Poor decisions, driven by charged emotions or frayed feelings, are a gift that just keeps on giving — kicks in the butt to the teams that make them. You never know what form they will take.
Washington fans have gotten a double dose in recent days. The staggering Nationals, who fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist on Thursday just 30 games into the season, and Capitals, knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week in the first round, are still feeling the hangover of parting with successful manager Dusty Baker and esteemed coach Barry Trotz under prickly circumstances.
There is no Dusty Curse or Trotzy Hex, at least that we know of, hanging over their former teams. The two cases have similarities but aren’t really a rhyme. When Baker was pushed away, he longed for one last shot at a ring with the Nats, but a Next Manager was always in the future. To keep Trotz with the Caps, both contract creativity and letting bygones be bygones would have been needed. But both their departures linger in the public mind. And neither team’s future looks brighter since they left.
“Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones — with ingratitude,” Benjamin Franklin said.
The Nats replaced Baker, who was 60 games over .500 in two years, with Dave Martinez, who is two games under .500 after 192 games as manager. The Caps didn’t find a way to bring back the only coach who had won a Stanley Cup in their 44 years. Now they’re home before May. Perhaps the Nats and Caps, especially their owners, weren’t ungrateful by old Ben’s high standards. But they certainly weren’t generous. Now they’re in the dumps.
Both Martinez with the Nats and Todd Reirden with the Caps built résumés that warranted a shot at a top job. But perhaps not for top-tier, win-now teams. What happened to getting your first big-time job with a building team that could grow with you?
Was it wise to hand Martinez a 97-win team with a big payroll and expectations to go deep in the playoffs? After all, failing to go deep was the stated reason for Baker’s departure. Was it smart to give Reirden, a Caps assistant, the reins to a defending Stanley Cup champ at the same time the Caps were losing assistants off the title-winning staff?
One or both may work out. But the similarities in how they got their jobs, with owners in an ungrateful huff, is unsettling. The Lerner family, in high pique after losing a second straight one-run Game 5 in a division series, made “Dusty Must Go” the law. They forgot, “Then What?”
Sin in haste, repent at leisure, say the preachers. Sometimes you can substitute “fire” or “show the door” for sin. Baker inherited an 83-win team, with a closer who choked Bryce Harper in the dugout. As the coolest man in major league baseball for almost half a century, he solved the clubhouse by entering it, then went 95-67 and 97-65. Martinez, after a 33-22 start, is 62-75. It’s usually about the players, not the manager. But that stings.
Ted Leonsis was severe with Trotz, who had been close to getting fired twice in the 2017-18 regular season. The Caps insisted that he honor a contract to stay with the team for a fraction of his suddenly far-higher market value. Sometimes you can be “right” — viewed narrowly — and still lose in the big picture. Trotz said a quick so-long and did a star turn this season as coach of the New York Islanders, reaching the second round of the playoffs with a team expected to do little.
Meanwhile, the Caps with Reirden had a fine regular season, winning the Metropolitan Division. But many in the NHL believe he was out-coached in the first round by the Hurricanes’ Rod Brind’Amour, a first-time coach himself. The Caps lost both a two-game lead in the series and a two-goal lead — twice — at home in Game 7. With the Hurricanes now one win from reaching the Eastern Conference finals, it’s a rare Caps player — or Caps fan — who isn’t thinking, “We should be where they are now.”
Reirden played in the NHL, so you know he was tough, and he’s extremely self-confident. Martinez had 1,599 major league hits and already may have passed that mark for sincere smiles in moments of managerial indigestion. But in those endless daily news conferences through which fans and, to a degree, players get a sense of their manager or coach, they both come across as friendly central-casting middle school teachers.
The danger with this analogy is that it is both limited and, in Baker’s case, further in the rearview mirror. Nonetheless, it was hard to miss that the firing of Lilliquist came on an evening at Nationals Park when highly regarded Mike Maddux, the pitching coach on both of Baker’s teams, was in the rival dugout of the Cardinals.
Firing a pitching coach is an alarm bell on most teams, a wake-up call to everyone that the status quo isn’t acceptable. For generations, Lilliquist’s pink slip would have started the clock on Martinez. But not in this era. Now managers are often middle managers who connect to the general manager above them and are not welded by iron links to their staffs.
In the Nats’ case, after Baker departed, GM Mike Rizzo grabbed a hitting coach from the Mets, Lilliquist from the unemployment line after the Cardinals fired him and Martinez from the Cubs. This is Rizzo’s coaching staff, assembled for Martinez. Now Rizzo has replaced one of those pieces. It has little to do with Martinez. In fact, Rizzo spoke, usually glowingly, about Martinez in a long conversation near the Nats’ dugout before Thursday’s game.
But this firing is a failure for Rizzo. He hired a pitching coach who inherited a staff that had finished second and sixth in the majors in ERA in 2016 and 2017, then brought in Lilliquist, who guided the staff downward to 15th in ERA last season and now an ugly 25th despite having Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin atop the rotation and Sean Doolittle as closer.
Lilliquist’s boot also should be a kick to the Lerners. Never underestimate how little they may understand the major league mini-verse. When they decided, over front-office objections and some forehead-smacking around the majors, to dump Dusty for 2018, that, in effect, told Baker’s staff to look out for themselves. Grab your next job because it might not be in D.C., where nobody even knows the name of the next manager.
That made Maddux the most coveted “free agent” teacher in the majors. The Cardinals snapped him up. Did the Lerners know they were booting both Baker and Maddux? Maybe Dusty would have retired after last season — either way — title or flop. But in a stable environment, rather than a headline-making one about Dusty suddenly getting dusted, Maddux might well still be with the Nats. Now it’s next pitching coach up.
Both the Nats and the Caps, over their history, have been known as franchises with genuine concern for their athletes and stable, constructive work cultures — sometimes even too patient. Baker and Trotz were, to a degree, aberrations that made you snap your head and say, “Dusty’s done?” or “Barry’s not back?” With the lingering sense, “That just doesn’t feel right.”
Does bad karma dissolve? And how long does it take?