The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s left when a franchise rebuilds? A fan base with questions.

The Nationals started their rebuild last season. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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If you, Washington Nationals fan, woke up July 31, 2021, rubbed your eyes, looked around and realized that, yes, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were headed to Los Angeles, Kyle Schwarber to Boston, Daniel Hudson to San Diego — that it wasn’t some twisted dream, straight from the deepest well of worst-case outcomes in this escape from life, job and responsibilities — then wondered why you should care anymore, you’re not alone.

Or if you, loyal Nationals fan, decided instead to buck up, push forward and remember that, no matter the score, there’s nothing better than a beer and a ballgame on a summer night, trades and records be damned, you’re not alone, either.

Reality’s complicated. So is loving a baseball team.

You don’t have to be in one camp or the other. You can be excited for the coming season and bummed by what’s likely your team’s worst April outlook since 2010. You can feel it was smart to begin a rebuild last year and be wary about the club’s ability to execute it. You can, in theory, understand the business and sound strategy of roster-building and absolutely loathe them.

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And if you’re in the gray areas between all of the above, you fit right in. You may even help explain what teams owe those who invest emotionally and financially in nine guys swatting at leather with wood, occasionally rolling in dirt. A handful of fans were asked to consider this at the intersection of two eras of baseball in Washington. Their responses led to more questions, then some more after that.

“For a team that’s in a situation like the Nats, they just owe us honesty,” said Evan Johnson, who has been a fan since the team moved to Washington in 2005. “If we’re not going to compete for a World Series, just be honest about that. And I feel like they’ve addressed that and they’ve been really good at addressing that. So beyond that, you give me honesty, I’ll give you loyalty.”

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“They owe us an attempt to be the best version of themselves that they can,” said Valerie Barger, who became a fan when the Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a big contract in 2010, signaling a plan to contend soon and for the next decade. “That’s not always going to be a 110-win team.”

“You are ripping the heart out of your fans when you do something like that,” Mary Hughes, a longtime fan, said of the teardown. “So I can say some loyalty [is owed], but their loyalty is to their employees and to making money. I honestly don’t feel that the Nationals listen to the fan base.”

A few more questions, then: Are the Nationals, given their relative lack of free agent activity in the offseason, the best possible version of themselves? Are they fully leaning into a “reboot,” as they call it, that began with dealing eight veterans for 12 prospects at the trade deadline in July, an admission that what they had for now and later was not good enough? If they’re not a 110-win team, as Barger noted, is there value in going from 65 wins to 68, or from 70 to 72?

Is constant, good-faith, marginal improvement part of the unspoken contract between team and fan? Should it be?

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“I feel like this is a question that is even sharper in the wake of the lockout,” said Ellen Clair Lamb, a longtime fan and partial season ticket holder. “I was very, very sour from the lockout, and I was not optimistic about there being a season this year at all because I never heard [MLB Commissioner] Rob Manfred say anything about what they owed the fans. He might have, but I didn’t hear it.

“And I was talking to friends about this yesterday: This is the nature of fandom, that you love something that’s never going to love you back. But the Nationals have, up until now, done a really, really good job of transparency.”

Ahead of Opening Day, the first at full capacity since 2019, many fans remembered those leanest years, when the Nationals lost 102 games in 2008 and 103 in 2009. Eventually, they were a springboard to a long run of success, ending with a World Series title in 2019. Ryan Zimmerman, the team’s first draft selection who retired this offseason, was the foundation. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were the franchise-changing No. 1 picks.

Over the years, Anthony Rendon, Turner, Scherzer and Juan Soto arrived, replacing or joining the early favorites who either set up the chance for playoff heartbreak or lived it. Then Howie Kendrick hit the foul pole in Houston and a banner was raised in an empty ballpark. That should make the teardown at least a bit easier to stomach. In triumph, trust was earned.

“There wasn’t a lot of change, and we got used to that,” said Tova Perlow, repeating her faith in General Manager Mike Rizzo. “We knew who was going to be on the field, and I don’t think that’s the most common baseball experience. We got lucky for a number of years to just have a few players come in and out. And very quickly, that changed. And now we have Zimmerman gone, we have no one from that era. And that’s a really …”

That sentence faded with a light breeze at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., in late March. About 50 feet away, Riley Adams, a 25-year-old catcher acquired in the sell-off, sprayed line drives to each gap. Victor Robles, top prospect-turned-question mark, waited for his turn in the batting cage. Lane Thomas, another of those deadline acquisitions, did, too.

Some fans, the same ones frustrated by the payroll going from about $183 million to a projected $130 million, according to salary database Cot’s Baseball Contracts, want the team to test its unproven players and ditch the veteran Band-Aids surrounding Soto. That could mean batting Thomas leadoff instead of 31-year-old César Hernández. It could mean promoting Luis García early in the season to take starts from 35-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar. It could mean turning to a young starter, even if that means growing pains, rather than 38-year-old Aníbal Sánchez.

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Coming out of spring training, the Nationals seemed willing to answer only a fraction of those calls. And to a sector of fans, that indicates an unwillingness to choose a distinct path for the future, fair or not. If the Nationals were truly rebuilding, those fans reason, they might bring back “T-shirt Tuesday,” a feature of the lean years, and center most marketing on the next generation. Or if they were truly looking to sneak into the expanded postseason, they would have done more than sign one player to a deal worth more than $4 million this offseason.

Reality seems somewhere in the middle. A saving grace is that baseball is back.

“Coming into a season like this, we’re all looking for that narrative,” Lamb said. “What is the story of the season going to be?”

Andrew Golden contributed to this report.

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