Nats Embarrassed By Cubs, 9-1

August 24th, 2010  / Author: Mark

Nets Fan with Bag Over Head

Washington Nationals’ skipper Jim Riggleman was so angry after Monday night’s 9-1 loss to the Cubs that he gave the club a post game tongue lashing that focused on their lack of effort. “Tonight, I felt like we allowed the game situation, the long innings and stuff, just our body language on the field, it allowed us to just have an aura hanging over us that it’s just not happening for us tonight,” Riggleman told the press after the loss. “I guess it’s going to happen a time or two here, but when it happens, it gets addressed.” Riggleman’s views were understated: “We played terrible baseball and we heard [about] it,” outfielder Willie Harris said. “We got embarrassed. Everybody was dead, it seemed like.” The Nats weren’t the only ones embarrassed — the crowd of 17,000-plus provide a Bronx cheer to Livan Hernandez after he started what turned into a double play and clapped wildly when the Anancostia Nine finally mustered their second hit against Cubs rookie hurler Casey Coleman. The Nats are now mired in last place in the N.L. East, 9.5 games behind the Florida Marlins. “We’ve got to find a way,” Riggleman said. “We’ve just got to turn it up a notch.”

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: Jim Riggleman lectured his team on lack of effort following the 9-1 pasting, but Riggleman was the target of unusual criticism in the section during the Nats implosion. It started early. “Hey, I have an idea,” a fan said prior to the announcement of the starting line-up, “let’s start Willie Harris in the outfield. By the end of the season he’ll be hitting his weight . . .”  The criticisms reached a crescendo in the 4th inning, when Hernandez had thrown well over 100 pitches: “Let’s see if I have this right,” a grumbling partisan noted. “Livan [Hernandez] can’t throw a strike and is pitching batting practice — and Rigs is leaving him in. Is that right? But Strasburg, just two games ago, was pitching lights out and Mr. Hook sits him down. Doesn’t make sense . . .” There was a mild defense, followed by a a response that has been — through all of “the kid’s” troubles — barely concealed. “Well, we have to protect the guy’s arm,” a fan said, defending the team — and then a series of shaking heads, and this response: “From what? Pitching?”

Riggleman was not the only one in the cross hairs. CFG was the victim of pushy irony, comments that were as blunt as any we’ve received — and all focused on the CFG blog on the weakness of the Cubs. “Crippled sparrows, right? Isn’t that what you said? Crippled sparrows, not birds of prey,” a fellow seat-mate opined. Others chimed in. “Yeah, I thought you said this guy Coleman was no good. He looks pretty good to me.” Fans thought about leaving when Riggleman pinch hit Jason Marquis for Hernandez, in the fifth. “What the hell is Riggleman thinking? This is ridiculous.” Pointed comments were also aimed at Hernandez, usually a fan favorite: “He looks like he doesn’t give a damn.” There were also some well-aimed criticisms flung at the Cubs, and the decision by Lou Piniella to call it quits. “I know the guy’s a legend,” a Nats regular noted, “but he walked away from his ball club. He just walked away. I don’t care what Baseball Tonight says, the guy just left the team. I know his mother’ sick, but c’mon. We all know — he wanted out. He was sick of it.”

Birds Of Prey vs. Crippled Sparrows

August 23rd, 2010  / Author: Mark

If there were ever any doubts that starting pitching makes a huge difference in a team’s success, that doubt was put to rest during Washington’s recent three game visit to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Phillies “book-ended” the Nats by throwing two of baseball’s best starting pitchers against them, and taking two of three games from the still struggling Anacostia Nine. The one Nats win might have been predicted, as it came against Phillies’ hurler Kyle Kendrick (a young high-ERA righty who is still learning his trade), while the Nats’ losses came against two of the game’s best starters: Roy “Doc” Halladay (in a 1-0 squeaker on Friday) and Roy Oswalt — in a 6-0 blowout on Sunday. The Nats might have won on Friday, with successive runners in scoring position, but Halladay was the difference — lowering his ERA to 2.16 in seven innings of steady if unspectacular work — but the issue was never in doubt on Sunday, when Roy Oswalt sliced and diced the Nats line-up through seven innings of brilliant work.

And the Chicago Cubs? (If you have the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might consider putting it on now.)

The Chicago Cubs are an entirely different story. The North Side Drama Queens, who open a series against the Nationals on Half Street on Monday night, have no one to compare with either Halladay or Oswalt — and the standings show it. The rotation that carried the Cubs into the post-season in 2008 is now past its prime, and the Chicago front office knows it. The once effective Carlos Zambrano (14-6 in 2008) is battling his anger as much as opposing batters, Ted Lilly has been shipped off to L.A. for a passel of minor league wannabes, Jason Marquis was rendered to Colorado (and then signed as a free agent here in D.C.), and Rich Harden (beset by arm problems) is struggling in Texas. The only appendage of note belongs to Ryan Dempster who, now into his mid-30s, is the staff “ace” — which means he’s won more than ten games. That Dempster stands out at all is due more to his rotation mates: a gaggle of Fisher-Price kids who look like they’d be more comfortable on the dance floor of the 9:30 Club than on the mound in Wrigleyville.

Chicago’s one young hurler of note is Randy Wells, a surprise-surprise arm who was drafted by the Slugs as a catcher in the 38th round of the 2002 amateur draft. Wells came to the show in 2009 as a fill-in for the then-injured Zambrano and pitched himself into a regular spot in the Chicago rotation — yielding a jaw-dropping 12-10 record. Tom Gorzelanny is the Cubs’ lefty, a former Buc who has had his tires recapped in Chicago after one good year in Pittsburgh. Gorzelanny “has battled injuries and inconsistency” — a Zen-like phrase for Cubs fans. Dempster, Wells and Gorzelanny are hardly the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance of the future Chicago rotation, but the Cubs have high hopes for rookie Casey Coleman, a young righty whose grandfather (Joe) and father (Joe) were both major leaguers. But let’s not get all gooey: Coleman (who will pitch against the Nationals tonight) is not only untried and untested, he’s been lit-up in the 12 innings he’s pitched.

That leaves Thomas Diamond, a former Texas Ranger fast-track product sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in 2007 (at least he’s gotten that out of the way), who’s “all up-side,” which means he doesn’t have a clue. The bottom line? While there’s no guarantee the Nats will have an easier time against the Cubs than they did against the Phillies, there will be no Halladay or Oswalt trooping to the mound to face them. The Phillies have built an elite staff. They are birds of prey. And the Cubs? The Cubs are crippled sparrows — they’re starting over.

Photos: Roy Oswalt (AP/H. Rumph Jr). Randy Wells (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Nats Pound Philadelphia, 8-1

August 22nd, 2010  / Author: Mark

Led by the defense of Ian Desmond (who also had a 4-5 night) and the hitting of Roger Bernadina, the Washington Nationals pounded out 12 hits and eight runs on Saturday, to defeat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The offensive outburst came at the expense of Phillies’ starter Kyle Kendrick, who had trouble making it out of the first inning. Desmond looked like “the wizard” at short, making barehanded plays behind Strasburg, Stammen and Slaten, while Bernadina slugged his eighth home run (putting the game out of reach) in the ninth. But the win was marred by an injury to starter Stephen Strasburg, who was forced to leave the game in the 5th after suffering a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm; it’s not known how serious the injury is — an MRI will be conducted to determine the damage on Sunday. The injury detracted from one of the team’s most solid performances against the Phillies, who trail the Atlanta Braves for the N.L. East lead.

Once again, as was apparent in Atlanta, the Nationals’ bullpen proved key in the Philadelphia victory. After Strasburg departed, Craig Stammen, Doug Slaten, Tyler Clippard and Miguel Batista combined to shut down the Phillies — throwing 4.2 innings while giving up just two hits and no runs. Tyler Clippard was particularly effective. After suffering a fall-off in his performance in late July, the righthander has lowered his ERA to 3.04, solidifying his reputation as one of the National League’s premier set-up men. Stammen also seems to have found his place: the former starter is now filling a first-out-of-the-bullpen role, being used by skipper Riggleman when someone in the rotation collapses. Washington’s bullpen is now ranked seventh in the majors, and fourth in the National League — and is one of the real success stories of the Nationals’ season.

Adam Dunn’s “Statistics”

August 21st, 2010  / Author: Mark

Jim Riggleman & Company have a lot to think about over the next few months, not the least of which is how to improve the Nats sloppy defense — first in the majors in errors — and what to do with Adam Dunn. The two are closely related, particularly given the questions being raised about Dunn’s prowess at first base. Ben Goessling (in “The Goessling Game“), focused on Dunn’s defense in his latest blog, noting that the Nationals “have made no secret of the fact that Dunn’s defense is the main thing they’re still evaluating when deciding whether to give the 30-year-old a contract extension.” But Goesseling praises Dunn for making the successful switch to first base, implying that his defensive play has been one of the surprises of the year: “To Dunn’s credit, he’s improved markedly at first base this season, becoming a slightly below-average fielder instead of an anemic one,” Goessling writes.

Goessling isn’t the only one praising Dunn. Over at SI, Joe Sheehan provides a list of players who are among the worst defensive players in the game (Yuniesky Betancourt, Brad Hawpe, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Eithier and Ryan Braun), while noting that Dunn “has adapted well” to being moved from the outfield to first base “showing good hands if limited range.” Dunn’s successful shift is unusual, Sheehan writes: “It’s rare that a player can move to first base and increase his value, but Dunn has done so.” So if Goessling and Sheehan are impressed with Dunn — and if the big guy from Texas is ripping the cover off the ball (and he is) — what’s the problem? Well, the problem seems to be Friday night in Philadelphia, when Dunn’s lack of range hurt him in getting to a ball stroked down the right field line and where the big man’s size limited his stretch to snag a ball thrown by Ian Desmond. The Goessling-Sheehan notes on Dunn are now the subject of some attention on the web (as MLB Trade Rumors runs through the Nats’ first base options) and increased questions over the utility of “defensive stats.”

So  . . . how concerned should the Nats be with Adam Dunn’s defense? Dunn has made seven errors in 116 games playing first for the Nats, a statistic that actually reflects the common judgment that Dunn is a below average first baseman. Derrick Lee has made six errors (in 106 games), while Joey Votto has just four in 112 games. Lee and Votto ought to be considered the class of the league (Lee is tall, agile with lots of range; Votto is young and tough with great leaping ability), but the best in baseball (at least according to this single, and admittedly limited, “errors and chances” measure) might well be Friars’ first sacker Adrian Gonzalez who seems to have everything — agility, range, height and experience. Gonzalez has just five errors in 118 games, and he’s there, day-in and day-out. Which is not to mention Albert Pujols (with just three errors), who has everything that Gonzalez has (but perhaps not as much agility), or James Loney (a Gonzalez without the range, it seems to me) — with an astonishingly nearly perfect three errors in 122 games.

So the critics are right: Adam Dunn is an average to below-average first baseman: he ranks below Derrick Lee, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and James Loney, is on a par with Atlanta’s gimpy and aging Troy Glaus, but is a ton better than either Arizona’s Adam LaRoche (10 errors in 112 games) or Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard — whose defensive gaffes are legendary (11 errors in 101 games). The problem with all of this is that defensive stats don’t really tell us a lot, which is why Sabermetricians have struggled to come up with better ways of measuring defensive prowess. But, as Tim Marchman noted recently, the statistical models are controversial, contradictory, and often fly in the face of common sense. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to compare Dunn’s defense to Pujols’ or Loney’s or anyone elses, because only Dunn offers a glove to Ian Desmond — whose lack of experience regularly (viz. Friday night in Philly), makes Dunn look like Adam LaRoche (whose own shortstop, Stephen Drew, throws baseballs as naturally as the rest of us eat chicken).

