Unless you have a perverse obsession with failure — or you’re a sports-writing symbolism fiend — you missed the significance of Wednesday. It breezed past your consciousness that, on Oct. 5 last year, the Washington Nationals fired Matt Williams, leaving General Manager Mike Rizzo to lower his head, admit to his first major failure and vow to do better.
“Really a tough day here at Nationals Park,” Rizzo said softly that day.
Then came this mild afternoon at Nationals Park, exactly one year after Rizzo’s most humbling moment. The clouds slid over and let the sun skip the line. “One Pursuit,” the team’s marketing slogan, flashed on every electronic screen in the stadium. Rizzo stood behind the batting practice cage and let the faux anniversary pass without acknowledgment. He had something better to occupy his mind: deciding on a playoff roster.
A year ago, while picking up the shards of a hyped season turned mediocre, Rizzo was forced to conclude, “It wasn’t our best year. It wasn’t Matt’s best year. It wasn’t my best year. As an organization, it wasn’t our best year.”
A year later, after 95 victories and a third division title in five seasons, Rizzo could say, “We’re one of the model franchises in all of baseball, and we’re proud of it.”
Rizzo doesn’t gloat. He doesn’t talk effusively about redemption or improvement. Those are short-sighted reactions. There’s a continuous nature to running a baseball organization that demands he resist most urges to celebrate, or even expound on, success. Or wallow in failure. Just the same, the strongest statement Rizzo made in building a playoff team this season isn’t about the singular accomplish of contention. It’s the reinforcement that his way of doing things — build it with a classic approach and build it to last — is the best strategy to maneuver a franchise through the fluctuation and inevitable disappointments of this sport.
It’s cliché now to value the health of athletes by saying, “The best ability is availability.” The same thinking should apply to teams attempting to win a championship in a methodical manner. The best way to win a World Series is to keep qualifying for the postseason and keep learning from those experiences. For all the talk about last season’s failure, for all the angst about advancing in the playoffs after losing tough series in 2012 and 2014, the most important thing is that the Nationals keep creating opportunities to chase championships. The consistent approach has allowed them to make the postseason in three of the past five years. It has enabled them to falter, adjust without vast change and return to the chase.
“He’s done a good job of keeping us together and not giving up,” shortstop Danny Espinosa said of Rizzo. “That can happen in an organization. Some will say, ‘Ah, we didn’t win this year.’ And then they blow it up and get rid of guys. They build for the short term. They think in the short term. And we haven’t done that, so it’s awesome.”
You shouldn’t take that for granted. Colleague Thomas Boswell wrote an entire column last week delivering that message, and now I’m backing up his words. It must be repeated as a counter to the misguided notion that, for a 12-season-old franchise making just its third playoff appearance, the season means nothing if it doesn’t end with October success. The importance of now is obvious, but don’t treat the Nationals like a team that has been to the playoffs six times the past decade and failed to advance.
I’ve covered baseball for 16 years in various cities, and this is the first time I’ll write about the hometown team in the postseason. The Nationals have been in D.C. for 12 years, and after seven years of building (which is a reasonable amount of time), they’ve been made to withstand a lot in this crazy game. They’ve averaged 91.6 wins over the past five seasons, and considering the great balance of veterans, emerging mid-career players and precocious youth on this team and throughout the organization, the next five seasons might be even better.
Of course, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, which is why, starting Friday, all perspective will be lost during the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But if you take anything from how well the Nationals rebounded from last season, it should be confidence that this organization is as nearly as stable as it gets. And despite sometimes displaying pride that crosses into arrogance, the Nationals are self-aware and introspective, and they can dissect their problems and make the proper corrections.
That requires skill and luck. Rizzo has had a fabulous year — from hiring Dusty Baker to promoting Trea Turner. But if the organization had offered Bud Black a more lucrative contract, Baker wouldn’t be here. If Brandon Phillips had waived his no-trade clause, Daniel Murphy wouldn’t have been around to hit .347 and carry the offense. Rizzo and the front office needed some good fortune, but they also fixed the bullpen problems that plagued them a year ago, improved the defense and created the depth to better absorb injuries. And at the trade deadline, Rizzo acquired Mark Melancon, the right closer for the right price. The solid moves, combined with years of good trades and signings and player development, helped the Nationals reset.
“It all comes back to: We have to evaluate our plays well, evaluate the other players in the league well, make good trades, make good signings and develop our own,” Rizzo said. “And I think we’ve done that as well as anybody.”
Rizzo doesn’t want to be excused from playoff pressure, however. He wants to advance. He wants to win a championship. But he’s not the type to do something stupid to “go for it.” He didn’t overreact at last season’s failure. He evaluated and tweaked. Regardless of what happens this month, he’ll go through the same process.
Sometimes, his consistency and dogged belief can seem like stubbornness. Sometimes, it’s good for him to have to take a swig of humility. But the best thing about Rizzo is he doesn’t change. Instead, he learns and adjusts.
“Everyone wants to win the World Series,” Rizzo said. “That’s the ultimate goal, to have a parade and get the ring. That’s the ultimate goal, but I kind of judge success in the consistency, the consistent excellence that we’ve had in place for the last five or so years. Not only at the big league level, but at the minor league level. Our scouting department. There’s a lot of different aspects that go into it. I think that we’ve done a good job being successful, consistent, and obviously, the ultimate goal has eluded us so far, but we’re working on that.”
One year after answering for failure, Rizzo isn’t blinded by success. In his world, there is mostly process, which is good because maintenance demands attention.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer