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March 29, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

The New Kids on the Block

by Christina Kahrl

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One of the defining themes of the 2005 season is that baseball is back in Washington. While the very fact of it is fun for those of us who are here, it was both long overdue and unusually difficult to achieve. At the very least, we can count on it being a development that should erase the memory of final Senators owner Bob Short and his shameful slink down to Texas.

First, let's focus on what matters: the product. The Nationals will field a pretty rotten ballclub, the shadows of a franchise thoroughly ransacked by three years of stewardship under Omar Minaya. Day in and day out, what fans can look forward to seeing will be OF/1B Brad Wilkerson and 2B Jose Vidro. One of the two should be this franchise's Mr. National, akin to Jeff Conine's status as Mr. Marlin. The lineup is a collection of overlapping curiosities: Wilkerson, Vidro and catcher Brian Schneider are the last remnants of a player-development program that was once of the envy of organized baseball. Fragile first baseman Nick Johnson and the execrable Endy Chavez in center field stand as the lonely monuments to Minaya's years of reshuffling. Then there's the new trio brought in by Jim Bowden to purchase some amount of local respect: RF Jose Guillen, 3B Vinny Castilla, and SS Cristian Guzman. Guillen might be the least disappointing of the three, but the presence of all three betrays Bowden's unfamiliarity with what it takes to improve a ballclub. Where Bowden feels he acquired run creators and a shortstop who can pick it, the trio betrays Bowden's ignorance of park effects (in Castilla's case), relative value (in Guzman's) and his own roster (in trading the younger, cheaper edition of Guillen, Juan Rivera, to acquire the original article).

Their home park will play as a pitchers' park if the past and the muggy, muddy Mid-Atlantic location is any guide. That might make for quick games, even fewer runs, and a few touts for the pitching staff. The rotation is headed by the apparently indestructible Livan Hernandez, and supported by a useful, experienced trio of Tomo Ohka, Zach Day and Esteban Loaiza. Ideally, Tony Armas will stop playing Elijah Price to Hernandez's David Dunn, but if not, the Nats can still turn to either John Patterson or Jon Rauch. Regardless, the staff should have the benefit of a friendly park in a division's worth of mostly-friendly parks. Indeed, Washington might become what Montreal was in the '80s, a great place for a pitcher to get his career back in working order. Loaiza will make for an interesting initial test case.

Beyond them, the bench and pen aren't anything to work up considerable enthusiasm for. Sure, closer Chad Cordero might become beloved, but closers are the commodities bad teams need to deal to build up their talent base. Pitchers like Claudio Vargas or Luis Ayala might shine, or they might remain nondescript. Reserves like Terrmel Sledge or Jamey Carroll might achieve some sort of cult status; some people still warm up to the memory of Choo Choo Coleman, after all.

Despite past histrionics and perhaps too-frequent threats to resign, manager Frank Robinson will continue to guide this lot as field manager. It seems strange to think of the fiery manager who guided the Giants more than 20 years ago has now become the ambassador of the game to Washington, but given his place in the game's history, Robinson is exactly the right sort of baseball man for the franchise to be associated with from the start.

However, Robinson also represents what might be a quickly-disappearing opportunity for baseball. Although this is a fresh start for the franchise, for the industry and for the city, it's a fragile beginning, already marked by recriminations and resentments before the first game has even been played. It's easy to understand why the game's lordlings might consider D.C. baseball as nothing more than revisiting the derelict burg of their youths. The city remains desperately short of cash and hopelessly divided by issues of race and class, and comes equipped with a City Council that's about as charming as a collection of shotgun-toting Sicilian hill chieftains. There are those within the game who expect further failure: Cubs team president Andy MacPhail dismissed this winter's early run on Nationals season-ticket sales as mere faddism, frankly stating that he felt the market would only be an improvement on Montreal, casting doubt over the future of baseball's orphan franchise.

Naturally, the team will almost certainly rely upon a white, suburban, Northern Virginian fan base for much of its season-ticket sales, not to mention blocks of tickets sold to satisfy ubiquitous corporate junketeering. The burgeoning ranks of young families settling into Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties will be the automatic audience for the Nationals in a way that the Orioles, impossibly remote through Beltway rush-hour traffic on most weeknights, could never be. Both of those things provide an essentially untapped base which should generate significant revenue for the ballclub.

But that's not all it has to be: race is an inescapable part of the equation. As a predominantly African-American city, Washington might seem a risk, but by bringing in a franchise, the most white bread of the three major sports has an opportunity to reach out, symbolically and substantively. Having Robinson in place suggests how, beyond the security provided by stands packed by the suburbs and boxes packed by the local corporations, this could also be the franchise for African-American fans. Unfortunately, that opportunity seems to be frittering. They could have started with a more savvy choice in general managers. Although I'm not a huge fan of Bob Watson, he has experience as a general manager; politically as well as on a player-development level, he might have made a better choice than the abrasive Bowden. Where Mayor Anthony Williams wanted to conjure up memories of Negro League baseball by naming the team the Grays, baseball's lack of vision was betrayed in Bud Selig's preference to reinvent the Senators. As a result, we have the uninspired compromise name, the Nationals.

And yet. In a little more than two weeks, we'll have games in the soon-to-be-renamed RFK Stadium. (In further corporate silliness, it'll be something like "Halliburton Field at RFK Stadium.") The deal with an embittered Peter Angelos will be struck, and a television deal with Comcast struck as well. The inescapable fact that the Nationals are finally here is a beginning, and through that beginning, the game might still do some good as well as giving the city's baseball fans their in-person fix. And if the opportunities for more seem squandered at the moment, examples like John Henry's group in Boston or Arte Moreno's in Anaheim demonstrate the potential virtues that can come of having the right owner running a franchise. May the future see the Nationals similarly blessed.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Washington Nationals,  The Who,  The Atlantic

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