That’s not to say that fans of Adam Dunn should ignore his defensive woes, or refuse to admit them. It’s only to note that, when it comes to Dunn (and anyone else playing in the field), defensive stats will either only confirm what we already know (do we really need a raft of stats to tell us that Adam Dunn lacks range, experience and agility), or will stand as a confusing single data point in an overall picture (Colin Wyers over at Baseball Prospectus points this out, and pretty convincingly). Which leads us back to where we started — with this single question: do Adam Dunn’s offensive stats (his home run, OBP and RBI totals) compensate enough for his defensive woes to make Riggleman and Rizzo think about signing him for a few more years? The answer, as always, depends on the option — of whether Dunn’s prospective replacement will improve the Nats defense so markedly that they can live without the 40 or so home runs that the Texan will hit.

Ben Goessling says that the Nats are thinking along these lines, by considering Carlos Pena as a useful replacement for Dunn at first. Pena has the same kind of pop (39 home runs last year, 46 in 2007), and while he’s more experienced and more agile at first, it’s hard to argue that he’s actually better defensively (10 errors in 133 games in 2009). Perhaps more importantly, it’s hard to argue that Pena’s more resilent. The savvy Tampa first sacker sat out most of 2005 and nearly all of 2006 with injuries, is known to be plagued by an inexplicable June injury bug — and has been hit with broken fingers, pulled hamstrings and swollen foots. And Adam Dunn? The last time that Adam Dunn had any kind of injury at all (knock wood, right now, and knock it hard) was 2003. Over the course of the last seven seasons, Dunn has played in (count ’em) 161, 160, 160, 152, 158, 158 and 159 games. That’s the real stat, the one that matters. In comparison, in that same stretch, Carlos Pena played in 131, 142, 79, 18 (18!), 148, 139 and 135 games. Nearly a full season less. Maybe Pena is better at first. Maybe. But it’s hard to make an error when you’re sitting on the bench.

So if all of this is true, what’s all the hubbub about Adam Dunn? And why, now, are we suddenly hearing about Carlos Pena? The answer might be that the Nats really do want to get better defensively — and they think the way to do that is to replace their 40 homers a year guy with a player (like Pena) with a puzzling history of nagging injuries. Or maybe, just maybe, all of the complaints about Dunn’s fielding have nothing to do with his defense at all. After all, there seems to be a trend here, and it has more to do with the bottom line than booted balls — and should be perceptible to anyone who pays close attention: when the Washington Nationals’ front office starts talking about replacing Dunn’s below-average glove at first base, what they’re really talking about is replacing his big salary in the accountant’s book.

Doc Outduels Jason

August 21st, 2010  / Author: Mark

Calling his five inning outing against the Phillies “a step in the right direction,” Jason Marquis appeared nearly all the way back from elbow surgery in his outing in Philadelphia on Friday night. While the Nats dropped the contest to the Ashburns and Roy “Doc” Halladay by a score of 1-0, there had to be a huge sigh of relief by the Nats front office that Marquis looked almost (almost) like the pitcher that was once the ace of the Colorado Rockies staff. If Marquis continues to pitch the way he did on Friday (and better — considering that the Nats need someone, somehow, to pitch out of the 5th, 6th or 7th innings), then Mike Rizzo’s $15 million two-year gamble on Marquis will begin to pay off. “I’ve been working hard to get back to where I need to be,” Marquis said after the loss. “I was sick and tired of embarrassing myself out there. It’s a step in the right direction. We’ll keep working to get better. We’ll see what happens in five days.”

All of that is good news; the bad news is that Halladay remains one of the elite pitchers of the National League (and all of baseball, for that matter) — and it showed in his steady if unspectacular strike-after-strike start on Friday. Halladay gave up eight hits to the Nats line-up, but the front nine were not able to bring the baserunners home. The Nationals left an almost astonishing 22 men on base, a signal that while many of the Anacostia Nine can hit the long ball, the station-to-station game played by nearly all successful teams remains elusive. Halladay took advantage of the Nats’ RISP weakness, throwing 116 pitches, 75 of them for strikes. “I battled myself early,” Halladay said after the game “It was one of those games where I was always working to make pitches. I had a little bit of luck on my side. But I’ll definitely take it.” The Nationals continue their visit to the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday, sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound against Kyle Kendrick.

