Commentary

The Nats deserve to be swatted

Originally Published: July 10, 2009
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

The Washington Nationals aren't so bad. They're victims of circumstance, plucky scamps, a merry band of baseball men, led by an unfeeling -- but still lovable -- android manager. Also, they try really, really hard. Which means they don't deserve your derision. A little snickering, perhaps. But not suffocating heaps of scorn. So goes the argument from my colleague Toby Mergler, and in every way he's correct -- except for one nagging detail.

When it comes to mockery, deserving has nothing to do with it.

Sports are inherently unfair (the Los Angeles Lakers landing Pau Gasol for three magic beans; the financially charmed existence of the New York Yankees). Life is unfair, too (massive bailouts for the very companies whose reckless decision-making caused the financial crisis; the rise of Seacrest). And mockery? Mockery is totally, gratuitously, mercilessly unfair. It's Tina Fey eviscerating Sarah Palin, Muhammad Ali cutting Joe Frazier to the bone, Nelson from "The Simpsons" dropping a caustic ha ha. In every case, it's mean and bullying and ungracious and uncalled for. Otherwise it wouldn't be mockery. It would be a punch line in Reader's Digest. And as someone who has spent a large portion of my adult sentient life sneering at anything and everything not somehow related to juvenile leukemia research, let me offer a pertinent observation:

A mocking opportunity like the Nationals doesn't come along every day.

The team is inept on the field. The franchise bumbles off the field. In an actual real-life non-simulated major league playing-for-money-as-working-professionals game, the uniforms once read NATINALS. All of this would be enough. Only the Nationals keep giving, over and over, like a leaky half-split piņata, finding new and comic ways to fail. They don't just take pratfalls; they run face-first into a telephone pole, suffer a line drive to the groin, then slip on a banana peel before hitting the dirt. What other club has fans spilling onto the field to help with a broken tarp, or gets into a squabble with the local fire marshal over debris from celebratory fireworks?

Perhaps you're a purist. Baseball first. Fine. Consider the team's Tuesday night 5-4 road loss to Colorado, which included:

(a) Infielder Willie Harris taking a bad hop to the -- you guessed it -- groin;

(b) The Nationals effectively losing the game in the eighth inning, when Colorado's Ryan Spilborghs grounded to pitcher Joe Beimel, who turned and threw to Harris to initiate an easy double play, except Harris was 10 feet behind the bag, allowing the Rockies' three baserunners to end up safe;

(c) Rockies reliever Alan Embree becoming only the second pitcher since 1990 to record a win without a throwing a pitch, which happened because ...

(d) ... the Nats' Austin Kearns attempted a headfirst slide halfway between first and second -- !Dios Mio! -- allowing Embree to record a putout, even though Rockies first baseman Todd Helton dropped the ball after fielding Embree's original pickoff throw.

Point is, teams as scoff-worthy as the Nats are hardly dime-a-dozen. They're rare jewels. They should be savored as such. For the unconvinced, here are 10 more reasons it's not only good but right to ridicule the Nationals:

Because whipping boys are essential: Just as everyone needs a standard of excellence to shoot for -- we can't all be Tommy Vu, but we can give it our best shot -- we need a suckitude-charged third rail to avoid. A Mendoza line. Something to remind us that life can always, always be worse. (Otherwise, why watch reality TV?) In the NFL, that role is played by the woebegone Detroit Lions; in the NFL draft, it's played by the perplexing Oakland Raiders; in the NBA, it's the snakebitten Los Angeles Clippers across the board. As the current flagship of baseball fail, the Nationals join a long, undistinguished line of listing barnacle habitats, including the Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and old school Washington Senators -- the latter leading to reason No. 2 ...

Because excellence is not their habit: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League. Such was the unofficial slogan of the Washington Senators, the Nationals' spiritual godfathers, whose futility was so overwhelming across two incarnations (1901-1960; 1960-1972) that it became a major plot point in the musical "Damn Yankees." The original Senators moved to Minnesota in 1960; the sequel decamped to Texas in 1972. Should the Twins and Rangers now tote the Senators' shabby, dung-packed psychic baggage? Uh-uh. Not when the Nationals have large, stunningly ugly statues of Senators greats Frank Howard and Walter Johnson outside their ballpark. (If you're going to embrace a dubious legacy, you pretty much have to embrace all of it -- otherwise, you're a dilettante, a Michael Jackson lover disowning "HIStory: Past, Present and Future: Book I," a Boston Celtics fan lighting cigars for Red and pretending Alaa Abdelnaby never happened).

Detail-sticklers, rejoice: when you jeer the Nationals, you're not just being snide. You're being historically accurate.

Because this could be epic: Speaking of history, the Nationals aren't run-of-the-mill bad. They're within stinking distance of epochally bad, currently on pace for 114 losses. Put together a few cold(er) streaks, and the Nats could threaten the 1962 New York Mets' modern-era mark of 120 defeats -- a dubious accomplishment that merits a couple of cheap shots, if not a couple hundred. After all, Detroit and Tampa Bay have rolled out dozens of awful football teams over the years -- leprous soldiers slain in unlamented wars -- yet only their winless squads are remembered. Unfondly, sure. But still remembered.

