Washington Bureau

April 28, 2009

“They” are the Washington Nationals, after losing a 13-11 calamity in Philadelphia tonight, leaving them 4-14 to begin this baseball season

“They have a lot of pieces that have to be put back together.  They’ve got to develop pitching, they’ve got to change the culture.  The culture is really important.  They were left with a mess. ” – Peter Gammons, Baseball Tonight, April 27

The mess was the work of Jim Bowden.  Gammons threw a few token laudable players in the middle of those slices, but the Washington Nationals have a tall, tall road to climb.  It should make them one of the more interesting baseball teams to follow over the next three years.

Jim Bowden was a Major League Baseball general manager for 16 years and was always been considered one of the worst executives in the game.  As much as I understand baseball, I’ve never understood how Jim Bowden kept a job.

His teams were never competitive: he took only one team to the playoffs, the 1995 Cincinnati Reds (Barry Larkin, MVP).  He made a series of roster moves that were widely criticized and left his teams in prolonged impotency.  These would take a while to break down, but in his day, Bowden made 168 trades and make the playoffs once.  Yet he continued to be employed, year after year.

Perhaps you tolerate someone at your job that you just don’t think contributes.  My roommate occasionally works with someone in IT that he thinks is absolutely incompetent and can’t work a computer.  But you let it slide, the guy is nice enough, he probably lives with his cousin.

But that person is probably not a public figure, like the general manager of a baseball team.

No, his wikipedia entry also has this gem: “Bowden has been involved in several controversies,” and goes on to duly list.  There’s really no reason to paraphrase, it’s worth taking the whole thing.

  • In 1993, he fired Reds manager and former star player Tony Pérez after just 44 games. Coming on the heels of racially charged comments by Reds owner Marge Schott, the firing prompted criticism of Bowden and the team for treating Pérez, one of the league’s few minority managers, unfairly.
  • In 1998, he traded All-Star reliever and Cincinnati native Jeff Shaw to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shaw claimed at the time that Bowden had agreed not to trade him as part of a contract that involved Shaw taking less money from the Reds than he could have gotten elsewhere. “We had a handshake deal that he wasn’t going to trade me,” Shaw said. “Three months later, he traded me. … If I had been in the room with him, I would have killed him.”
  • In 2000, Reds coach Ron Oester reportedly was offered the job of manager by Bowden, but that when Oester didn’t accept immediately, Bowden offered the job to Bob Boone without contacting Oester.
  • In 2003, he was fired as general manager of the Reds following comments comparing the MLB players union to the terrorist organization al Qaeda. Commenting on the possibility of a strike by the players, he said, “If they (the players) do walk out … I encourage all of them, “Make sure it’s Sept. 11th. Be symbolic about it. Let [union head] Donald Fehr drive the plane right into the building, if that’s what they want him to do,'” Bowden later apologized for the remarks.
  • On April 17, 2006, Bowden was arrested for drunk driving in Miami, Florida.
  • As the GM of the Nationals, he made a deal with the Reds in mid-season 2006 involving Gary Majewski, who received a cortisone shot shortly before the trade. In May 2007 the Reds filed a grievance claiming they didn’t know they were getting damaged goods. However, after an indepth and time-consuming investigation, MLB cleared Bowden and the Nationals.
  • As of February 23, 2009 Bowden is being investigated by the FBI for skimming signing bonus money from Latin American baseball players. He resigned from the Nationals on 1 March 2009.

As a baseball nut, Jim Bowden’s employment record means I have a chance.  Is it any surprise that they were left with a mess?

The measly old Nationals, Gammons continues, are changing their culture this season.  Mike Rizzo is the new GM.  They’ve demoted Lastings Milledge, they’ve sat down and lectured Elijah Dukes and given him a kind of ultimatum, saying “we might trade you, we might send you down, we can lose with you or without you,”, and they’ve emphasized character within the team.

I normally wonkishly attack baseball through the metric lens, but I think this is the best move forward.  When you have no talent, you have no risk, and the Washington Nationals have no talent.  They have some great players (Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Dukes) and have brought up a pitching prospect (Jordan Zimmermann) that scouts and analytic-types are high on, but there’s nothing in Triple-A, nothing in the middle infield.  So when you can’t statisically go up, you can only go up in spirit.

We’re watching this unfold, and in June, the story will alter its course.  The Nationals will pick first in the 2009 draft, where they are eligible to select, and play host to, the lore of Stephen Strasburg.

(For the lesser wonks, clarity: in baseball, unlike basketball, but ever-so-slightly similar to football, teams do not always draft the “best player available.”  This is because draftees join up with agents and survey the competition, demanding what they consider to be appropriate signing bonuses, deterring teams from drafting players that they can’t afford to sign.  The best amateur players often fall to the late teens and twenties in the baseball draft until a well-capitalized team (Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers) drafts them and meets their bonus demands.)

Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras, the most successful baseball agent of all time.  Boras has done more to change baseball in the last decade than anyone else.  And according to Peter Gammons, Strasburg is reportedly asking for record $50 million over six years.  This will put Washington in a serious economic conundrum.  They are a smaller-market team, and spending was down throughout baseball this offseason.

All signs point to Washington still drafting and signing Strasburg, and you have to hope they swallow the cost and take the plunge.  Strasburg is arguably the most hyped right-handed pitching prospect to hit the draft; Buster Olney reports a scout calling him “the best I’ve ever seen.”