Nats Defeat Lowe (Again)

August 20th, 2010  / Author: Mark

Atlanta Braves hurler Derek Lowe is puzzled: while the Braves sometime ace remains an effective starter against much of the National League (even while sporting a so-so 11-11 record), he can’t seem to beat the Nats. The last time Lowe beat the Anacostia Nine was last August, but he’s been winless against the Nats Nine since, a record of futility that the imposing righthander (6-5, 230) has trouble squaring with Washington’s losing record. “I can’t remember the last time that I beat the Nationals,” Lowe said in the wake of the Tomahawks’ 6-2 loss to the Nationals on Thursday. “They’ve given me a rough time.” But it was not so much Lowe’s pitching (seven innings with 6 hits), as it was a combination of the pitching from Washington starter John Lannan (who went a strong 5.1) and a no-hits bullpen that caused the Braves fits. When coupled with big hits from Michael Morse and Willie Harris, the Nats looked unstoppable, picking up a much-needed win (that’s number 52 on the season). The Nats now head into Philadelphia, where they’ll face the red-hot Ashburns.

The Quicker Picker Upper: The inevitable has happened in Chicago, with Cubs’ General Manager Jim Hendry cleaning out the stables of the sinking-like-a-stone North Side Drama Queens. The trade of the ever-popular Ryan Theriot and Ted Lilly (their most effective starter) to Los Angeles at the trade deadline was followed by the careless unloading of steady but unimpressive Mike Fontenot to the McCoveys. Now, in what can only be considered an official waving of the white flag, the Cubs have unloaded their most productive, good-glove-and-bat first baseman Derrek Lee, who went to the Braves for three maybes. The successive trades mark a generational shift in the future of the Cubs, as the front office has apparently decided that Theriot-Lilly-Fontenot-Lee powerhouse of just a few years ago has gotten too old and too mediocre to bring a pennant (or World Series championship) to the Windy City. The issue is not whether the trades should have been made, but why they weren’t made earlier. “None of us thought this was going to happen this year. We really didn’t,” Hendry said in annoucing the trade of Lee. ”It will be good for (Lee) and from that regard, I’m happy for him. But the overall situation we’re in kind of makes us all stumble between miserable and sad every day.”

Miserable? Sad? The Cubs just dropped four straight to the Padres and are a worse team than the Nats — much worse. So while Cubs fans might have been expected to be marching on Wrigley in protest at Lee’s departure, the Cubs blogosphere has viewed the trade as inevitable — and necessary. Al Yellon over at Bleed Cubbie Blue probably said it best, mixing respect for Lee with a sighing confirmation that the Cubs’ future did not include the impressive first baseman. “I salute D-Lee for his classy demeanor on and off the field,” Yellon wrote. “Some here complain that he wasn’t demonstrative enough on the field and though he was seen as a team leader, many wanted him to ‘show it’ more, though I’m not quite sure how you do that.” While Cubs fans remain oddly contemplative (there’s usually lynching parties at this point) the scapegoating of Hendry (well, perhaps for good reason) and the coaching staff has begun.

That’s probably unnecessary. The imminent departure of Lou Piniella is bound to be followed by the displacement of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, as the Ricketts’ family retools to a younger staff that reflects a younger team. Is there reason for hope? Yes. And no. The Cubs are able to field one of the game’s best young outfielders in Tyler Colvin and one of its best young shortstops in Starlin Castro. But the team’s starting pitching is a catastrophe — with few young phenoms coming up in the minors. Which is why Hendry is trading his front line for a few maybes, all of them arms. Which means that the Cubs new rotation and bullpen (with some exceptions) is now filled with a gaggle of no-names, like Thomas Diamond, Justin Berg, Mitch Atkins, Marcos Mateo and James Russell — each of these guys with (as they say) “a tremendous upside.” Roughly translation: we might, or might not, ever hear of them again.

