This past weekend, Washington Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes was fined $500 and benched for being late to a game against the Florida Marlins.
Nats acting general manager Mike Rizzo and (acting) manager Manny Acta opted to fine and bench Dukes because the controversial outfielder was late and his excuse was not a team-sponsored event. They even went as far as to warn Dukes that if he was tardy again, he could be demoted to the minor leagues. Sounds great, right? The team should be applauded for trying to instill discipline and accountability to a young and immature lineup, right? In the words of the immortal poet Lee Corso, “Not so fast, sweetheart.”
Dukes was running behind because he was speaking with the Great Falls Little League in Northern Virginia. After addressing the kids, he stuck around to sign autographs and watch a parade of little leaguers, so he got to the ballpark a few minutes later than he intended. He didn’t miss the start of the game, he simply arrived late for warm ups, stretching, etc.
“We are going to change the culture here, regardless of how well a guy is playing,” said Acta. And why wouldn’t he? I mean, what kind of message does it send when a player goes out and gives back to the local community? The Nationals have gone out of their way to alienate the local fanbase since the moment they arrived in town and here’s this jerkwad trying to do his own thing. This kind of insubordination simply cannot and will not be tolerated. Clearly this is grounds for waterboarding.
When the idea of a professional baseball team relocating to our nation’s capital was first broached, I was all for it. In my lifetime your choices were to either cheer for the Baltimore Orioles, who were a great option until Peter “Satan” Angelos came into the picture, or don’t watch baseball. Sure, bandwagon fans could jump on the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs because that’s what trendy people do, but that wasn’t really my thing. So I stuck with the Washington Redskins, Capitals and Bullets.
But then Major League Baseball, even in spite of Angelos’ protests, brought baseball into the fold. Before the start of the 2005 season, the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington D.C. and became the Nationals. A new generation was ready to whole-heartedly embrace the national pastime. Or at least that was the plan.
A guy named Ted Lerner, who made billions while building malls and had nothing to do with professional baseball prior, became the owner. Lerner hired Stan Kasten as his team president and retained Jim Bowden as his general manager. The three spoke of “The Plan” to build a franchise, not for the short term, but for long-term success.
While that sounds great and all, there’s one problem with their “plan” – you’re the new kid in town. The adopted orphan. No one has any reason to feel anything other than indifference towards you unless you give them reason to care. We’ve all lived without baseball in our lives for this long, so why should we rush out to spend money we don’t have, thanks to a pitiful economy, on a glorified minor league team with only one or two bats and no pitching whatsoever?
Here’s what I’m getting at – since 2005, there have been exactly four players worth a damn on the Nats roster. They are, in no particular order outfielder Alfonso Soriano, pitcher Livan Hernandez, closer Chad Cordero and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. When it comes to players worth the price of admission, that’s it. And sadly, three out of the four of those guys are collecting paychecks elsewhere. Slugger Adam Dunn (who has hit at least 40 homers in five straight seasons) should provide the biggest bat in the lineup since Soriano left town, but he’s only been around for 13 games, so let’s hold off on attaching any labels to him just yet (other than “Natinals”).
And planning for long-term stability and success is great in theory, but you’ve got to have the right people calling the shots. Building around the draft only works in you have competent talent evaluators calling the shots. So it’s fine when Bowden and the Nats puff out their chest when announcing the signing of a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million … up until Gonzalez turns out to be some guy named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, a 20-year-old phony, who conned the Nats into making him a millionaire. That’s a plot for a bad made-for-TV movie – not the cornerstone for building a competitive franchise.
Or how about when the Nats drafted Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow with the ninth pick in the 2008 draft … only they couldn’t sign him so he went back into the draft pool and they’re left in spin control mode once again? Sure they have the top pick in the upcoming draft after losing 102 games a year ago, but, even after firing Bowden, why would anyone think they’re going to get it right? San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg should do everything in his power to avoid this town. The kid’s got a bright future ahead of him and this is no place to enjoy it. If he’s smart, he’ll have Archie Manning call the Nationals and tell them he’d be happy to play for any franchise … except Washington.
I mean, by all accounts Strasburg is a once-in-a-generation talent on the field and an all-around good dude off of it. Clearly he doesn’t fit with “The Plan.”
Brian Murphy is an award-winning sportswriter who also goes by the name Homer McFanboy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.