The baseball season is headed into its September home stretch as usual, but this year things seem out of whack. I refer, of course, to the National League, where the Washington Nationals lead the East and the Pittsburgh Pirates also are contending for a playoff spot. The natural order has been violated, much like if the sun suddenly rose in the west or a Republican politician had a good word for Obamacare.
Of the two disturbances in the Force, it’s hard to say which is weirder. If the Pirates just finish the campaign with a winning record it would be astonishing because they’ve been on the losing side of the ledger for the last 19 years, the longest such streak in U.S. professional sports history. From 2005 through 2010 they averaged 97 losses a season, another milestone in futility.
The Nats’ record is all recent, because they only moved to the nation’s capital from Montreal in 2005, but they’ve yet to finish a plus-.500 season there. And although the Expos are their biological parents their true legacy is that of the Washington Senators, a franchise so woebegone that in the 1955 musical “Damn Yankees” a guy had to sell his soul to the Devil (Ray Walston, actually) to cop a pennant for the team, and even then almost fell short.
The fact that baseball still is doing business in Washington is surprising. While the D.C. area has a big population (about 5.5 million) its favorite sport is politics, with much of its professional class consisting of transients who are there for a few years to pad their resumes with public service on their way to more-lucrative employment elsewhere. The city’s two previous shots at the Big Leagues missed: the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul after a 60-year run (1901-60) and the expansion outfit that replaced them departed for Texas after 12 mostly futile years in 1972. Together the two teams accounted for a grand total of three American League pennants, the last coming in 1933, and one World Series title, in 1924. That record makes even Chicago’s look good.
The Nationals’ name is borrowed from a sometimes-handle of the Senators’ first incarnation, but a more-apt moniker would be the Exemptions, after the anti-trust pass our Government still gives the National Pastime. That freebie isn’t worth what it was before the game’s so-called Reserve Clause bit the dust in the 1970s, but it still gives a legal waiver to some of the game’s dubious employment and administrative practices and packed enough clout to make the city a perennial first in the next-franchise line.
Sportswriters love uplift so it would be nice to report that the two teams grittily bootstrapped their way to improvement, if not yet success. Fact is, luck has had at least as much to do with their rise as skill. The Pirates’ surge owes mostly to the blossoming of Andrew McCutcheon, their 25-year-old centerfielder. A first-round draft choice in 2005, he’s become a star in his fourth Major League season, having a Most-Valuable-Player-type campaign. Slim and swift as well as strong, he reminds of a pre-steroidal Barry Bonds, the star of Pittsburgh’s last contending teams in the early 1990s.
The major luck part of the Bucs’ equation has come from A.J. Burnett. The team picked the much-tattooed 35-year-old pitcher off the scrap heap after two bad seasons with the New York Yankees, and he’s rewarded them with a 15-5 won-lost mark whose plus-10 standings difference exceeds their nine-game margin over .500 (70-61). Hamazing.
The Nats have thrived off doing poorly, which is how it’s supposed to work with the annual amateur-player draft but rarely does. In 2008 their 59-102 won-lost record was baseball’s worst and earned them the No. 1 pick the next year. Often that’s no big deal but that time it allowed them to draft Stephen Strasburg, the most-heralded pitching prospect in memory.
If that weren’t enough they were stinko again on the field in 2009 (59-103) and the next year got to use another no-brainer pick to corral Bryce Harper, the top-rated position-player prospect since Joe Mauer 10 years earlier. Strasburg’s now their top starter and a Cy Young Award candidate, and while Harper is no star yet at age 19 despite his All-Star Game selection in July, he’s been an everyday starter for the team in center field.
The guy who was supposed to carry the run-producing load for the Nats is the ex-Phillie Jason Werth, whom they gave an eye-popping contract ($126 million over seven years) in 2011. That hasn’t gone well—Werth had a bad first season in D.C. and has missed most of this one with a broken wrist—but a much-cheaper Adam LaRoche, a first-baseman long on my “most underrated” list, has picked up the slack. Similarly, the young left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who was passed through three organizations (the White Sox, Phillies and A’s) before landing in Washington, has been almost as good as Strasburg and gives the Nats the second high-quality starter it takes to make serious noise.
Strasburg has been the Nats’ major “story” this season. He both wowed and worried us in his 2010 rookie year, striking out everyone in sight before going on the DL, then returning and DLing again with elbow woes that led to Tommy John surgery. His last season was pretty much spent rehabbing, but this year he’s been great.
Amazingly again, the Nats may not let Strasburg make it to the postseason. Wary about the 24-year-old’s arm, they’ve put him on a 160-inning limit this year, and since he’s already logged 150 he’s already just about had it. Nat brass has said it figures the team will be a contender for years and wants him around to help.
A couple of points seem worth making here. One is that, given the current state of play, Strasburg and other pitching phenoms probably show up in the Bigs with stressed arms from all the throwing they did in hyper-competitive kids’ leagues starting at age 9 or 10, and anything they do as pros is incidental to that. A better prescription for professional longevity is to let gifted athletes play a variety of sports as children and hold off on specialization until they’re 15 or 16.
The other is that things don’t always go as expected. My first sports awareness came at age 7 with the Chicago Cubs’ 1945 pennant drive, and I recall not being terribly upset by their World Series loss that year because I assumed they’d have lots of other chances. You know how that’s worked out.
NOTE: If you haven’t visited chicagosidesports.com lately, you should. It’s been running lots of lively pieces, including a few by me. A link is above.