Sister Helen’s Baseball

August 18th, 2010  / Author: Mark

The death of N.Y. Giants great Bobby Thomson on Tuesday at the age of 86, drove me back to my on-again, off-again sub-hobby of investigating what exactly happened to the “Bobby Thomson ball” — the one that Thomson launched on October 3, 1951 and that ended up in the left field stands at the Polo Grounds. Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” gave the Giants the 1951 pennant (“the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant”), and ranks as the most memorable home run in baseball history. The Thomson home run lives on in film and book and legend. An important part of that legend is consumed with determining what exactly happened to the ball after it landed in the left field seats — where is it, who has it, and what is it worth? Those questions have engaged a generation of memorabilia hunters, amateur sleuths and famous authors –a gaggle of hobbyists whose obsession surely equals that held by a generation of cranks who wonder (still) whether there were shots from the grassy knoll.

How much of a mystery is this? A few years ago, a baseball auction house in New York offered $1 million to anyone who could produce “the Thomson ball,” which spurred a new round of “let no rock remain unturned” charnel house of baseball gurus and ghost hunters to begin the search anew. To no avail: the reward remains unclaimed, the ball unfound. The question of what happened to the “Thomson ball” is so consuming that even noted American authors and filmmakers have weighed in: Don DeLillo fictionalized the travels of the ball as a key dynamic in his novel Underworld (if you haven’t read it, you should), while Francis Ford Coppola, in the Godfather, has parkway attendants listening to the Thomson game when Sonny is murdered at a toll booth — a bit of apocrypha for sure, as we all know (don’t we?) that Sonny was murdered in 1948, not in 1951. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Then too, the flight of the ball sparked Giants followers and baseball afficianados to identify and question nearly every fan who was out in left field that day, going over and over the film of Thomson’s dinger as if it were the Zapruder film. Without appreciable result.

Still, I became convinced several years ago that author and baseball obsessive Brian Biegel has probably provided the best answer to the mystery. Biegel, whose father Jack claimed he bought the ball for $2 at a Long Island Salvation Army store, set out to prove him right — and (alas) ended up proving him wrong. After years of investigation, Biegel showed that a baseball loving nun (“Sister Helen”), who attended the Giants-Dodgers game in violation of her Franciscan convent rules, snagged the ball and carried it with her in a shoebox her entire life. When she died many years later in Albuquerque (and after a lifetime of selfless devotion to her order), her colleagues in the convent lovingly sorted through her personal belongings, found the ball and gave it to her sister. And what did the sister of Sister Helen do with the ball? She looked over the ball, shrugged her shoulders, shook her head and deposited both shoebox and ball in a landfill.

Atlanta Burns Nats

August 18th, 2010  / Author: Mark

There were two pieces of bad news on Tuesday: the first was the Nats lefty Scott Olsen couldn’t make it out of the 6th inning against the Braves in Atlanta, the second was that Josh Willingham may be out for the season. While the second piece of news was assuredly worse than the first (Willingham will almost certainly undergo surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee), Olsen’s failure to tame the Braves (the Nats lost ugly — 10-2) emphasized again the pitching woes that have faced the Anacostia Nine throughout the 2010 campaign. Little relief seems in sight: Jordan Zimmermann may not start for Washington until September, Jason Marquis continues to struggle and the combo of Livan and “the kid” has yet to result in serial wins.

But the most recent reward for frustration goes to Olsen, who was angered by Jim Riggleman’s decision to send him to the bench. While Riggleman retained his reputation for wielding an early hook, Olsen glared at him, stalked off the mound, yelled into his glove on the way to the dugout and then threw his leather angrily when he arrived. Olsen had no comment on Riggleman’s liberal hook, but the Nats skipper didn’t hesitate to defend his decision: “It was 2-0 and now it’s a homer, triple, walk with nobody out,” Riggleman said after the game. “Ole had done a great job. But as great as he was, he lost it that quickly. When you get a couple of runs, you have to minimize the damage. I just felt that our bullpen has a done great job. With the right-hander facing the right-handed hitters, maybe we could get a zero from that point on or maybe just one run. It just appeared to me that [Olsen] wasn’t pitching the same he was in the first few innings.”