The worst team in baseball is about to inherit one of the best pitching prospects in the history of baseball, who throws 102, who could be in the majors this very year, who is going in the 23rd round of fantasy drafts this year, ahead of top-10 guys like Madison Bumgarner and Travis Snider.  He is the savior.  He is better than any pitcher this scout has ever seen.

The only thing that keeps Nationals’ fans short-breathed is Olney’s follow-up question:

“Better than Mark Prior?”

Football

April 24, 2009

I owe this blog (and its three readers, perhaps there’s one with a surname not “Chaparian”) a recap of the last four months of my working life, from when I started at Anomaly in December to the completion of a beautiful, inspiring ad campaign for Umbro on March 28th, but that will come later. I started working at Anomaly with zero interest in football  (ne soccer from my youth league disinterest) but knew I’d have to love it, on my own accord or not, to contribute to the Umbro team.

There was no strong-arming needed; I gradually became more interested in the game as I read more about it, watched more football, and spent time with colleagues who breathe football like I breathe baseball. I can identify a few reasons why it grew on me:

– The Premier League is one of the most competitive, engrossing, and textured leagues in sports, with teams playing for various goals, and others fighting for survival. It has four historically dominant teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool), a number of talented squads just below that, and a spate of teams at the bottom of the table (this season: West Brom, Newcastle, Middlesborough) fighting just to stay in the Premier League and not be demoted to the Championship (the second-level field). This is a new and unique storyline for me to follow. The Boston Red Sox never have to worry about being demoted out of Major League Baseball if they have a bad season, and they’re also not playing for various league trophies or international tournament births while trying to win the World Series.

– I root for Liverpool, a team that happens to be having a fantastic season, has produced two classic 4-4 draws in the last week (one a heroic Champions League performance at Chelsea) and has traditions and spirited fans that strike similar to the Red Sox. Consider the congruous singing: Liverpool fans wailing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before every match, and Red Sox fans singing Neil Diamond before the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park. But I root for Liverpool because I lived with an English roommate my sophomore year of college, and he was a Liverpool fan.  That was the year that Liverpool completed a historic comeback in the 2005 Champions League final against A.C. Milan; that same school year, my boys came back from a 3-0 hole in the ALCS versus the Yankees.  Each was unfathomable (but the Red Sox comeback has to be considered the most unbelievable comeback in sports).

– The level of play in the Premier League is incredible. It’s hard not to be awed by good football, and plus, football players are admirable for their agility, endurance, and scene-stealing acting when trying to burn seconds of stoppage time.

– Being around colleagues and watching them love football. Two colleagues in particular, Johnny and Magnus, teach me new, but different, things about the game every time I watch it: Johnny more of the human element of the game, fans, stories, fables, and Magnus a more strategic approach, enduring my questions about the business of the game and league. I must be a nuisance.

– How can I not root for Shrewsbury Town in League Two?

It just so turns out that I’ve taken a liking to football that I know will outlive my (hopefully long) life at Anomaly. In fact, I actually stopped on an MLS broadcast on ESPN tonight and remembered that there’s pro football in the United States.

But apparently, I’m not alone. A lot of people are stopping and noticing. To wit:

– The New York Red Bulls are completing work on the $200 million Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.  Teams in Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Toronto and Salt Lake have built new football-specific stadiums in the last five years, and new fields in Philadelphia and Kansas city are expected shortly.  Some of these stadiums come with dozens of youth/community football fields to spur the game’s growth.

– The MLS has a clear goal: they’re not trying to convert other sports fans to football fans, they’re trying to convince the already existing football fans to become MLS fans.  There are millions of entrenched football fans to target, and the MLS is happy to spend to get them: two more expansion teams, consideration of more international players, and a savvy web presence.

– The sport seems to be growing on Americans.  Seattle introduced a new team this season and sold every one of the 22,000 season ticket packages it marketed.

The recession noticeably impacted baseball this year, as the free agency period was easily the most thrifty in years, but surprisingly, the MLS  thinks the time is right to keep building and spending.  Yes: baseball is tightening the reins, but soccer is making it rain.

It’s surprising that more Americans don’t take to this sport, but I think the primary reason is the track young athletes take.  In Europe, the best young football players, in their early to mid teens, are poached by football clubs and built to become the next Wayne Rooney.  In the United States, there’s still no such path for a young soccer star; the most lucrative offer for a young athlete is a college scholarship, and that comes through football, baseball and basketball.  The NCAA is, no doubt, an elephant’s leg on the game’s trachea.

But if the competition in Europe (and in England) continues its renaissance; if more and more supermoguls buy Premier League teams and spend spend spend to bring in players, build a fanbase, and vacuum more revenue; if the MLS continues its expansion, building modest, but beautiful stadiums with youth pitches; it’s entirely possible that the world’s game could ourtank a more American sport in ten years.

Monday’s Weather

April 5, 2009

I’m in Shrewsbury, partially because on Monday I’m going to Opening Day at Fenway Park.

At least, I hope I’m going on Monday.  Storms are looming and threatening the Red Sox and Rays from playing.  The weather, though, has yielded one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while: the in-depth discussion of Monday’s weather forecast on Sons of Sam Horn.