Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: The Nationals’ New Clothes?



Next Monday is Opening Day, Nats fans! Who’s pscyhed? Both of you? That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Let’s do this!

I mean, seriously, what’s not to get excited about? It’s a NEW season and the Nats have a NEW lineup certain to get them out of the basement of the National League East. Washington’s NEW outfield is flat-sick. There’s Adam Dunn in left. Lastings Milledge in center, Elijah Dukes in right, Josh Willingham in left-center and Austin Kearns in right-center … wait a minute … I’m thinking of my softball league. There’s no left- and right-center in the Majors. And there’s no designated hitter in the National League either. Well, then how are these guys all going to get into the lineup?

It’s questions like those that have frustrated Nationals fans since the franchise’s arrival in Washington. Under General Manager Jim Bowden, there was always a sky-rocketing sense of excitement surrounding every transaction, only for a counterpoint – usually logic – to inevitably put the kaibosh on it.

Yes, the signing of Adam Dunn provides the franchise its first real slugger since Alfonso Soriano left for Chicago. Yes, the outfield is a solid five-men deep. But who needs outfield depth when your pitching staff is shallower than the Reflecting Pool? Yet again, the Nats will trot out a rotation of retread pitchers, this time including Baltimore castoff Daniel Cabrera. And those pitchers are pumped to be in Washington, just ask reliever Julian Tavarez.

When asked in mid-March why he signed with the lowly Nats, Tavarez replied: “When you go to a club at four in the morning and you’re just waiting, waiting, a 600 pounder looks like J-Lo … So Nationals? Jennifer Lopez to me.”

That quote tells you all you ever needed to know about the Nats’ perception in the eyes of free agents ( … and more than you ever wanted to know about Tavarez’s social life).

That perception goes well beyond players. Among my fellow sports writers, the terms “toxic” and “cesspool” are virtually synonymous with the Washington Nationals. As a one-time D.C. resident and a guy who genuinely pulls for the Nationals to do well, I bristle at that description. But none of the writers who use those terms even think the description is hyperbole. And looking at the team’s brief history in Washington, I can’t say I entirely blame them.

The team watched Soriano walk away to rebuild with a farm system has yet to produce a sustainable crop of talent. The only high potential players the team has been able to acquire come with baggage, like late-payment of child support (Elijah Dukes) or a past that includes being tasered by Miami police (Scott Olsen). They signed a Dominican prospect who can’t even get back into the United States because, not only is he older than he claimed, he is also an entirely different person. And moreover, the signing, and potential skimming of the bonus given to Esmailyn Gonzalez (AKA Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo), cost Jose Rijo and Bowden their jobs and has them both under FBI investigation.

To top all of that off, television ratings are miniscule with only 9,000 people tuning into the games. To me that’s amazing, not only because it’s almost 20,000 fewer viewers than the Kansas City Royals, but because “Days of Our Lives” draws almost three million sets of eyes, and the Nats are a far more compelling soap opera.

But, to be fair, things are different now. Bowden is gone. There is hope among the team’s youth (next week’s topic) and the Nats stand to acquire the best pitching prospect since Roger Clemens in the draft. Things could change for the better. But until they do, please excuse the cynics who think the only change in Washington occurred on Inauguration Day.

Opening the season to skepticism and low expectations? There’s nothing new about that.

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