Springtimes Past and the Changes They Have Wrought
Watching Anthony Rendon play third base for the Nationals last week in Kissimmee, Florida reminded me of so many past Spring Training games. Osceola Stadium, where the Astros train in March each year, is one of my favorite places to watch major league baseball. It is the closest ballpark to Viera, FL where the Washington Nationals train and its cozy confines allow fans to get on top of the action in ways that few other venues do. For the past seven years, we went there to see whether the Nationals had found the holy grail of competitive baseball.
Rendon had a monster game as I watched, going 4-for-5 with a homer and a double and making several nice plays at third. In past springs that would have been enough to ticket him for an opening day debut at Nationals Park. The small cluster of loyal fans that made the trek each February and March would have been abuzz about the hopeful portents Rendon provided about the upcoming season.
Yet for all of our diligent perusal of the tea leaves in the run up to all those past regular seasons, we never saw it coming. We did not see the 98 wins last year, nor the NL East Championship. We were so programmed into looking over the prospects, trailing around the minor league complex in Viera, FL hoping to glimpse Harper or Strasburg or whomever the phenom du jour might be, that we could not see success staring back at us last March. We did not realize that the potential we had seen growing every spring was finally morphing into a real team capable of playing championship caliber baseball.
None of our crew of spring training regulars did anything different last year at this time. We hung out at the Starbucks where we had run into Jim Riggleman several seasons before, where many of the players get their buzz on in the early morning hours before reporting to the park. We roamed Central Florida taking in five games in four days and packed our bags to head north like the team, not knowing what the season held in store.
Hope always tastes the same, no matter what form it takes. Washington baseball fans have been living on it so very, very long. They can tell you what it looked like when they were hoping that Clark Griffith would bring another winner to town before he died, hoping that the Senators would not leave town, not once but twice; hoping for three decades that somehow baseball would find its way back to Washington. Many a fan drowned in all those unfulfilled dreams.
In a sign that Washington is no longer about potential, but about the here and now, Anthony Rendon was ticketed to Double-A Harrisburg to start the 2013 season. It was just a few days after proving at Osceola County Stadium that he is probably about ready for major league pitching. But there is nowhere to put him. So he will be this year’s Bryce Harper, waiting in the wings for the first sign of trouble. Anthony Rendon will be waiting for Wally Pipp.
The Nationals have enough to hold Rendon in reserve without raising an eyebrow. But where does he go ultimately. Do the Nationals trade him for whatever piece they may need during the heat of the summer? Trading away a talent like Rendon seems dangerous in the extreme. Does he play second base at Harrisburg and press Danny Espinosa for playing time? Ian Desmond has said that his infield partner–Espinosa–is on the verge of the same kind of break out season in 2013 that he, Desmond, had in 2012.
And there are others like Rendon waiting for their chance. Chris Marrero is a former first round draft pick in a holding pattern along with Tyler Moore. Roger Bernadina is playing center and batting third for the Netherlands team that is going up against the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Davey Johnson’s biggest test as a manager this season will be finding enough playing time for them all.
Tom Boswell was talking again about fast starts this morning, about how Davey Johnson has never played on or managed a team that started slow in April. Tom thought about knocking on wood lest he temp the baseball juju to rain down its horrors on the Nats. But Tom said that good teams make their own luck and that is where Washington sits with two weeks to go before Opening Day.
Good teams are not about “potential,” but about realization. And that is why Anthony Rendon will have to wait. The 2013 Nationals are about the confidence to follow up on one great season with another, about the changes that have been realized since Ryan Zimmerman became the first of many draft picks were nurtured into top tier major leaguers.
Rendon may be that extra something that the Nationals will need in 2013 just like Bryce Harper was the final piece in the 2012 puzzle. Both players–like the Nationals as a team–have a dormant power that has yet to be fully tapped. The latent tendency for greatness building over the past eight Spring Training camps is about to pull into the station like a certain “Big Train did one hundred years ago. This year as we head north there is confident sense that greatness will follow, that the other shoe about to drop is finally bringing us home.