The Nats will face the Braves again tonight, with innings eater and starting ace Livan Hernandez scheduled to face off against the normally lights-out Tim Hudson.

The Nats, Harper — and the Lerners

August 17th, 2010  / Author: Mark

After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.

But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.

It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.

But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium market  baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?

The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .

Taliban Rob?

August 16th, 2010  / Author: Mark

That leash you see dragging on the ground behind Rob Dibble? That’s the leash his wife has on him. And that collar? She put it there too. Listen, we don’t know anything about Rob Dibble (not a damn thing, honest), but the droogs who write for this blog (and just for the record, here weall males — are) have a sense about these things. And our sense is that we’ve heard just enough from Rob Dibble himself during his MASN broadcasts to conclude that his wife (a teacher, he says), knows him well enough to understand his irritating little foibles. And (we’re also sure — based on our own experience) to endlessly and grindingly try to correct them. So when “Taliban Rob” lowered the boom on some female Nats fans the other night during a MASN game broadcast (“Those ladies right behind there, they haven’t stopped talking the whole game”), our hunch (and believe us, we oughta know), was that Mrs. Dibble probably lowered the boom on him. She wasn’t alone.

Dan Steinberg leaped on Dibble about his comments, which included one of those in-game graphics — where Dibble circled the women and noted that “they have some conversation going on. Right here. There must be a sale tomorrow going on here or something . . . Their husbands are going man, don’t bring your wife next time.” Ugh. Steinberg seemed to relish Dibble’s gaffe (all of four days ago now), and touched on it again this morning, when he noted that Dibble had issued an apology. Of course, as Mrs. Dibble will surely tell her chagrined husband, that is certainly not the end of it. She’d be right: Nationals Fangirls are all revved up about Dib’s comments (or “fired up,” as the case may be), issuing a broadside about Dibble’s “sexist, misogynistic” ideas. We’re fans of Nationals Fangirls (we actually read them, and regularly) and can’t take issue with them, except for their added, unnecessary and interesting (as in “it’s interesting they would commit the same gaffe”) comment that maybe Dib’s wife “helped feed the stereotype.” And then, one of the fangirls added this: ” . . . but perhaps I shouldn’t say that. I’m sure she’s very pretty.” Ah yeah, now we get it: pretty women can’t think. Groooowwwwww, phtttt.

Listen, we’re not exactly drum beating fans of Rob Dibble (we find his endless talk of how “these guys have to learn they’re competing for jobs” pretty tiresome), but maybe (just maybe) it’s time for a little perspective. Dibble issued an apology and it sounds to us like he was sincere. Then too, Rob Dibble’s repetition of a common stereotype hardly makes him a scimitar wielding Taliban leader; frankly, it’s a stretch to say he’s “misogynistic” — a crime that ought to denote something a  bit more loutish than the rather banal opinion that women go shopping. Rob Dibble as Mullah Omar? C’mon. But really (really) what we’re most afraid of is that the Dib’s gaffe will send the Nats’ front office into a search for a more appropriate but far more nauseating voice. Like Don “I Love America The Beautiful” Sutton or Ron “where the hell am I” Darling.

And there’s this. For all of his faults, Dibble beats the daylights out of the ever popular Steve Czaban and sidekick Andy Pollin, who make book on saying that men who don’t weigh 350 pounds and play left tackle “wear skirts” — a phrase that’s more offensive than anything Dibble has ever, ever said. No one has ever complained about them, perhaps because they do it so often if confirms their lack of even a minimal middlebrow intelligence (“this quote is from George Bernard Shaw, ever heard of him?” Pollin once asked “the Czabe” — and guess what . . . ). Then too, unlike Czabe and the crew (who sound like they actually hate baseball — and want the Nats to fail), Dibble not only knows about the game he’s covering, he actually once played it.

Apology accepted.