On Saturday, a priest in splendiferous Easter garb walked through the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse offering blessing from his chalice of holy water. General Manager Mike Rizzo gladly accepted the water on top of his bald noggin.
“I needed that,” he muttered.
Many think that the Nats, and Rizzo, don’t need much of anything. They’ve created their own baseball blessings over the last seven years. Rizzo has been running so hot that he is even in the finals of the Nats’ March Madness pool.
“It’s me against [reliever Matt] Thornton. We both had the Final Four correct. But I’ve got Wisconsin over Duke in the finals. Matt has Kentucky,” said Rizzo, his expression indicating that Thornton’s Kentucky pick looked tough to beat.
Bingo: Hours later, Wisconsin beat Kentucky and it’s a Wisconsin-Duke final.
“My son helped me with my picks,” Rizzo said Sunday. A future scout?
Speaking of picks, the Nats are rated the least unlikely team to win the World Series; translation, they’re “the favorite” in a sport where that term has relatively little meaning. Still, 5-to-1 odds, even if that’s only a 20 percent chance, is a superb spot to sit on opening day at Nationals Park on Monday at 4:05 p.m.
The Nats had multiple choices — five of them, actually — for an ace to send against the New York Mets’ ancient, rotund fastball-marksman Bartolo Colon. Washington chose the one that fit the team’s self-image: Max Scherzer.
This a club with a sense of destiny that it finds pointless to disguise. When an owner, who’ll be 90 in September yet was not born when Washington last won a World Series 91 years ago, signs a $215 million pitching ace (Scherzer), then nobody, from the boss on down, is hiding their intentions: Time to get this done.
True to this pattern, Manager Matt Williams in spring training kept a picture of an old-time player on his desk — a strapping fellow with a big block “W” on his chest for the Washington Senators. The year, 1924, the only title D.C. ever won. The player’s name: Bert Griffith. He was Matt Williams’s beloved grandfather.
No other player off that ’24 team had a descendant who played, even a day, in the majors — except one. And his grandson manages the Nats. Those odds, please?
“Gonna have it blown up and framed,” said Williams, whose family had never had a picture of Griffith in a major league uniform until this spring.
Now, with opening day upon us, it’s finally time to stop a long offseason of predicting, and even omen sleuthing, and start the really good stuff — the playing.
For the next six months, anybody who prognosticates where the Nats will finish in 2015 — as champs or chumps or somewhere in between — is on double secret probation. Next stop: expelled from Faber College. No more toga parties for you.
Out of season: guess. In season: watch.
The more you know about baseball, the closer you get to an informed sensible view of a player, a team or a season, then the more you realize it’s impossible to know enough. And that’s a huge part of the sport’s magnetism.
Every analysis of MLB’s current popularity, health and wealth isolates the same key factor. The NFL is our national game, perfect for weekend partying, gambling and fantasy leagues. MLB is our regional game, perfect for addiction, or at least a powerful adhesion, to a local team that we can get to know so closely, in daily detail, that we have a powerful sense of the game’s endless surprises.
An ideal example is Dan Uggla, a man of no interest in 29 big league cities, but fascinating in D.C. He may start at second base for the Nats on Monday. Or, if not, later in the week. An injury to Anthony Rendon has temporarily shuffled the infield. Still, the odds against Uggla being in such a position six months ago were off any chart. His first six seasons, Uggla averaged 32 homers and made all-star teams. No current Nat has matched that consistent power level at any point in his career. The last five years, his average plummeted: .287, .233, .220, .179, .149 and .162 until Atlanta released him.
It was like he couldn’t see the ball. Because he couldn’t.
Uggla had Lasik surgery, which produced 20-20 readings on eye charts. Yet Uggla knew the tests lied; at the plate, he couldn’t see properly. But why?
Almost everybody gave up on him, except Rizzo who had scouted and drafted him in Arizona in 2001 and called him his “favorite player” because of a fierce makeup, team-first clubhouse manner and genuine warmth you can’t feel from the stands.
After the Braves dropped him, Rizzo called Uggla but said he couldn’t match the Giants’ major league deal. Go to San Francisco. We’ll probably talk again.
“I’d been hit in the head a couple of times in my career. In everyday life, not a big deal. But stuff was joggled up whenever I moved my head,” he said. So, Uggla consulted someone who worked with mixed martial arts fighters with vision issues. He took that eye test again, but while moving his head as he might at the plate.
“I lost 10 levels of vision, down to 20/100,” he said. Since then, he’s done eye training, balance exercises and learned words like “vestibular.” To what degree is he fixed? He hit well, walked a lot and tracked pitches confidently in Florida. The Nats released the popular and versatile Kevin Frandsen to make room.
What does Uggla think? He waves his hand, meaning “too soon to know.”
That is opening day: a shrug, a wave, a deeply held hope. Too soon to know. But not too soon to care.
When Rendon is back, will Uggla fill a spot on a Nats bench that had a .144 pinch-hitting average last year? Will the Nats’ magnificent rotation help the team win 100 games? Will Bryce Harper bust out? Will the Nats’ righty-heavy lineup beat Dodgers southpaws Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu to reach the World Series?
Maybe, maybe not.
Will we start getting answers, to these and a hundred questions we don’t even know to ask, starting Monday?
Absolutely. Six long months, 180 days since Wilson Ramos grounded out in San Francisco, those answers will start arriving again, in daily waves. It’s been almost a century since Washington’s chances for “yes” were so good.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.