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Washington Nationals- The Real Deal

Washington Nationals Manager, Davey Johnson

In the span of a single week the Washington Nationals have gone from humiliation to redemption to dominance.

The Precipice

Just last Friday, they had their ace on the mound and a 9-0 lead. And then it unraveled historically. They ended up suffering the most gut-wrenching loss in franchise history, blowing the lead and then a 10th inning comeback to the Atlanta Braves in a defeat so stinging and surreal it left usually talkative Nat’s skipper, Davey Johnson, a stammering, shaken man in his post-game press conference.

What would have been a 4 and half game lead against the 2nd place Braves, was suddenly and shockingly reduced to 2 and a half.  How does a team recover from such a humiliation before the home fans in the opening game of what was billed the most important series of the season to date?

They didn’t. In the first game of a doubleheader the next day, they were shut out 4-0.  Lead down to a game and a half.  The wheels had come off.  It had all been an illusion.

The Nats looked like just another 1st half Cinderella.  It seemed they were on the verge of a collapse like the 1995 team that entered the all-star break in first place and promptly went into a 2nd half swoon that left them in their usual position- last place.

Nats nation was stunned.  On the mound as their last defense against the abyss was their 6th starter, John Lannan, a two-time opening day pitcher who found himself rudely relegated to the minor leagues at the start of the season but brought up on this day thanks to baseball’s new rule allowing a team to carry an extra player for doubleheaders.

And the gloom only deepened as he and the Nats quickly fell behind the Braves 2-0 in the very first inning of the night cap.

Redemption

And then something changed.  Inalterably.  And maybe forever.  The discarded Lannan found his rhythm.  The Braves would not score again that night.  The Nats hitters, listless through four innings, finally broke through, gifted by the fickle Baseball Gods.  A wild pitch scored a run and they were on the board.  In the 6th, a ground ball out scored another, game tied 2-2.

In the 7th, a 4th-string catcher, Sandy Leon hit a grounder to first and the Baseball Gods smiled again.  The ball hit the bag and magically turned into a single.  A two-out single would give the Nats a 3-2 lead.

They would go on tack on two more runs.  The nightmare had ended.  Lannan was sent back to the minors the next day, now likely to return for the stretch run when NL strike-out leader, Stephen Strasburg, is shut down for the season.

On to Sunday, when a Nats victory would result in a series split and a remarkable redemption from the historic Friday night debacle.  And so they won 9-2 on the shoulders of 3rd baseman, Ryan Zimmerman’s two home runs.

It All Comes Together

They have since been unstoppable.  Bryce Harper, with the big-stage glittering before the teenager’s eyes,  homered in his first at-bat ever in New York City and the Nats would go on to sweep an unraveling Mets team in three straight.

And the dominance continued Thursday night with an 8-2 win in the opening of a 4-game series in Milwaukee.

Since the nightmare a week ago today, they’ve responded with 6 wins in 7 games.  They’ve won 6 in a row.  They are the first Washington team to go 20 games over .500 since 1945.  They are tied with the New York Yankees with the best record in baseball.

After the victory over the Brewers, Davey Johnson was asked what he thought about reaching so many milestones and he answered not with bravado or hubris.  He responded that there was still a lot of work to do and then, with a steely determination, “We haven’t done nothin’.”

Except rising from the ashes to become, at least for now, the best team in the sport. 

The Future

Baseball’s trading deadline is next Tuesday.   It’s usually the time of year pennant contenders seek the final piece of the puzzle  that will put them over the top.   There is no urgency in Washington.  Let other teams give up their young minor league talent for 2-month rental all-stars.   The Nats have the depth, the talent, the humility, the leadership and most of all- the chemistry and work ethic that makes any new, splashy additions to this team thoroughly and completely unnecessary.  

Earlier in the season, the Washington Nationals were a curiousity and a new-fangled sensation.  They managed to overcome one injury after another to key players.  In Strasburg and Harper they had youthful, potential hall-of-famers.  No one ever doubted their pitching; it’s been the best in the game since Day One.  But in those days, they had an anemic offense.  

Now- there is no team in the sport that has scored more runs in the month of July.  The pitching remains suffocating.  Their manager pushes, cajoles, compliments and motivates his players.   They have weathered injuries and responded to things like the worst blown lead in the history of the franchise a mere week ago- in a resounding manner.   They have answered every challenge thrown their way.  They are not wilting, they are still gathering strength.

This is not a good team.  This is a great team.  One for the ages.  A dynasty is being born before our very eyes.

Horror in Aurora

July 20, 2012 1 comment

A family mourns their missing son outside the movie theater in Aurora (AP Photo- Barry Gutierrez)

Another mindless, irrational, senseless mass shooting in America.  And in a darkened movie theater no less- the place so many gather to be both social and alone in the dark.

We know 71 people were wounded and 12 of them have died.  There are so many questions.  Salon.com’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wonders if movie-going will ever be the same again. 

