Dear Washington Nationals,
Over the past 13 years I have seen hundreds of games, consumed too many $5 Miller Lites (and then $6 Miller Lites and then $7 Bud Lights), and bought/begged for enough t-shirts with curly W’s on them to be able to safely escape a third story walk-up in the event of a fire. We’ve been through a lot, and in a weird way, I’ve never known what to do with our dysfunctional
relationship. I was there for your re-birth: that first game in April 2005, when you ended the 33 year separation between our “national pastime” and our Nation’s Capital (awful seats behind the LF foul pole in case you are looking for a visual). It was a monumental occasion; in my lifetime, I’ve truly never seen a more exciting time in Washington D.C. But now you’re a teenager; you’ve moved out of your childhood home (the neighborhood kids always preferred football there), and
even gotten permission to host the party of the year: the 2018 All-Star Game. The 2018 season should be a non-stop celebration because you’ve finally made it. Your ceiling is as high as they
go. It’s certainly up there with the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees. But something is still missing with you: an identity.
For at least six of these last 13 years, the Baseball Writers of America have expected good things from you. Some even picked you to win the World Series in four of those years. And yet, it just hasn’t worked. In consecutive seasons you won 95 and 97 games but still didn’t have “it” (whatever “it” was). What’s missing? Is it really as simple as a free agent signing here or another manager here? Is it the front office? Maybe it’s the fact that you finally let Teddy win in 2012 and nothing was ever the same. As much as I would love to analyze the X’s and O’s here, dropping stats and baseball references until your eyes watered, that’s not what the fans of DC’s boys of summer want to read about anymore. So here are three simple things I’d like to see as a loyal fan for you to finally get over the hump.
First is a significant effort to build pride in the organization overall, and not just a focus on this year’s team. There’s a discernible feeling when you see teams like the Yankees, Red Sox,
Cardinals, Dodgers, and now the Cubs. There’s a culture. The players feel it. The fans feel it. Hell, even the casual viewer feels it. This is what you need. Be proud. Be distinct. Let’s try to
forget the Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Let’s put the Palpelbon/Harper Chokegate incident of 2015 behind us. And let’s try to push aside the fact that you dismissed one of the winningest managers in baseball following two winning seasons. They may have lampooned you in the past, but don’t let them push you around anymore.
Every organization makes blunders. But, you need to enlist the greats of your past to stand by you even in times of trouble. You need to get back to your base, and for this fan, that starts with bringing some key fixtures from the early days of the organization back into the light. Take Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden. Both had the tall task of walking a franchise through a move thousands of miles away and a complete rebuilding. Personally I wasn’t a huge fan of either when they brought the franchise to Washington, but Frank Robinson’s fingerprint on baseball is undeniable in both longevity and (more importantly) the barriers he helped break. Jim Bowden is one of the most respected baseball minds out there, and with the following he built in D.C. as well as on his radio shows, it would be great to have his presence around the organization again.
When looking at players to represent your organization, Ryan Zimmerman will certainly be a face to parade once he retires. But for now, you can look no further than Livan Hernandez, who not only boasts a career 31.1 WAR, but also was “The Starting Pitcher” that April day in 2005 when the Nationals first took the field at RFK Stadium. While his stats might have fallen off later in his career, his personality and “ace” mindset was a fixture in D.C. when you were in your infancy.
Also, since when did we stop caring that we weren’t your first home, and that you once went by the name “Expo?” Tim Raines, Vlad Guerrero, and even Pedro Martinez (for a short time) played for you. Can we start drawing on some of that proud history and the probable World Series title in 1994 (if it weren’t for the strike)? The Nationals “Ring of Honor” was a step in the right direction, but it seems incomplete. It’s time to do right by some great players who no longer have a club they can really call theirs. The location might be different, but our history remains the same; embrace the Montreal Expos’ legacy.
Second, it’s time for us to abandon this whole “patience” mantra and trusting that the organization will build from within. It’s been 13 years, and this team is as close as it’s ever been to greatness. But you can only teeter on the edge for so long before you either steady yourself or fall. In 2009 and 2010 when Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper donned the “Curly W,” it suddenly felt like the foot was on the gas. That, coupled with other young players who were carving their own paths like Mike Morse and Ian Desmond, made it feel like the sky was the limit. But almost as soon as the rocket hit the stratosphere, the fan base was brought back to Earth as you kept trying to play the long game. Shutting down ‘Stras in 2012, letting Desmond walk, and trading Mike Morse all gave us the feeling that there was a grand strategy. But nothing of real substance really happened. Sure, there were division crowns, but we want the pennants. It’s time to invest in now, even if it will cost us in 5 years. You can’t be repeat champions if you never get it done the first time. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, and as much fun as it is to always think we’ll be competitive going forward, I can only take so many 160 game seasons and a single playoff series before being unceremoniously bounced into the offseason. We can’t sell the farm for today’s hottest product, but this team, largely intact from last year’s dominant run, has most of the pieces already in place. It’s time to pay to lock up Bryce and Anthony Rendon and invest in some solid back-ends to the bullpen to avoid the distractions and problems of the past.
Third, we need you to play with an edge and a fire unlike we’ve ever seen at Nationals Park. I want to see the emotion, the fire and even the frustration. Playing loose is important, but the urgency has been blatantly lacking the last few years. The word patience needs to be removed from all vernacular in D.C. except when talking about a 3-0 count with Bryce on deck or when talking about resolving another government shutdown. This team needs to be aggressive. With the best rotation in baseball, a deep offense that could be the most productive this year and a great analytical mind in Dave Martinez as skipper, this is it.
We all know that the speculation about Bryce’s future won’t dwindle until he’s signed to a long term deal, the playoff expectations won’t fade until there is finally a series win in October, and the loyal fans won’t become any less pessimistic until they have something to cheer for. This town has been riddled with disappointing franchises for years. And as the Redskins continue to make boneheaded moves in Landover, the Capitals continue to underachieve at Capital One Arena and the Wizards continue to play catch-up to Lebron James and the rest of the Eastern Conference, you, my friends, can finally take over as the most lovable and promising team in a town desperate for something to cheer.
Worth noting (and this comes from a place of love): we’re tired of buying “National League Division Series” apparel; it’s time for some National League Championship and World Series gear. My closet is out of space and there isn’t enough light beer in the world to prepare me for more postseason disappointments. It starts now, it will get a boost during the dog days of summer with the All-Star game and it will culminate with champagne baths in October. I’m ready. I hope you are too, Nationals.
Peter “The Guy Who Used to Heckle Nyjer Morgan in CF” Laclede