I try not to get emotional as the result of sporting events anymore. It’s partly the product of having credentials to cover the teams I grew up rooting for as a kid. It’s partly because of the years of agony those teams put me through growing up in this area. I try my best to keep an even keel, to remain critical and objective covering teams that meant so much to me during my formative years. It’s not always easy. And it hasn’t always been this way.
When I was a kid, I threw my 5 1/2 inch black and white antenna t.v. through my bedroom window when the Cowboys beat the Redskins for Dallas’ sole victory in Troy Aikman’s rookie year. My first favorite team was the Bullets championship teams in the late 70′s. I still wear No. 10 on sports teams I play on for Bobby Dandridge. I attended the second game in the history of the Washington Capitals in 1974. Hell, my family even had Washington Diplomats season tickets.
But we never had a baseball team. Sure, I rooted for the Orioles, but they were all the way up in Baltimore. I loved Eddie Murray and Cal — and Mickey Tettleton was one of my favorites — but they were so far away. They won the World Series in 1983 when I was 16. I, like Cal, thought they’d be back every year. They never did get back. They got good again in the mid-90s with Mike Mussina and all the high-priced free agents they bought. But then Peter Angelos fired Davey Johnson. I stopped rooting for the Orioles that day. A lot of people did. The rest, as they say, is history.
I know this is a weird way to start a column about the Nats clinching a playoff spot for the first time since they moved to D.C., but please, bear with me.
When we found out the Expos were moving to D.C. finally, after 33 years of no baseball, the District had another team to call their own. My wife and I were some of the very first to buy season tickets. Literally. Our season ticket holder number was in the triple digits. We just got lucky on that first night you could call to register for tickets. Those early years in RFK were rough though.
The stadium was a dump, barely adequate on the playing field with laughable concourses, concessions and customer service. To say the clubhouses, team offices and media accommodations were substandard is a joke. They were substandard for Low-A. The Nats team offices were trailers in the RFK parking lots. Some nights, the players ran out of hot water to shower.
The team on the field was rough too. Sure, that first season there was some magic as a group of Montreal Expos holdovers, misfits, has-beens and waiver wire fodder won enough one-run games to be in contention until late in the summer until the chicken wire and chewing gun fell apart and the team imploded down the stretch. From there, things got worse. Much worse.
The organization wanted to get younger, but still try to put a presentable product on the field. They failed in both aspects. Frank Robinson deserved much better in his final year in a Major League uniform. He still hasn’t received his proper send-off for all he did for Washington Baseball. Then his replacement, Manny Acta, was saddled with a couple of the worst teams ever assembled in big league ball. Actually, to call those teams “big league” is a disgrace to the term. The team was pathetic; the butt of jokes on late night t.v.
Somewhere in there, I got the great idea that writing and publishing my opinions about this team was a good idea. I’m still not sure it was, but here we are regardless.
The Nats moved into brand new Nationals park in 2008, but it certainly didn’t help the product on the field. To the very contrary actually; the team got worse. Consecutive 100-plus loss seasons inaugurated the ballpark on South Capitol Street. Patrons stayed away. Far away. The product of all those losses, however, were two No. 1 overall picks in the Amateur Draft.
It was at that point that ownership cleared house of the existing baseball “executives”, replacing them with Mike Rizzo, and allowed Rizzo the flexibility and means to first create adequate — and eventually superlative — scouting and player development departments. Yes, they were fortunate that two slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it, consensus first-overall picks were at the top of the two drafts in which they owned the No. 1 overall picks. But sometimes forces collide for good as well as evil.
Rizzo did draft — and sign — Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and the seeds of change for D.C. baseball had been sown. Rizzo also weeded out the bad attitudes and malcontents from the clubhouse that doomed Acta and his successor, Jim Riggleman, and brought in character guys — and just plain characters.
He overpaid drastically for a bearded, aging, sometimes surly right fielder, albeit one with a championship pedigree. He traded a AAAA outfielder for a minor league shortstop who had outgrown the position, spent much of his time injured and even had a lengthy suspension for performance enhancing drugs. He signed a first baseman who once fell asleep — literally — on the field. They traded half their farm system for an American League lefty who walked too many and played in a cavern in Oakland. They signed a veteran righty at the last minute who owned a World Series ring, but who has also played on seven teams in a 10-year career.
But the real difference on the roster came from the players they drafted and/or developed. Ryan Zimmerman. Jordan Zimmermann. Ross Detwiler. Drew Storen. Ian Desmond. Danny Espinosa. Roger Bernadina. Steve Lombardozzi. John Lannan. Craig Stammen. Tyler Moore. And yes, the phenoms, Strasburg and Harper. And there are even more on the way. Perez, Rendon, Meyer, Goodwin, Giolito…
They came in to the 2012 season seen by some in the media as contenders, but no one could have predicted just how fast this team came together. All season long, dealing with the distraction of “The Shutdown,” all they did was keep winning games and winning series, under the guidance of a veteran manager that has seen all of this before. In fact, he now becomes just the second manager to take four different teams to the postseason.
Davey Johnson will only allow himself a brief smile tonight. He knows what’s been accomplished — he knows the history. But he also feels — he knows – that there’s more for this team to accomplish this season. He’ll celebrate when the division is wrapped up and he won’t have to deal with Bud Selig’s gimmicky one-game play-in. He knows the math, he was a math major in college, after all.
The Washington Nationals are going to the playoffs. It’s hard for me to imagine those words, much less type them for publishing. Yet, here we are. Everything has changed for this franchise. No longer are they “The Natinals.” That moniker is long gone, dead and buried. This is a playoff team, a playoff franchise. Nothing can or will ever take that away. If you’ve been here since 2005, take a moment to let it all sink in. You’ve more than earned it. If you’re new to the team, enticed to baseball by the excitement of Strasburg, Harper and yes, winning; welcome.
Everyone loves a winner.
So you’ll have to forgive me for feeling sentimental this morning (currently 3:07 am as I type this). I couldn’t afford that luxury earlier in the evening as I was sitting in the press box, watching the team I wished I had as a youth clinch its first post-season berth. I couldn’t be, sitting in Davey’s press conference, even knowing he was the manager of the last team I cared about before this one arrived in D.C.
But I can be sentimental now. We all can be. Damn it, we earned it too.