Movie theaters and the act of group entertainment are going to be heightened experiences now, fraught with the pain of history. We’re going to feel different when the lights go down.

And then there’s the gratuitous violence in the “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Batman movie whose midnight debut in a Denver suburb became the target for 24-year-old James Holmes.  We do love our violence, don’t we?  I’m no innocent here.  I’ve enjoyed my share of pretty gory, violent movies in my lifetime.  But juxtaposed against actual violence and mayhem, I wonder how many of us will be able to stomach the fictionalized violence in this movie and others like it.

My guess is that, for right now, it will be awkward.  But this will fade away, won’t it?  Like the Gabby Giffords shooting eventually did.  Like even Colombine eventually did.

So much of this will follow a predictable course.  New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sarah and Jim Brady will be the only ones who dare bring up the topic of the public’s access to automatic weaponry.  Three of Holmes’ weapons were automatic, two pistols and a rifle.  No word yet how he got his hands on them.  But then again, a criminal check would have served no purpose.  It appears James Holmes had no criminal record whatsoever aside from an innocent speeding ticket.

Some will argue it’s too bad others in the theater were not also armed so as to kill the gunman at the inception of his attack.  Who knows?  Maybe the answer is to arm us all.

And I suppose we are to breathe a sigh of relief when we hear from authorities that there is no “nexus to terrorism.”  It is ironic that we spend so much time, energy and money fighting terrorism as a foreign threat.  If you think about it, James Holmes allegedly committed the ultimate act of terrorism- if you define it as an act of violence aimed at intimidating society. 

The same could be said for Timothy McVie (Oklahoma City bombing), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Colombine) and Jared Lee Loughner (Gabby Giffords).   A public building, a high school, a civic event where people had gone to meet their Congresswoman- and now, a crowded theater.   It’s our homegrown terrorists who worry me most of all.  Thanks to them, we’re pretty much out of places where we can feel safe.

Olympic Outrage: Uniforms, Fries and Umbrellas

Finally- an area of agreement between our dysfunctional political parties. Everybody hates the U.S. Olympic team’s outfits that will be worn for the big opening ceremonies in London. This is because they are made in China and, apparently, because they have berets that look kind of French.

There hasn’t been this much outrage since it was discovered by the Athenians back at the first Games in 700 B.C., that their togas and sandals had actually been made by the Spartans. There was also great angst back then in regard to the new headwear made from olive branches. For everybody, of course, except Caesar, a Roman, who liked the look and adopted it for his own years later.

As for solutions to the made-in-China problem, Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, suggests throwing all the uniforms in a large pile and burning them. While this would be deeply satisfying for many, it seems a waste of expensive material. Can we just give the uniforms to the actual Chinese? Or- perhaps we can quickly make the Chinese team’s uniforms and call it even?

As for the jaunty little hats. Those wacky folks at Fox and Friends, the morning news show famous for its measured response to the great issues facing American society, put on French accents and had a good ol’ time making fun of the look earlier this week, implying the berets were kind of effeminate and something only wusses would wear. Who would don such a thing, for crying out loud? MSNBC answered last night on the Ed Show. Oh, yeah- these guys:

Speaking of things that look French, an even bigger problem in my view is the great French Fry Scandal that has now engulfed the games. As an official sponsor, McDonalds has strong-armed the Olympic committee into giving them the sole right to sell fries. No other vendor can violate this exclusive arrangement. Except for those that sell them along with fish, in which case, they are no longer fries, they are now “chips.”

Official Fries of the Olympics (left) Unofficial but Acceptable Olympic Fries (right)

This is nothing new. A HUGE controversy erupted at the first games regarding the barley, wheat and grape concessions. It turned into a nasty little row between Epemetheus (husband of Pandora of the famous box) and Achilles (of ‘heel’ fame). Epemetheus ended up with the wheat and barley, Achilles with the grapes, but a third vendor, McDonaldoclese ended up making a killing winning the exclusive wild boar and mutton concessions.

And, of course. the biggest outrage of all is the stuff attendees of the London Olympics are not allowed to bring into any of the stadiums or other venues. No bottled water. No large, golf-style umbrellas or oversize hats. No Frisbees, hunting horns, drums, vuvuzelas or whistles.

There were no such restrictions at the first games. Pig bladder water containers were welcome. Daggers were allowed. Even gigantic war horns.

Clearly, times have changed- and not for the better. I am sure the organizers of the first games would have rued the day they allowed their athletic competition to be taken over by exclusive sponsors, corporations and heavy-handed governments.

It’s un-American, I tell you, and I am angered by all of it. Why? Because, as everyone knows, it is mandatory now to be outraged by something at all times and the Olympics last a long time- like a month or so- so this covers my outrage quota through damn near the end of August. Ah, August- a month I’ve always hated.

Baseball through the Eyes of a Kid


I think it’s a fairly universal experience and it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime. Mine came 43 years ago when I watched my first major league baseball game at RFK; the Yankees in town to take on the Washington Senators.

