When I wrote last week about the sports-radio fueled debate concerning the Nationals’ lineup, the top reaction I got was this: never write about sports-radio fueled baseball debates again.
I heard that this is a pointless and silly discussion, an attention-seeking gimmick from needy radio hosts, an unnecessary bit of dissent in a Nationals season that deserves only acclamation.
Here’s my response to that: Pfffffffttttttt. Pfft. Pfffffftttttttttttt.
Look, I don’t actually care if the Nats bat Wilmer Difo second, or Anthony Rendon second, or the ghost of Chris Heisey second, or Max Scherzer’s injured neck second, or Mark Lerner second. Maybe Howie Kendrick’s arrival just vaporized the debate. And it’s true that the pieces Manager Dusty Baker is moving around now will likely not be the pieces he’s moving around in October, which is when the only games that theoretically matter will occur, because all these nights we are spending in front of the television this summer apparently do not matter — they’re just meaningless efforts to numb our brains and ignore our families.
I’m not on a barricade one way or the other. But the part I actually cared about was experiencing the debate, because it was fun, compelling and a further distraction from the hopelessness of existence. And so I reject completely the suggestion that Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier, the captains of the Good Ship Lineupop, are somehow out of line for obsessing over this topic. If you think that, you are wrong.
You’ve probably seen the objections. “Give it up. It’s tired. Radio hosts don’t have all the information. Radio hosts don’t know it all. If radio hosts were so smart, they would be baseball managers — or basically anything else in the world besides radio hosts. Dusty Baker’s choices don’t deserve to be scrutinized like this, and certainly not in a public forum. The team is a zillion games over .500. In Dusty We Trust. In Rizzo We Trust. In the Lerners We Trust. In Natitude We Trust. In Tysons Corner Mall we trust. Trust, trust, trust, trust, trust.”
Okay, this is bonkers. Sports interest thrives on sports debate. Sure, many sports debates are dumb and cheap — anything that concerns organized team activities attendance, anything that appears on Fox Sports 1, anything about LaVar Ball, anything about LaVar Ball’s OTA attendance on FS1 — but lineup construction is not a dumb or cheap topic. People were citing numbers. People were citing baseball philosophy, and changing mores, and what happens when comfort runs up against a new orthodoxy. People were digging into the guts of the game.
People probably even learned a few things during this debate. I did! I learned that since Jayson Werth was injured early last month, the Nats are getting the seventh-best OBP in baseball out of their No. 2 slot (and the 20th-best OBP out of their No. 1 slot.) I learned how much Baker values protecting Daniel Murphy. I learned that you cannot possibly expel a public opinion out of Rendon.
But here is the most important thing: Every single person reading this sentence — and I know, there aren’t very many of you — has complained at some point about the Washington media’s obsession with the Redskins. I have too. We complain about debates over Jordan Reed’s toe in July. We complain when Redskins preseason games swamp other, more real events. We complain when Redskins regular season games swamp the Nats in the playoffs. We complain about Skins at 10, and RG3 o’clock, and 15-hour pregame shows — all of it.
And because Paulsen went to Nats Park and had a respectful, noncontentious, substantive and lengthy back and forth with Baker about his lineup choices — even if some questions were left unanswered, and even if it maybe didn’t rival a Socratic dialogue — multiple radio shows were prompted to talk in a serious way about a polarizing baseball topic on the first day of Redskins training camp. That was good, the end.
Also good: Caps fans getting apoplectic about the team’s offseason moves. As it turns out, multiple radio shows on multiple local stations had substantive, and passionate debates about whether the team had miscalculated its moves this summer, possibly overpaying T.J. Oshie, or possibly failing to adequately plot out Marcus Johansson’s future, or possibly failing to protect an asset in Nate Schmidt that ought to have been protected.
Those debates just weren’t happening a decade ago. A decade ago, we would hear “sure, people like the Caps, but we can’t seriously do a sports-radio segment in Washington about whether a hockey franchise should value a young, swift, puck-moving second-pair defenseman.” It would have been absurd. And yet people were actually debating those things in a non-stupid manner this summer.
I like Brian MacLellan, but he shouldn’t be irritated that fans “are reverse-engineering stuff” this summer; he should be pleased and proud. I love Barry Svrluga, but he’s totally wrong to argue that “when the Capitals’ offseason unfolded, the in-town reaction was, essentially: What are the Nats going to do about their bullpen, and will the Redskins and Kirk Cousins come to a long-term deal?” There was a vibrant Caps debate — on Twitter, on blogs and on sports-radio shows — that just wouldn’t have existed in the same way a decade ago.
These aren’t debates about LaVar Ball. They’re not pointless, and they’re not disrespectful. They’re progress. That local sports-radio could program shows around Oshie’s contract and Difo hitting second is a massive sign of maturity and growth.
And the only way that happens is if people have different opinions, which they care strongly about — probably too strongly, but whatever, sports are irrational and the more emotion you pour into the debate the less is left over for questioning your life choices. This only happens if people care strongly enough to take their opinions to local decision-makers and challenge their choices — something that has happened in Ashburn forever, but that doesn’t always happen on South Capitol Street or in Ballston.
You can love and admire Baker without implicitly trusting his every choice. You can admire MacLellan without declining to reverse-engineer his offseason. And you can disagree with Paulsen and Rouhier without asking them to keep quiet with their dissent and their debate. The Nationals are awesome, but “the Nationals are awesome” is not an enthralling sports topic. How to construct a deadly lineup ravaged by injuries is.
So give me all of your sports-radio baseball debates. At least until LaVar Ball claims he was a better hitter than Mickey Mantle.
More on the Nationals: