Winding Up One Fan’s Nationals’ 2017 Season

Apparently the Nationals ownership thinks you can hurry along the process of getting to the World Series

I was sad, disappointed, and a little angry after the Nats lost the final game of the 2107 NLDS against the Cubs. But now, with the Nationals ownership having fired manager Dusty Baker in such a demeaning way, I am mostly angry, while also still disappointed and sad.

I haven’t been a Nats fan that long — my wife and I attended about a dozen games during the 2012 season, and as it happens, the first game we attended was during the first home series after Bryce Harper came up from the minors. But it was not Bryce, or Jayson Werth, or any of the players that drew me in; I remember distinctly thinking that Davey Johnson as manager suggested things were going to get better for the Nats. And then I found I liked sitting in the baseball park with family, having a beer, and watching the Nats play — sometimes playing well, sometimes not so much. But (as they say, and as I learned), that’s baseball.

Since 2013, we have been what the Nationals “Sales & Marketing Team” (rather than the baseball team) calls “Partial Season Plan Holders” that entitles us to twenty selected games. We would usually attend another dozen or so games, but in 2017 I was able to attend more than half of the 41 Nats home games. I was really into it this year!

Before yesterday’s announcement of Dusty’s firing, my personal “analysis” of how the Nats were eliminated was different than a lot of the decision-by-decision or play-by-play dissection that is out there. For me, the main setback was when the Nats didn’t win game 1 at home, when Strasburg pitched for the first time in the series. Strasburg is the best pitcher on either of those teams, and for the Nats to win a five game series it was much more difficult if his starts didn’t result in a victory. So I found losing game 1 was more significant than how game 5 was lost — they shouldn’t have had to play a fifth game at all! (What was bizarre about game 5 was not that the Nats lost after the crazy fifth inning but that they only lost in the end by one run.) I was sad that the Nats as a team didn’t support the necessary victory in game 1. And after game 5, I was disappointed because the Nats didn’t advance beyond the NLDS — not that I was looking ahead to the World Series. It just seemed right that this collection of players and coaches would advance beyond the level previous Nats teams had reached in three previous play-season appearances.

I was angry (again, before Dusty was fired) because it seemed incomprehensible that the Nationals ownership had not given Dusty a contract beyond the end of the 2017 season. As I sat through the last homestand, against the Pirates, I kept thinking, “What is so great about Clint Hurdle that means his contract was renewed for four years and here Dusty is going to the playoffs and . . . nothing?” It is a questionable approach to risk management not to endorse Dusty’s performance with a contract renewal and leave that doubt in the back of his mind heading into the playoffs. What was Dusty to think? And the other coaches? And the players?

And so, in a self-fulfilling sort of way, having left themselves the ability to fire (or not rehire, really) Dusty if the season didn’t result in the desired (and apparently expected) “parade down Pennsylvania Avenue,” the Nats ownership could be rid of him without further financial loss. That this approach might help assure failure seems not to have been part of their thinking.

An amiable Dusty with a young fan at Fan Appreciation Day, 2016

So then yesterday I get a text at work from my daughter, “Dusty is fired?!?” I couldn’t believe it — well, actually I could, and had been half expecting it. Otherwise, why did they not give him a contract? I was furious with the Nationals ownership.

I am not interested in the debate about fine points of baseball in-game strategy decisions that were made, and whether Dusty’s skills in that area justify not keeping him as manager. I think that kind of thing misses the point that it is pretty difficult to get to the baseball post-season at all, and Dusty did it two years in a row. Now the owners apparently imagine that part is easy, and more or less automatic. Sure and I don’t think so. People don’t use that phrase “the grind” without some reason. Dusty got the team to the playoffs two years running, then got to the final game of the first level of the playoffs in games with difficult opponents.

Mostly my present anger is because of how the Nationals ownership did this. After failing to offer a new contract during the season (while the general manager kept saying that they would “get it done”) which could only be understood as a lack of full confidence in his leadership, they left Dusty hanging after the Nats last at bat only to call him at home in California ten days later.

From the Washington Post: Mike Rizzo explains — “I talked to Dusty this morning and told him about our decision. He took the news with his usual class and dignity and professionalism. We hung up the phone with a good taste in both of our mouths.”

Sometimes Rizzo’s somewhat fractured approach when speaking to the press is amusing, but here his choice of words (“a good taste in both of our mouths”) aside from being weird is also so obviously not true as to be infuriating. When talking to the press afterwards, Dusty stated that he was “surprised and disappointed.” Why do the Nationals as an organization need to pretend that it was a decision Dusty could find acceptable? Ugh.

Consistent quality leadership that brings wins during the season is something to be highly valued. Dusty provided it for sure. The first task of a team in the National League East is to beat the other teams — now the Nats will be like the Phillies and Mets with new managers, instead of a well established manager and coaching staff. Not too smart.

And on top of that, the Nats owners and GM get to live with the deplorable way they treated Dusty and how that pattern works into the thinking of the next manager(s), not to mention the coaching staff and players. Also not great.

Nats take the field at the start of Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS

Leaving aside the playoffs . . . one of my best memories of the season will be an afternoon game that started at 4:05 on August 30th. Strasburg pitched a shutout complete game against the Marlins, who tried mightily to score but failed. To add to Strasburg’s achievement, he hit a home run himself to score the first home run. The game only lasted two hours and 36 minutes, which nowadays is rare and suggests a business-like pitching victory for the winning team.

In terms of managing decisions, the Marlins Don Mattingly walked low-hitting Lobaton, of all people, to get to Strasburg in the bottom of the 8th (who had hit a home run earlier), but then his pitcher threw two wild pitches that first allowed a runner to advance from second to third, then to score the run he had been trying to avoid. So, was that Mattingly’s fault or the pitcher’s?

A half hour into the Nats-Marlins game of August 30 — many empty seats for a great game (alas)

I guess I will try to carry forward the pleasure of games like this one and not end up in a morass of anger or disappointment with how the Nats ownership capped off the season with Dusty’s firing. But it would have been better to stick with the guy, and I’m really sorry he’s gone.

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