All That Money and Talent and They Are Still the “Natinals”
In a bar in Hanover, New Hamspire I was watching a Red Sox-Yankees game in July 2004 with those fans of the former who quickly despaired as their team fell behind for the thousandth time to the Derek Jeter-Bernie Williams Yankees who had been to the World Series five of the preceding six seasons. And then it happened. Bronson Arroyo hit Alex Rodriguez in the middle of the back. The ball was so far inside that there was little reason to believe it was unintentional and A-Rod formed easy to read words as he walked to first base. Jason Varitek responded by planting his glove in A-Rod’s face and the ensuing melee is history.
The Red Sox fans left the bar after the Yankees scored six runs in the top of the sixth inning. They had seen their team lose to New York so many times and a commanding lead left little room to believe the Sox could mount anything against the back end of the Yankee bullpen where Mariano Rivera lurked. I stayed because I didn’t have anything better to do and the Smith’s Oatmeal Stout was quite good. The Yanks were ahead 10-8 when Rivera took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and a few of the fans had come back in to see the last out. But then Garciaparra got a double to lead off the inning and Kevin Millar singled him in and suddenly there was a reason to believe. Bill Mueller hit a walk-off two-run home run to win it and from that magic moment, the one where Variktek stuck it to A-Rod, the Red Sox Nation had found its mojo.
Baseball is a very mental game. Mike O’Connor, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals in 2006 was rehabbing in Potomac and I sat next to his father in the stands that evening. He talked about the differences between the “can’t miss” players on the field and the others, asserting quite aggressively that only a nanosecond separated the difference between the best of them and the worst. What mattered was the mental fortitude of the best of them. They would be the ones to make it, he assured me. Only the ones with a mental toughness would make the majors.
But what happens when they get there? What separates the great teams like the Yankees of ten years ago and the Red Sox teams of the preceding era? Not really a whole bunch to be truthful. The Yankees just knew they could do it. They had done so every year and expected to keep doing it ad infinitum. And then something clicked when Varitek shoved his glove into the face of the Yankees best player and Curt Schilling and Gabe Kapler tried to take on the rest of the Bronx Bombers as dozens of players fought in the grass behind the plate.
Does it take a beat down to forge a team’s belief in itself? Probably not, but it may take some kind of catharsis, some experience from which a bond is forged that is strong and enduring.
The Washington Nationals have yet to find that moment where they come together as a team and believe they are as good as anyone. Getting Jayson Werth was supposed to bring attitude and it was a beginning. He made that one defining moment with his walk-off home in Game Four of the 2012 NLDS against the Cardinals. And there was all the talent overflowing and everyone just waited for the playoff success. But it hasn’t happened. The same team that led the National League in wins in 2014 has flamed out like one of those WWII bombers shot down over Europe and spiraling down to earth all in flames.
Perhaps someone in the front office had the bright idea that having four players in their walk years playing for all the money would ignite them. But it has not. The conditioning shows as player after player has gone down to injury. Ian Desmond undertakes a rigorous off-season ritual and it shows. He may be hitting .224, but he is playing every day. But is he really such a great source of “leadership?” That is a different story and it is clear that the Nationals are a team without that kind of bond. Desmond has never won it all and there is no reason to think he can instill that fiery belief in anyone else. Max Scherzer, like Jayson Werth, has been there in the winner’s circle, but he has been unable to convince his team mates that they have the “right stuff.”
Watching the Nationals play the Braves several seasons ago with Davey Johnson in the dugout, Fredi Gonzalez had his pitchers repeatedly throw at Bryce Harper. There was no retaliation from the Nationals side of the diamond. Dan Uggla, who was playing second base for the Braves at the time, raised a forearm to the face of Denard Span as he was coming around first base, watching the ball in the outfield and never seeing the waiting Uggla forearm. Span left the field injured and all the Nationals could manage was Opps!! My bad. No, wait it was worse than that. We hardly had time to rejoice in Uggla hitting .149 and being cut by two teams before Mike Rizzo signed him to bring his lusty average to play in DC. And what exactly does that say to Span about our team’s special brand of togetherness?
Matt Williams was supposed to put some spine in the nine. So far the only change is that the Nationals seem to chafe under the hard-nosed style of the Big Marine. Harper was benched for not running out a grounder and the faithful were more concerned about their fair-haired boy than the infraction. Heaven forbid we should play with that extra bit of gusto and grit.
Something needs to change in Washington and it is not the manager. When the Philly faithful come to town and put a foot up the rear of every Nats fan in the stadium, Stan Kasten says, “so glad you could make the trip!” The uniforms spell “Natinals” instead of Nationals and the team wears them for the game anyway. Red Sox fans have nothing on what the faithful have endured in DC. For our trouble and hard earned season ticket money we have gotten Fredi Gonzalez and the neanderthals from the City of Brotherly Love. So “Go ahead and waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.”* Who among us will live to see it?
*Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen