To Get to Next Chapter, Washington Nationals Must Turn Page on Manny Acta

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJune 2, 2009

WASHINGTON - APRIL 16:  Manager Manny Acta of the Washington Nationals watches batting practice before the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on April 16, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Things are turning ugly in Nats Town.

To be sure, the problems didn't just begin. The community was being held together with a combination of prayers and duct tape when the doors of Space Coast Stadium swung open this past February. The demons from the previous year, injuries, under performance and a general lack of talent, seemed to have been exorcised from the team's roster.

Adam Dunn's towering presence, Ryan Zimmerman's maturing demeanor and the youthful talent of Jordan Zimmermann and Jesus Flores seemed to salve the team's near-mortal wounds from 2008.

But general manager Jim Bowden was forced to resign just days after Spring Training and things fell apart like a Christmas toy assembled by a bleary-eyed dad.

With nearly a third of the season completed, the Nationals are 13-35, 22 games below .500. If they were to play .500 ball for the rest of the season (a near impossibility), they would still finish with one of the worst records in the league at 69-93.

The season is, in a word, hopeless.

But what about the future of the franchise? Is it hopeless as well?

The drive-by fans, those who only support a winning team, left long ago. Most of them have never seen the inside of Nationals Park. The serious fans, the students of the game, have seen their numbers slowly erode as crisis after crisis enveloped the team, smothering the present and imploding the future.

For the moment, all that remains to cheer on the Nationals are the die-hards, those of us who would attend a game during a nuclear attack because the fallout would add a nice purple haze to the evening sky.

But, based on home attendance and viewership of Nationals' games on MASN, there are only 20,000 or so of us left. That's not much of a base to count on.

And oh, how the fans of the Indians and the Red Sox and the Yankees scoff at baseball in Washington.

Scoff they might, but they couldn't be more wrong about the team, the city, and especially the fans.

While the city of Washington may have a baseball history that dates back to Teddy Roosevelt, Washingtonians certainly don't. Most of us old enough to remember Frank Howard and Del Unser and Dick Bosman are now in our fifties.

Native Washingtonians under 40 don't have a relationship with baseball and the transient nature of the city brings us baseball fans that have already pledged their allegiance to their hometown teams.

And Washington is a cynical city; it's hard not to be when the politicians outnumber the common folk. Every statement by the team, every excuse and every justification is scrutinized as if it came from the president himself.

The "plan?" Yeah, right. It's code for "No way I'm going to blow my billions on a bunch of guys past their prime."

The Lerner family-owners of the Nationals-have more money than most of the big city, East coast teams but are considered frugal to a fault because "The Plan" doesn't call for the signing of expensive free agents.

Stan Kasten, the architect of the miracle in Atlanta, keeps talking about building for the future, but fewer people are listening these days. It's kind of hard, after all, to preach a "from the bottom up" building process when the team keeps getting worse every year.

Jim Bowden was universally hated, but his replacement, Mike Rizzo, isn't "officially" the team's general manager, so he can't be hated yet. And manager Manny Acta's days are numbered, in part because of his horrific record, but mostly because he has lost his team. They are rudderless and in need of some fiery rhetoric, something poor Manny just doesn't have in him.

So I ask again, are the Nationals on a precipice of hopelessness?

Not hardly.

When healthy, the Nationals have solid major leaguers at all eight positions, and have a wealth of young starting pitching.

The bullpen, which couldn't have been worse over the team's first 38 games has been yeoman, perhaps even above average, over the last week or so. The defense, which couldn't get to balls they should have and booted the ones they reached, is showing signs of improvement.

In other words, it took a perfect storm to capsize the 2009 season before it ever got started. This team deserved so much more.

But it won't take much to right the S.S. Nationals. The fix is really very simple.

Rizzo and Acta, aren't playing to win. They are playing not to lose. Their jobs are on the line and so they are are trying to stop the leaking dike with their finger instead of rebuilding it entirely.

So end the suspense; give Rizzo the GM's job officially and fire Manny Acta. Bring in a manager who will fight for his players and chew a few umpire's backsides for both cause and effect.

Make the tough trades sooner rather than later. It must be difficult on the clubhouse's well-being as they watch the clock tick down to the July 31 trade deadline, knowing full well that when the clock strikes midnight, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns and several others will most likely be former Nationals.

The Nationals are a team waiting for the other shoe to drop. So drop it already. Lance the boil that is the 2009 season and let the healing begin. Trade some veterans, get some prospects and give Steven Strasburg the combination to the Lerner's vault and let him keep what he can carry.

The Nationals aren't a 1988 Yugo in need of a major overhaul and a new paint job. They're more like a classic Camaro that isn't firing on all cylinders. Give it a tune-up, throw on some custom wheels, grease the differential and get out of the way.

The boys just need to find some cohesiveness.

That, and a center fielder.


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