Can Nationals Ever Become More Than Just "Pirates Light?"

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Can Nationals Ever Become More Than Just
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

During their first year in Washington, D.C., the Washington Nationals were rudderless, visionless and, when compared to the other teams in their division, paupers and penniless.

Their manager was Frank Robinson, a crusty curmudgeon who couldn’t relate to a VCR with a blinking clock little alone these 20-something-kids with I-Pods and MP3’s.  Jim Bowden, who had little success in his first stint as a general manager, was named “interim” GM with a contract that was literally day-to-day.

Tony Taveres, a stop-gap president who moved to Washington along with the boxes of bats and balls and office furniture, was as temporary as a henna tattoo at a county fair.

The team was still trying to find players to fill out the roster during spring training. Esteban Loiaza, perhaps the team’s best pitcher in 2005, was signed to a minor-league contract in March.

It was under this cloud of impermanence that the Washington Nationals took the field in 2005 and won 81 games and drew more than 2.7 million fans to aging RFK Stadium.

In 2006, the Nationals broke ground on their new ballpark, were purchased by one of Washington’s most wealthy businessmen, signed Jim Bowden to a permanent contract, named Stan Kasten as team president, and began the process of rebuilding their minor league system so they could build a major league winner.

“The Plan” was born.

Since then, the Washington Nationals have won just 158 games and don’t really have a plan any more. Their general manager is “interim.” Their manager is “interim.” Their president is a part-owner and can’t be fired under any circumstance.

Young players who were poster boys of the Nationals’ vision just a year ago are being traded for older, yeoman-like major leaguers in hopes of stopping the bleeding.

So where’s the plan? Where’s the hope?

Now that Manny Acta has been fired, that festering feeling of hopelessness has finally been lanced. No one expects new manager Jim Riggleman to turn the team around in the second half, but everyone expects him to be more of a hands-on manager than was Acta.

Riggleman needs to immediately show the players-and the fans-that’s he not Manny Acta. He needs to get himself thrown out of a couple of games right away. He needs to get into an umpire’s face and argue a call or two.

In other words, he needs to take charge forcefully, and visibly.

Five years after that magical 2005 season (where else but Washington would a .500 season be magical?), the Nationals are no closer to being contenders. They have a better roster, they have a solid minor league system, and they have a gleaming new park.

Yet, they are much worse now than they were in 2005.

To fix the problem, the Nationals have to figure out exactly what that problem is. Hopefully, the second-half will give the team the answers they so desperately need. Is it the players? Is it the manager(s)? Is it the management?

Whatever it turns out to be, the Nationals need to fix it. Another 100 plus loss season in 2010 will all but end the hopes of ever having a big-market baseball team in Washington. We won’t ever become the Red Sox or the Cardinals.

We’ll be the Pirates.

And once we become the Pirates, we’ll never be anything else.

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