Remember when we loved the Washington Nationals because we liked them? Back when they were appealing not appalling? They were quirky and funny- they were close, they had each other’s backs and they were winners.
I prefer the photo of Bryce Harper hitting a towering home run into the upper deck in right field to the picture of Jonathan Paplebon strangling his young teammate in the dugout. That horrific and iconic image is part of baseball lore now- for all of time. Nice touch too that this historic bit of notoriousness happened on Fan Appreciation Day.
The Nationals do understand that much of the adoration for Bryce Harper comes from kids, right? Little 8, 9, 10 year-olds? We would know these people as children, traditionally a key ingredient to the quintessential family experience that is a day at the ballpark. Well, those kids were horrified and shaken by that blatant act of violence. Hell, I know ADULTS who had trouble sleeping Sunday night after seeing replays of what would surely be considered felony assault in a court of law. Imagine a Little Leaguer seeing never-ending spools of GIF’s of their hero being attacked by that wide-eyed, psychotic creep.
That Mike Rizzo, based on his news conference today, is even considering keeping Paplebon next year is an insult to the fan base and a display of hubris that is difficult to describe for its breathless arrogance.
Rizzo seems hell-bent on keeping Matt Williams too, excusing the underperforming season on all the injuries the team incurred. A fine rationalization, I suppose, except that 95% of the lineup was back in place when the Nats were swept home and away by the NL East Division Champion, New York Mets. That wasn’t injuries. That was a heaping pile of bullpen that in the closing stretch would also cost the club two games to the Cardinals and two games to the Orioles.
But there is much more here that’s nagging at people’s hearts these days about the Nationals than managerial calls, poorly executed bullpen development and deployment or ill-advised desperation late-inning bunt attempts.
It’s about character. Character really does matter. It is an intangible. But we know it when we see it. And right now, in the despicable public act Paplebon committed- in the continuing arrogance and inability to admit error displayed now by both Williams and Rizzo- what we see is a disturbing picture, deeply offensive to children of all ages.
Forty years ago, as he was chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time homerun record, Henry Aaron was the subject of death threats and vile racial slurs and insults. Now 80 years old, Hammerin’ Hank is once again the subject of death threats and vile racial slurs and insults. His offense? He told USA Today reporter, Bob Nightengale, that he thought the nation still had a way to go on the race front and that today’s racism is particularly insidious because as he put it:
“The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
I’m not sure what they’re actually wearing these days, but they are clearly armed with internet access and computers. Nightengale reports that in response to Aaron, the Atlanta Braves baseball club has received a torrent of the nastiest, racist e-mails you could ever imagine:
“Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur)” a man named Edward says in an e-mail to the Braves front office obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Edward invokes the epithet five times in four sentences, closing with, “My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur).”
And there’s more:
Marion calls Aaron a “racist scumbag.” Ronald won’t attend another Braves game until Aaron is fired. Mark calls Aaron a “classless racist.” David says that he will burn Aaron’s I Had A Hammer autobiography.
Oh good, book burning- another sign of enlightened tolerance.
As reporter, Nightengale, puts it quite eloquently- the difference between 1974 and 2014 is that back then, Aaron had the gall to pass Babe Ruth as the all-time homerun king, today, he had the audacity to speak his mind.
Mr. Aaron has kept a good sampling of the hate mail he received forty years ago- as a reminder of what he and Jackie Robinson and dozens of other black players had to put up with. It was when he was asked why he still has all those hate-filled attacks filed away, that Aaron responded with the sentence above- the sentence that has proven his point so vividly and so sadly.
Back when I worked at CNN, Hank Aaron ran a BMW dealership in Atlanta and he wanted the CNN Radio newscasts pumped into the showroom for his customers to get the latest news updates every half hour. Hank loved CNN back then. He was close to Ted Turner and then CNN President, Tom Johnson. We gave Hank’s dealership access to the CNN Radio feed and he very graciously sent back an autographed baseball that I have proudly on display in the living room of my Pentagon City apartment.
I used to look at that baseball from time to time and think, wow- signed by the legitimate home run king of all time. Today, I look at it and see a baseball signed by a kind and wise man who counters hatred with the sword of truth. And it makes me even prouder to have an artifact that, to me, now also stands for the righteous but elusive goal of social justice and racial tolerance.
