By Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff | June 23, 2009
WASHINGTON - The comparisons, charts, and breathless what-pace-are-they-on updates crop up with greater and greater frequency. The Washington Nationals say they pay no attention when people contrast their current season with the New York Mets of 1962, the worst team in baseball’s modern era. They may have a point: The Nationals fashioned a season-high four-game winning streak over the weekend, and a couple of similar spasms of adequacy would save them from infamy.
Even if the Nationals don’t lose more than the ’62 Mets, they still might craft a legacy for their unique pairing of ghastly baseball and darkly comedic sideshows. Plenty of teams lose bundles of games. Only the 2009 Washington Nationals saw their bombastic general manager resign during spring training, played part of one game not televised locally, and sent their franchise player on to the field wearing a uniform with the team name misspelled.
The Red Sox today begin a three-game series with the Nationals, a floundering team and franchise becoming more and more defined by its failures. Team president Stan Kasten believes the franchise is headed upward, and said last weekend the Nationals are “a lot closer than people would think if they just looked at our record so far.’’ But the losses this season have already wrought poor attendance, dismal television ratings, and reports - so far unfounded - that manager Manny Acta will be fired.
The losses have also brought those historical side-by-sides with the ’62 Mets. The Mets’ 40-120 record is likely safe. The Nationals have stabilized their implosive bullpen and their youthful starting rotation is gathering momentum. Still, the ’62 Mets were 19-48 after 67 games. The Nationals are 20-47, even after taking two of three from both the Yankees and the Blue Jays last week.
“The record is there,’’ Acta said. “That’s what we compare with. If you don’t want it to bother you, you’ve got to start winning more games. All the negativity that is surrounding us, we have brought it upon ourselves.’’
How did it come to this? Five years ago, the city celebrated when baseball returned to Washington after 33 years and promptly contended for half a season. Last season, the Nationals opened their glistening, $611 million ballpark. This spring training, Acta believed he had the best lineup in his three seasons.
That promise dissolved immediately. A scandal centered around a player’s fake identity and an alleged skimming of signing bonuses for Dominican players hovered over the team in February and eventually cost general manager Jim Bowden and his assistant Jose Rijo their jobs. The episode forced the Nationals to uproot their Dominican operations and placed a dark cloud over the season that hasn’t left.
Better things to do
Fans have averted their attention. In their second season in the nearly 42,000-seat Nationals Park, the Nationals average attendance of 21,382 ranks fourth-lowest in baseball and is nearly 8,000 fewer than last season. The Nationals, according to the Sports Business Journal, have the worst television ratings in the league at 0.53, or roughly 12,000 households. The lack of viewership does not register as apathy.
“One thing I’ve learned in Washington,’’ Kasten said, “is they’ve invented no new insults.’’
The Nationals, it seems, have become impervious to them. After Saturday night’s win over the Blue Jays, Acta walked from his postgame press conference to the Nationals clubhouse, a pack of reporters trailing behind. Kasten appeared from behind a door and intercepted Acta.
“Here comes the firing,’’ one reporter said.
“He’s not going to fire me,’’ Acta said, smiling.
The next day, after a loss, the mood had changed. The Nationals clubhouse, mostly empty, was silent. A few players chatted in Spanish. Others ate in an attached room. “It’s not fun,’’ reliever Julian Tavarez said. “I can tell you that.’’
Acta told reporters in spring training this was best team he had managed. Before they played their first home game, they were 0-6. When Mike Rizzo inherited the team from Bowden in early March, his first worry was the dire bullpen situation. He signed a gaggle of scrap-heap veterans to minor-league contracts, a tourniquet that has paid dividends, but only lately.
The twin culprits of Washington’s season have been rotten defense (a league-high 64 errors) and the gas-can bullpen (a league-high 16 blown saves). “We’ve seen a lot of things you’ve never seen in baseball,’’ Acta said.
The worst of the worst
The Nationals were already 1-7 when they ran into the Florida Marlins. They carried a lead into the ninth inning three consecutive days. The Nationals lost all three games. “It was like, ‘Jeez, what else is going to happen here?’ ’’ Acta said.
What else? The Nationals scored five or more runs for 10 consecutive games and lost nine of them. That had never happened.
What else? On April 27, they twice jumped ahead by four runs. The Philadelphia Phillies, with two grand slams, erased both leads. They scored six in the eighth. The Nationals lost, 13-11.
The Nationals have lost at least six consecutive games three times. They have been outscored by 21 runs after the sixth inning. “We set some records,’’ Acta said.
The Nationals also mastered the ability to obscure the one thing they’re doing well at a given time. The Nationals scored 5.1 runs per game from Opening Day to May 20, third best in the NL. But they also posted a major league-worst 5.84 ERA. They have a 4.09 ERA since, but they have also scored 3.3 runs per game, least in the majors.
“It’s definitely not fun,’’ outfielder Willie Harris said. “We go on the road, and the fans for that team are screaming, ‘You suck. Your whole team sucks.’ Our record sucks. We don’t suck.’’
On April 17, outfielder Adam Dunn and third baseman/face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman wore jerseys with “Natinals’’ across their chests. For the first two months of the season, the analog scoreboard clock above center field and a giant, old-fashioned clock to its right told different times. The Nationals sell Teddy Roosevelt bobbleheads, and they produced packages for some this year offering “Teddy Rossevelt’’ toys.
For most franchises, one of those events would be laughed off and dismissed. When a team loses with the proficiency of the Nationals, it becomes an issue and raises doubts about the franchise’s competence.
“I get that,’’ Kasten said. “It’s unfair, but it’s expected. It’s predictable. It’s what happens when you’re not winning.’’
A complete turnaround
Kasten often recalls the struggles of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine early in their careers with the Braves.
Kasten became the Atlanta president in 1986, a position he held until 2003. When Kasten joined the Nationals three seasons ago, he laid out a plan similar to the one that made the Braves postseason stalwarts. He wanted to build through player development with an emphasis on pitching.
Kasten acknowledges it has been “slower than we wanted,’’ but he also brimmed with excitement talking about Washington’s staff this season. Since June, a rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Shairon Martis, and Craig Stammen compiled a 3.34 ERA. All those starters are under 25, and four are rookies. Before this season, Kasten hoped the crop of young pitchers in majors and at Triple A Syracuse would yield three starters.
“We’re going to get more than three starters,’’ Kasten said.
Another pitcher not on the team or, technically, part of the organization, provides perhaps the most hope. The Nationals, with the first overall pick, drafted Stephen Strasburg, who throws fastballs 102 miles per hour and created an unstoppable hype machine at San Diego State this season.
The upcoming negotiations with Strasburg and his agent, Scott Boras, will be prolonged and intense for the Nationals, and not just because Boras - who wants a record-smashing deal for Strasburg - is involved. The Nationals upset fans last season when they failed to sign pitcher Aaron Crow, their first draft selection.
On negotiations with Strasburg, Kasten would only say, “We expect to get the player signed.’’
Years from now - and not many, Kasten believes - the half-empty park on South Capitol Street may be full. The Nationals lost 102 games last season, and they’re potentially headed for a worse result this year. The fans have stayed away, and Kasten knows the Nationals need to compel them to come.
“The fan base is here and will respond whenever we give them a reason,’’ Kasten said. “So far, we haven’t given them enough of a reason.
“Slings and arrows are part of it. Everything bad that people are saying about you will be forgotten once you turn it around. I know that. I’ve lived through that. I occasionally have to remind everyone around me that as long as we stay on track and do things the right way, we will come through.’’