Look at the watermark I put on them!
Why: Because for many months, the franchise was regarded — when it was regarded at all — as a joke. This was the jokiest moment. It came after one 100-loss season, and at the very beginning of another. It’s not about who made the mistake; it’s about what the mistake symbolized.
A quote: “All of us at Majestic Athletic want to apologize to both the Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball for accidentally omitting the ‘O’ in two Nationals jerseys last week,” said Jim Pisani, president of Majestic Athletic. “We take 100 percent responsibility for this event, and we regret any embarrassment for the Nationals organization, players and fans.”
2) Smiley Gonzalez
What: The Nationals gave a hefty signing bonus to a promising player who turned out to be using a fake name and a fake age, touching off a scandal that ultimately led to organizational overhaul.
Why: The scandal led to Jim Bowden and top assistant Jose Rijo losing their jobs. It forced them to create a new Dominican operation and play catch-up with other MLB teams. And it was a massive black eye for an organization that, to that point, had enjoyed virtually no on-field success.
A quote: “I’ve become a distraction,” Bowden said when he resigned, “and unless you’re Manny Ramírez there’s no place for distractions in baseball.”
What: Jonathan Papelbon — already an unpopular figure among many Nats fans — attempted to choke the team’s best and most popular player during the death throes of the most disappointing season in franchise history. Then he went out to pitch some more pitches.
Why: Papelbon became a super villain. Matt Williams looked increasingly out-of-touch and decreasingly competent. Harper wound up getting disciplined for his role in the incident, which consisted largely of offering up his throat to Papelbon’s hands. The hope that at least the Nats could fail quietly and out of the spotlight disappeared; instead, they became a national punchline.
A quote: “He’s our closer,” Williams said, explaining why he kept Papelbon in the game.