Please- keep speaking your mind, Hank. Your words in 2014 are as powerful as all the lumber you ever used to pass the mighty Ruth all those many years ago.
OK, Nationals fans. It was ugly and dispiriting for most of the year. Every bounce went the other way. They led the National league in errors. If they had the bases loaded and nobody out, they’d figure out a way of stranding all of them. It was so bad, I was waiting for a headline like Strasburg tosses no-hitter, Nats lose 1-0.
The absolute low point was reached at 10:26 pm, ET on Wednesday, August 7th. The Atlanta Braves entered the 9th inning at Nationals ballpark with a 12-game winning streak, a 6-3 lead and, adding insult to injury, had escaped without repercussions after drilling Bryce Harper repeatedly in the series.
A Harper double and a Jason Werth walk gave the 29,000 fans a glimmer of hope. Then Ian Desmond struck out looking and Anthony Rendon fanned swinging. Wilson “Buffalo” Ramos stepped into the batter’s box representing the tying run. He stung the baseball the opposite way toward right field; Harper and Werth in full sprint as the line drive shot out over the infield. It would end up falling into the glove of Jason Heyward. Game over.
The once mighty Washington Nationals had fallen six games below .500. The National League Eastern Division was put away for good that night. The tomahawk chops at Nationals Ballpark made for a painful reminder of the utter failure of a season gone dreadfully and inexplicably wrong.
Inexplicably, because there wasn’t a single starter in that Washington lineup you’d want to get rid of. Adam LaRoche maybe but there’s that stylish defense of his at 1st. And last year he carried the club offensively for an entire month. Rendon and Lombardozzi at 2nd. How lucky are we? Desmond at SS. Perennial all-star. Zimmerman scary at 3rd defensively and offensively anemic at the time- but the cornerstone of the franchise, regardless. The outfield of Harper, Span and Werth- untouchable. Even struggling at the plate, Span’s defense in center is gold glove quality. Wilson Ramos. Power, smarts and feel for handling our pitchers.
And who would you knock off the pitching staff? Dan Haren is the most likely answer because if he hadn’t literally been the worst pitcher in the entire sport for the entire first half of the season, the Nats would have been contending all along. But the rest of them? Really, folks, this is one of the top 5 pitching staffs in the game. And when he’s the “good Haren” he looks like he can throw a no-hitter.
But in the midst of the misery of that humid August night when they were whipped by their arch-rivals, the Baseball Gods seemed to awaken. They may be Gods but, in the end, they must abide by the rules of the universe, and specifically- the statistical theory called Regression toward the Mean. From our friends at Wikipedia:
…the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and, paradoxically, if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.
Statistics really do mean something in baseball. If a player has averaged X amount of production in pitching and hitting stats, over a 162-game season and accounting for their aging, the result is invariably within 10-15% of their career average.
Ryan Zimmerman is Exhibit A. Jason Werth is Exhibit B.
Zimmerman was showing the worst power numbers of his career. Until September. The man has hit 9 homeruns in his last 11 games. He now leads the club in that department. Nine homeruns is an insane amount for a month, much less a week and a half. That’s a pace to hit 132 homeruns over a season. Zimmerman’s Regression to the Mean has been absolutely breathtaking.
Jason Werth’s story spans three years. His first year as a National, Werth hit .232 with 20 homers and only 58 RBI’s. His injury plagued second year saw his average climb to .300 but only 5 homers. In his 3rd year is currently in third in the battle for the National League batting title. He has been the best offensive player in the game for over two months. He’s hitting .323, with 23 homers and 71 RBI’s. Werth’s Regression to the Mean is complete now.
Since the stinging loss to the Atlanta Braves August 7th, the Washington Nationals have the best record in the sport. They were 54-60 after the sweep. They have now gone 24-9. They were 6 games under .500. They are now 9 games above .500 at 78-69. They have won 7 in a row, 9 of their last 10, 13 of their last 17, 18 of their last 23.
For a team that won 98 games last year, clearly, Regression to the Mean was due and is in full swing.
To Nat’s fans- a note of caution over the next 15 games. So yes, they have gone 24-9 since the Atlanta sweep, but remember that after each of the 9 losses, the conventional wisdom was that the season had just ended. Some of the 9 losses were ugly. So ugly they obscured the winning tempo that was beginning to build. We almost didn’t see it, even as it was happening. Baseball and its 162 game marathon have a funny way of doing that to you.