Now 2012 instead of 1969, I relived it all this week as I took my girlfriend’s grandson to his first ballgame. He had 48 hours of anticipation since I’d showed him the tickets and he was primed. Adrian is only 8 years old and he has a sketchy awareness of the rules and subtleties of the game but, already, he is drawn to baseballs like a moth to flame. For him, it’s still about a game of catch with a tiny little Franklin glove. But now it’s a much bigger thing- as if a treasure chest was suddenly opened.

It was Throw Back Night at Nationals stadium. The Nats and the visiting Giants wore uniforms from 1924, the last and only time Washington would claim a World Series. The grounds crew was decked out in straw hats, suspenders and bow ties. In front of us, the players got their last warm-up throws in prior to the start of the game.

“There’s #34, Adrian,” as I pointed to 19-year-old Bryce Harper. “Remember him, kid. He’s like Mickey Mantle before he was Mickey Mantle.” Adrian lives in New York City so I think he actually understood. After all, he had announced earlier in the day that he was going to be a Yankee some day.

Several innings into the game, it was Adrian who pointed out to me that #34 was taking his place in the batter’s box. Up to that point, the Giants had had their way with the Nats, leading for awhile by 5-1. Adrian was a little confused about who to root for. After all, the unmistakable symbol of New York was up on the scoreboard. No, no, I explained. This is a throw-back game, and back in 1924, the San Francisco Giants were actually the New York Giants, so that’s why they have that “NY” on their uniforms.

“I want to see some home runs,” he said, gesturing with his arms to imitate the parabolic flight of the ball into the outfield seats. I am convinced now that God has a special ear for the wishes of children. Washington’s all-star shortstop, Ian Desmond, apparently does too. He launched a shot into the right field bullpen against Matt Cain who had thrown a perfect game earlier in the season. He had been previously unhittable in this game. Until Desmond. Ok…now 5-2, the stadium erupted and Adrian suddenly figured out whom to root for. After Desmond rounded the bases, it was now Washington 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa at the plate. Boom. There you go, Adrian, back-to-back home runs. The stadium got even louder. High-fives were being exchanged by perfect strangers all around us. It was now 5 to 3. Cain had been replaced. A couple of batters later- here was Harper. He did not disappoint. Solid RBI double- now 5-4.

Throughout the game, Adrian had watched foul balls reach into the stands. He wanted one in the worst way and it did get real close. I mean, real close. As I made my way back to the seats holding two tiny little batting helmets filled with ice cream, a sudden commotion hit our section. Sure enough, a foul ball was heading directly toward us. Hands full, I watched as the ball came down on top of us. It hit the left shoulder of the guy sitting right below us. I handed Adrian the ice cream and scrambled. The ball hit the ground and was finally recovered by another guy sitting two seats to our left.

Ok…so now the kid has asked for home runs and gotten two of them, back-to-back. He asked for a foul ball and practically got beaned by one. He gets to see National’s reliever Henry Rodriquez strike out a batter with a fastball that registers 101 mph on the scoreboard. Now what?

The ninth inning, that’s what.

Three rookies up to bat, all in a row. Pinch-hitter, Tyler Moore, on the verge of striking out opens the frame with a solid double to the gap in center. Steve Lombardozzi bunts and the pitcher botches it and now it’s first and third with nobody out. The stadium is going nuts. Bryce Harper comes to the plate again. As a deafening, spontaneous chant of “Let’s go Harper” reaches it’s boisterous crescendo, Harper is steeped in the moment and raps a base hit- game tied 5-5. I do high-fives with Adrian and an 80-year old, white-haired lady behind me.

Ryan Zimmerman is intentionally walked to load the bases and still no outs. The anticipation is as thick as the humid Washington air. Michael Morse is up. Adrian likes the fact the guy’s nickname is “The Beast.” But he hits a grounder and the Giants get a force at home. One out, game still tied. Adam LaRoche comes to the plate and hits a double-play grounder. They get the out at second but the shortstop sends a low throw to the Giant’s 1st baseman. It glances off his glove and wouldn’t you know it- Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old and the representative of all that is young about baseball, dashes in for the winning run.

There is delirium in the stadium. The Nats players stream out in the field. In a hilarious ritual that had been pre-planned by National’s starting pitcher Gio Gonzales in the eventuality of an Adam LaRoche walk-off, several Nats players put their hands over their heads doing imitations of antlers and run around LaRoche while he takes an imaginary bow and arrow and shoots at the “deer.” After the game, he would tell reporters he thinks he got one before he was tackled.

We lingered in the park, drinking in the last of a miracle night. I took Adrian right up to the field and we watched Ian Desmond do a TV interview. The stadium lights were turned down and now the field was bathed in a soft brown light. I bought him a baseball from the stadium store as we made our way to the subway station.

Welcome to baseball, kid. You want to be a Yankee? Go for it, my little friend, go for it. That’s why they call it the field of dreams.