When I wrote “Hope Springs Eternal” (http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/03/hope-springs-eternal.html) back in March, it was with what every baseball fan has before Opening Day – a belief that if everything turns out right, my team will be a contender. What makes baseball different than football is the daily grind of the season. A few days off aside, baseball is an everyday sport, revealing its subtlety over six long months – road trips that turn seasons around, injuries that change a team’s calculus, trades that are made to add a final piece or as a show of rebuilding accumulate over time as brisk early spring turns to the dog days of summer and reverts to crisp autumn evenings.
Last night at Nationals Park, a team that recently posted back-to-back 100 loss seasons doused each other in beer and champagne to celebrate winning the National League East Division. The magnitude of that achievement for those of us who have followed the team since it arrived here in 2005 cannot be overstated. While it was great to see the stands filled with new fans, what made last night truly special was seeing “face of the franchise” Ryan Zimmerman, who came up as a 21-year old in 2005 and suffered through all that losing, savoring victory. There was joy in seeing 19-year old Bryce Harper embraced by his septuagenarian manager, Davey Johnson, vindicated in his pre-season prediction that the team would win the division. And of course, watching GM Mike Rizzo be hoisted by his players was particularly sweet, for it was his vision that helped make last night possible.
That last night’s celebration came with the five-time defending division champion Phillies in town was both icing on the cake and particularly apt. You see, once upon a time, the Phillies were the Nationals – a young team with loads of talent learning how to win. Our names are Gonzalez, Strasburg, Desmond, Espinosa and others; theirs were Utley, Rollins, Victorino and Hamels. Last night was not just a changing of the guard as the now much older Phillies attempt to rebuild on the fly, but a coronation of a new “beast of the East.” You see, this will be the hardest of the Nationals’ runs to the playoffs because the team is still one of the youngest in baseball. Over time, this young core is going to mature into a true terror, with potential All-Stars around the diamond and on the pitcher’s mound while the farm system churns out a steady stream of role players and substitutes to keep the team competitive for years to come.
While one hopes the Nationals do not follow the Phillies’ path, of going from home grown talent to big spending free agent shoppers, regardless of what the team does in this post-season or in the future, this squad will be special because it was first – because it was done with utility guys like Steve Lombardozzi, late bloomers like Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse, stealthy late-season acquisition Kurt Suzuki, “goon squad” role players like Chad Tracy and glimpses of the future like Christian Garcia. This is an easy team to root for because it plays well together, is not larded down with nine-figure contracts, overcame devastating injuries like the one that ended Wilson Ramos’s season in May and kept key players like Storen, Zimmerman, Morse and Werth out for long stretches, and will go into their first post-season with their best pitcher shut down to preserve his once-in-a-generation right arm (a decision I supported, see: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/07/shutting-down-strasburg.html). The team plays with grit and determination but also an esprit de corps embodied in Werth’s zany ski goggles and Gio Gonzalez’s never ending conversations. Be excited, D.C. Last night the window of World Series opportunity opened for years to come. Let’s enjoy the ride.