But the trend is unmistakable now. The Nationals have found themselves but only at the very last possible, friggin’ moment. They will not win out. They can afford to lose probably three games at most. Do not panic when one of those three losses happen. The other 12 wins will have us “crashing the party,” in one of the most inspiring turn-arounds since the 2011 World Champion, St.Louis Cardinals.
And if they don’t get to the playoffs, rejoice that you got to see this kind of drama and heart and grit and pressure in the middle of September. Most ball clubs don’t get to the cooler temperatures of autumn with much of any hope at all.
The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins has an excellent column today in which she points out that for as much of a clueless dolt as Yankee 3rd baseman, Alex Rodriguez seems to be, his notoriety should not be used as cover to deny the man due process.
Commissioner Bud Selig is reportedly “negotiating” with A-Rod right now; a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs or something much bigger- a lifetime ban from the sport. And this is where Jenkins blows the whistle. A lifetime ban puts A-Rod in league with Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox. You better have some strong evidence. And you don’t use such a thing as a stick in a negotiation.
It’s simple. The Commissioner lays out exactly what A-Rod’s done, proves it and hands out a punishment. His misdeeds are so heinous they merit a lifetime ban or they don’t, in which case, he should be treated like any other ballplayer, no more, no less.
And as much as fans despise Rodriguez for his overvalued contract and his already admitted PED cheating back in the early 2000s, there really are some issues at play here that are anything but black and white. It’s been leaked that A-Rod may have impeded baseball’s investigation by allegedly offering to buy or take incriminating paperwork from the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. Or is it possible, Biogensis owner, Anthony Bosch tried to extort A-Rod? Jenkins claims that could well be the case:
According to the New York Daily News, MLB officials have told Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch they would cover his legal expenses, indemnify him against litigation and put in a good word with any law-enforcement agencies if he cooperated with the investigation. Before Bosch made his deal with baseball, he tried to get money out of Rodriguez. All of that puts the commissioner in bed with a steroids dealer and semi-extortionist.
So there’s a lot we don’t know about the case. But this we do know. Bud Selig will always be remembered as the Commissioner who allowed cheating to run rampant in the sport while his fellow owners profited greatly from all those tainted home run balls that were clearing the fences back in the 1990’s- Baseball’s Golden Steroid Era.
The reviled and hated A-Rod may be a gift from heaven in regard to Selig’s attempt to escape this legacy, but it’s not right and it’s not fair to railroad anyone in an attempt to spruce up your own past history.
PED use has been a blight on the game’s integrity, morality and even its cherished statistics that used to offer a way of comparing the greatness of players from one era to another. It’s a good thing that Selig, Major League Baseball and now even the player’s union are clearly trying to stamp out this abuse.
But fans with torches and pitch forks and all of that hatred for an arrogant, cheating athlete not withstanding, you don’t accomplish that with a process that may, in itself, be abusive.
I don’t mean to turn this blog into a personal medical site, but God apparently did, so….
We’re just past the halfway point of the short side of the theoretical recovery period after most of my stomach, a piece of my liver and my gall bladder all sacrificed themselves in an effort to annihilate a 5cm tumor that turned up in my stomach 14 years after receiving unnecessary radiation in that vicinity following a bout with testicular cancer.
OK, with the background out of the way, what’s it like to recover from major gastro-intestinal surgery? Meh. Some days are better than others. Some days are high energy, some days are low energy. What is a constant is sleep. This is the magic potion of healing. I can drop a 2-hour nap in a New York minute (I know- that sentence must be a gross metaphorical violation of some sort). The trick is getting 10-12 hours of sleep a day but not turn into a piece of the living room furniture. You have to get out. You have to walk. You have to get in the sun. You have to breathe the air. Sometimes easier said then done.
A few days ago, I made my first distant foray from home besides the hospital to take in a Nationals game that reliever, Drew Storen tried to ruin for me but it’s not really his fault- he didn’t know I was sick. The point is that when I mentioned my outing on Facebook, a friend noted “great you should be feeling so well to get out and about.” In fact, without going into any detail, I will tell you categorically that was the single worst day of my recovery that I have had. And that is precisely why I pushed on and decided it was imperative to get out and get TO the ballgame. And it worked. The field, the wind, the night air, the best game ever invented in the history of mankind- all conspired to make me feel vibrant and alive. It did wonders. Thanks to Drew, I got to leave after the bottom of the 8th and beat a lot of the subway crowd so even the Metro experience was pleasant.
