Today is opening day of the baseball season for the homestanding Washington Nationals.
The Nats play the 2022 division-winning and 2021 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves. The starting pitcher for the Nationals finished last year with a won-loss record of 6-19 and a 6.31 ERA. Yes, Patrick Corbin avoided the 20-loss mark, but just barely. Many saw him as the worst starting pitcher in baseball.
So, I have very mixed feelings about this year’s season.
Let’s get the ugly out of the way first.
Baseball has sold its soul to the gambling interests. The game is awash in gambling advertising and, like horse racing did long ago, it seems intent on pushing betting into stadiums and driving away long-time fans. All for the lure of “easy” money.
What truly disturbs me about sports betting [wrote a mentor] is the dislocation of joy. The joy is supposed to be in watching the game. Monetizing it, as you point out, changes the focus — as if there could be no simple pleasures which are not really about cash.
That baseball will continue this alliance with the devil is not a surprise. As Robyn Ryle wrote,
Let me put it more plainly — the players want baseball to be good. The owners just want to make money. Period. End of story.
Next, let’s tackle the bad.
The Nationals will be very bad — again — in 2023. It didn’t have to be that way, but the Lerner family tore down the 2019 World Series champion team and fielded a historically bad one in what is almost record-breaking time. The fans and local government enriched the Lerner’s original $450 million investment to the point where they are now are seeking to sell for more than $2 billion. As a way of saying thanks for our financial and emotional investment, they turned a great — and fun — team into a mediocre AAA franchise.
The Washington Post had a piece as we approached Opening Day speaking to the loss of fans that has resulted from ownership’s moves. One fan who, like me, has decreased his season ticket package (I’m going to half the games of past years) said it well. “The goodwill from fans has worn really, really thin.”
Especially given that all our former star players are killing it for other National League teams.
Joe Posnanski has been writing about “fun” players and teams recently, and he had this to say about the Nationals.
[T]he 2018 Washington Nationals had Trea Turner (fun!), Bryce Harper (so much fun!), Juan Soto (delightful fun!), Max Scherzer (ferocious fun!) and a bunch of what John Updike called “gems of slightly lesser water,” like Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg and Matt Wieters and Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman and others you could say brought at least a little fun to the party.
What I’m saying is that the 2018 Nationals were as fun as any team in baseball.
And the 2023 Nationals are so devoid of fun, they need Kevin Bacon to show up and rescue the whole town.
Five years should not be enough time to completely and utterly tear down such an awesome team. But it is — frankly, they did it in much less time. Washington GM Mike Rizzo had a quote earlier in camp where, in talking about the Nationals’ minor league system, he said; “It’s the best group of upside players we’ve ever had.”
Hey, look, maybe it works out that way … but it strikes me as an utterly ridiculous thing to say. Upside players? In the 2010s, the Nationals at different times had in their system Harper, Strasburg, Soto, Turner, you can throw Anthony Rendon in there, you can throw Lucas Giolito in there, I’m just going to tell you right now that as promising as this system might be, they are not going to develop a half dozen players like THAT. Rizzo has offered several quotes along these lines (“we don’t rebuild, we reload”) that suggest he’s struggling to make sense of just how quickly things got so disastrously bad in Washington.
I would only quibble with Joe by suggesting that while Harper is a unique talent, he was not the “fun” player he’s become while playing in Washington. The 2019 Nationals were even more “fun,” especially after a Baby Shark named Gerardo Parra arrived.
Parra brought joy back to Washington baseball after too many seasons of pinning our hopes on the talented but moody and aloof Harper. Heck, Parra even got that old head case Stephen Strasburg to dance and laugh in delight when enveloped in a group hug.
Now we’re all struggling to figure out how it got so disastrously bad so quickly.
But there’s always some good in Opening Day.
Hope exists on Opening Day. My predictions for the 2023 Nationals could be wildly pessimistic.*
More importantly, Opening Day means spring is here. And sitting in a stadium with a beer and friends is just great, no matter the quality of the game.
Plus, I love baseball’s new rules!
I thought I would hate the pitch clock, but guess what? I was WRONG! I’ve watched a few innings of spring training, and the pace is fabulous … like the games of my youth. A little over two hours is just perfect for a baseball game, and spring training with the new pitch clock showed that baseball can drop from over three hours average to just under two and one-half hours.
Don’t believe me? Just watch Landon Knack throw an entire half inning in the time that it once took Pedro Baéz to throw one pitch!
Baseball has gained an average of more than a half hour of dead time in the last 40 years. Players will take up all the time you give them … so give them less time. Thomas Boswell even came in from retirement to say how much he loves the pitch clock.
In the end, the rule changes are designed to make the game better for fans. And I’m one fan who is all in with those changes.
Let’s play ball!
More to come…
*I wouldn’t bet on it.
Image of Opening Day 2017 at Nationals Stadium by DJB.
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