Because there's an obvious fatal flaw: Sports mockery is a bit like a drive-by shooting: targets should be easy to pick out, easier still to pick off. Think Roger Clemens' third ear, or anything Isiah Thomas did with the New York Knicks. In the Nationals' case, look no farther than the bullpen -- or, more accurately, their utter lack of a bullpen, which ranks last in the National League in saves, relief wins and save percentage, and first in runs allowed, relief losses and blown saves.

Esteemed Washington Post baseball writer Thomas Boswell calls the unit a "debacle." He's being diplomatic.

Because they're all but begging for your derision: If unexpected, unbelievable, downright absurd ways to screw up were tracked and analyzed through sabremetrics, Michael Lewis would be haunting the Nats' clubhouse, gathering material for "Moneyball II." Beyond the muffed jerseys and the fireworks boondoggle, the Nationals have sported misspelled names on bats and Teddy Roosevelt dolls. They've seen GM Jim Bowden resign under the cloud of an FBI investigation into a scandal involving bonus money and prospects from the Dominican Republic. They've fined and benched Elijah Dukes -- he of "you dead, dawg" fame -- for being late to a game because he was visiting little leaguers. The club's owners spent last summer squabbling with city government over rent payments. The city council spent the spring squabbling with the mayor over game tickets. The team couldn't sign last year's top draft pick, pitcher Aaron Crow, who became Kansas City's first-round selection in this year's draft. Washington Post writer-cum-Nationals futility chronicler Dan Steinberg says "one of the reasons you have to keep watching this team is because of the chance that you'll see something the universe has never seen before." He's absolutely right. And if that possibility doesn't bring a mean-spirited grin to your face -- or a least a bilious smirk -- well, you just don't have a spleen.

Because they dissed Frank Robinson: Fifth-greatest non-steroidal home run hitter in baseball history. Legendary badass. Semi-local icon. Managed the club ably -- if not stat-nerd-inspiringly -- during its Montreal death and Washington rebirth. And the Nats send him packing. With hard feelings. The team found places for ne'er-do-wells Dukes and Bowden, but couldn't find one for Robinson? Lame.

Because they replaced Robinson with Spock: According to reports, Manny Acta is a mellow dude who never watches TV sports, instead enjoying "CSI: Miami." And that's just lovely. Problem is, his team is terrible. And the only thing worse than watching bad baseball is watching a manager watch bad baseball without, like, throwing third base into the stands or something. Anything, actually. A busted water cooler. A dirt-kicking, jowl-jiggling, man versus umpire scream session. Just break up the monotony. Win, and the world stands stoically by your side (see Torre, Joe); lose, and you better wear a Bobby Valentine-esque Groucho mask in the dugout.

Because they botched the easy stuff: The Nationals' ineptitude isn't entirely their fault -- years of financial want and ownerless drift produced a strip-mined roster and barren farm system. Still, with the three things the team had total control over -- new stadium, new uniforms, new mascot -- it laid giant eggs. The ballpark is utterly charmless, an unlyric little overnight mail box of concrete and glass, seemingly modeled after a K Street parking garage. The uniforms are a garish concoction of mismatched fonts. And the mascot? Nicknamed Screech, he was literally born from a giant egg, a fat-faced, doe-eyed, bobble-headed abomination eagle so universally unpopular, the club had to redesign him, and also introduce Racing Presidents. Which are probably the only things the Nats didn't screw up.

Because you can't heckle Congress: Massive deficit spending. Periodic sex and corruption scandals. A failure to foresee the financial collapse. Unproductive bickering, petty grandstanding and a general can't-do spirit. It's easy to hate Washington. Why fight the feeling? G'head, make a Darth Vader fist: Just as rooting against New York teams means rooting against New York arrogance, a vote against the Nationals is a vote against fat cat lobbyists, pompous pols, inside-the-Beltway operators and Wolf Blitzer's beard. (Actually, the only team anyone in the D.C. area cares about is the Redskins. But don't let that stop you. Manufacturing talk radio diversions for you to fight over while we divvy up the spoils behind closed doors is Washington's go-to move. Like a skyhook.)

Because the window is slowly closing: The Nationals play in a major market. Team president Stan Kasten has a track record of sustained success with the Atlanta Braves. The club has promising young starting pitching. Uber-hyped college ace Stephen Strasburg is likely on the way, and Sports Illustrated preps-to-pros cover boy Bryce Harper could follow. Translation? Now is the time to lampoon the Nats, today, this minute, before it's too late. Los Angeles Lakers haters thought the Kwame Brown era would last forever. It didn't. NFL observers believed the New England Patriots would never escape the shadow of Super Bowl XX. Along came Bill Belichick. In sports, everything not owned by Donald Sterling changes eventually. Even objects of undue abuse. Even a ridicule magnet like the Nationals, who were just called "pathetic" by their official broadcaster, which is a lot like Vince Shlomi admitting the ShamWow can't actually clean up nuclear waste.

In the meantime? Ha ha.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2.