This is about pushing the limits of your physical and mental boundaries.
One of the things I’ve done mentally, is divorce myself from the news within reason. I am in the news business so it goes against instinct. But I’m sorry, there is just too much conflict, violence, blood, natural disaster, evil, ego, banality, superficiality, celebrity-worship and general bullshit out there for it to possibly be healthy in any way to consume in large quantities at this time. I’ll catch up later.
One of the larger adjustments is in the area of nutrition, appetite, food. After leading a life, like most others I think, in which meals are defined by their taste, all bets are off now. Foods that I used to secretly crave (and which are advertised more than any other) like cheeseburgers, french fries, fried chicken, have lost their appeal. Food just tastes different. With a smaller stomach, I also eat much smaller amounts. And my appetite is all over the place. Sometime I have one, sometimes I don’t.
The trick now (and this is too funny for words) is keeping my weight up. After years of trying to watch my weight, I am currently losing about 4 pounds a week. Add it to the weight loss that occurred after surgery and a week of hospitalization and we’re talking nearly 30 pounds. Eventually this has to stop but right now, it feels great to be lighter.
In a couple of weeks I begin a discussion with my doctors about chemotherapy. They seem to be all gung-ho about the poisonous little cocktails they want to give me to prevent any return of cancer. They are going to have to convince me with science, research and logic. The white coats and air of authority will not be enough. Don’t get me wrong. I love my doctors. They have saved my life. I just don’t want a repeat of 14 years ago when the prevailing medical orthodoxy was to radiate the crap out of people. It’s one of my own doctors who tells me he is now constantly running into patients with tumors who received radiation 15 and 20 years ago. A debate for another day. For now, a few more weeks for healing from the sharp, steely knives.
They say God works in mysterious ways. I do believe the dude has tried to kill me several times in order to make me stronger and healthier. Eventually, this time, I think it’s going to take.
I’ll admit to being an intermittent Yankee fan through the years. It’s what happens when your own hometown doesn’t have a baseball team for over three decades. But now that we have this very cool ball club called the Washington Nationals, it was outrageously wonderful to learn yesterday that we had stolen last year’s closer for the Bronx Bombers.
That’s right, Rafael Soriano, the guy who stepped up for the great and injured Mariano Rivera last season is now going to be wearing a curly W on his hat. Analysts have been writing that the Nationals sent a statement by agreeing to pay so much money for the best free agent relief pitcher on the market. The statement being, basically, “Screw All of You.”
See, the traditional baseball world made up of general managers, managers, owners and ornery old scouts who still spit tobacco products- doesn’t like the Washington ball club very much. They think we were crazy to sit Stephen Strasburg just to protect the young kid’s arm a year after Tommy John surgery. They see arrogance in Washington GM, Mike Rizzo’s approach because shutting down your star pitcher implies you’re keeping him healthy for all the future division titles, playoffs and World Series wins you’re going to be piling up.
Many in the traditional baseball world are also just plain crazy jealous. In Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nats lucked into two of the most remarkable players to come down the pike in about 20 years. The baseball establishment liked the Nats better when they were a doormat; a sorry little team from a rich but fickle market that used to have to pay a King’s ransom for any marquis talent (see Jason Werth).
But after a 98-win season and the realization that 87-year-old Nationals owner Ted Lerner is, in fact, one of the richest men in the world and certainly the wealthiest owner in the sport, suddenly old DC doesn’t looks so bad as a destination for premier talent.
But the fun part about stealing a Yankee is that back in our old insecure days, that’s what we beleaguered Washington fans thought was surely going to be the fate for our diamonds in the rough. That sometime in 2016 or 2017, Bryce Harper was going to be wearing pin stripes instead of the curly W- that it would be just a matter of time before Stephen Strasburg would someday be the opening day pitcher for the Yankees.
And now we have the Yankee closer- a decision that no doubt was actually made shortly after a chilly October night at Nationals Park when young relief ace, Drew Storen, picked the worst possible moment in the world to collapse. Blowing a six run lead in the deciding game of a playoff series is something you remember. And vow to never repeat.
Drew will get his chances in 2013, but it will be the Yankee closer, the 33-year old veteran Rafael Soriano who will be shutting the door on most nights. Young Drew will learn. But right now, it’s time for the formerly forlorn Nationals to rule the baseball world. And to their detractors: here’s a little tobacco juice in your eye.
A few days have passed now since Washington suffered its collective sucker punch and watched its beloved young team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. There are two keys to healing and getting over it. One has to do with understanding the element of time. The other has to do with recognizing not what happened- but how it happened.
It’s About the Long Haul
Baseball as a sport goes against all we currently value in terms of instant gratification. It requires the longest vision of any sport; 162 games are played over six long months. But it is actually much longer than that and this is the key perspective to understand. Especially for a young team like the Nationals, this is not about one season. It is about many. Look at it at more like a game that will be played over the span of a decade.
The Atlanta Braves in the 1990’s ran off a string of 11 consecutive NL division titles. They captured exactly one World Series. They only appeared in two in that span. Washington Post columnist, Tom Boswell points out the Braves have lost 7 division series since 2000. Even the Yankees have dropped 5 since 2002.
Baseball playoffs are a complete and total crap-shoot; especially with the new one-game wild-card format. And the divisional best 3 of 5 format is too short to really tell the tale of a team’s depth and talent. The regular season does tell that story. And no one in their right mind would have ever thought that in 2012, the Washington Nationals would finish atop the NL Eastern division, much less with the sport’s best record.
That was one full year ahead of schedule. Remember this is the task of a decade that lies before us. That’s an extra year of playoff and playoff-style pressure the players now have experience with. And you know the Nats may well be favored to win it all next year with Strasburg pitching a full season and with a whole winter ahead of Mike Rizzo with much more leverage than he’s ever had before in making deals to make the club even better.
This is a long-term proposition. We’re not used to thinking this way. But even in baseball terms, we have more hope for instant gratification than just about any other team in the sport.
How We Lost
I remember the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers played a season finale at Memorial Stadium in 1982 that would determine the winner of the American League East. No wild card that year. Someone was going to end up out of the playoffs having won 94 games. It was possibly Earl Weaver’s last game as the Orioles skipper. It was Cal Ripken’s rookie season. The stakes were enormous.
The Brewers crushed the Orioles 10-2. As an Oriole fan at the time, I remember being disappointed but not hurt. The Baltimore fans that day were generous in spirit. They stayed long after the drubbing to offer their final cheers to Weaver. In the young Cal Ripken they sensed a bright future. The Birds would win it all the following season.
I think our collective psyches would have been much better preserved if the St. Louis Cardinals had beaten us 10-2 last Friday night. Yes, we would have the same overall disappointment, but I bet the fans would have stuck around for awhile to thank the team and pretty much just hug each other for the incredible season they had all witnessed.
But, instead, on 5 different occasions, the Nats were a single strike away from victory. To lose under those circumstances is cruel fortune, indeed. But how do you suppose it felt when almost the same scenario played out for the poor Texas Rangers last year? They were a strike away on at least three occasions- from winning the World Series.
Things are relative, my friends; in both time and occasion.
As for our decade of excellence that is to follow- an incredibly important brick was added to the foundation of this franchise in 2012. The bitter taste that lives in us is especially acute in the players. They will live with it through the winter, through their surgeries and workouts. And the bitterness will mix with the optimism of spring.
It is my belief that the events that transpired on that fateful Friday night, hurtful and as frustrating as they were to so many, will be the very reason this young, talented bunch of ballplayers coalesces even more as a team. What I think we will see, is a steely determination; first-class athletes and competitors motivated to the core by a failure, that to be fair, was only so immense because of how unexpected their rise to the top was last season, to begin with.
No- this pain will subside and give way, as human sentiment so often does, to hope. Fortunately for fans of the young Washington Nationals, we have ten years ahead of us to savor, enjoy, and yes, occasionally suffer through. After all, over that decade, each year, 29 teams will walk off the field of their last game with a loss.
But, should anytime over these ten years, we become the team that walks off the field of that last game with a victory- it is all the pain and sorrow and joy and ecstasy of the arduous path we took to get there that will help us truly understand the magnitude and the rarity of the greatest achievement in sport.
Welcome to disappointment, to pride, to love- to Baseball.