Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Choking in 2015 Saved the Washington Nationals

The 2015 Washington Nationals were Matt Williams’ team. They should’ve been Bryce Harper’s team.

For reasons I cannot fathom, Williams felt that humbling the best player in the league was part of his job description. It began weeks into his tenure, when he inexplicably benched Harper for committing the sin of lolly gagging to first base on a routine flyball.

bryce harper home runFor reasons I cannot fathom, the DC media not only gave Williams a pass – they applauded him for that action. Led by Thomas Boswell, a rash of DC scribes began to beat the drum that Harper didn’t respect the game. Similar to the barbs levied at RG3, Harper was labeled as a malcontent who had not yet earned the right to politely job to first base. It was complete and total garbage. Yet it persisted.

Of course, there were a grand total of zero Nats fans who agreed with this assessment. Bryce Harper was the reason we went to the ballpark. Bryce Harper was the reason the Nats had unlimited potential. Bryce Harper was the franchise.

As the 2015 Nats season imploded, it became apparent that Williams was not a fit for the Nats, despite GM Mike Rizzo’s bizarre insistence on backing him publicly and the media’s stunning refusal to call for his ouster. If you ever need an example of sports media being completely out of touch with the fans, the 2015 Nats coverage could be exhibit 1A.

So when Jonathan Papelbon reached out to choke Harper for lolly gagging on a routine flyball, everything came to head. Finally, Nats fans had enough and let everyone know about it. For the first time in the Nats’ brief history, the fans revolted.

At the time, it looked like the incident would mark the end of the Nats’ window to win a World Series. All of the good vibes built up by Davey Johnson and a remarkable 2014 regular season had seemed to come crashing down to Earth, starting with Williams’ disastrous 2014 playoff decisions and ending with a late-season swoon that embarrassed the franchise.

Instead, it has the very real possibility of saving the entire franchise.

The Nats had great success under Johnson, the definition of a player’s manager. He let the talent show off and the wins followed. A 2013 season derailed largely by injuries convinced Rizzo and the front office that a stern, authoritative voice was needed in the clubhouse.

The 2016 season is only a week old and we already see the folly in that notion. Dusty Baker, a very similar figure to Johnson, has lightened the mood in the clubhouse. Harper’s “Make Baseball Fun Again” has become a rallying cry for the Nats. While the national media looks at that slogan as a general shot at the old-school, it is clear that Harper is sending a message specifically to Rizzo, Papelbon and Williams – this is a game and should be treated as such.

The best teams in any sport take on the personality of their leader. Look at the Golden State Warriors, whose remarkable team play and flair flows down from Steph Curry and his style of play. Likewise, the 1996 Bulls were defined by Michael Jordan and his indomitable will to win.

We’ve seen this play out over and over again in baseball. The Jeter Yankees were a reflection of Derek Jeter’s desire to be great when it mattered. The 2004 Red Sox shocked the world by embracing the idiots they were. Even the Royals, without a true star player, have taken on the attitude of its quirky manager and small-town fan base to play with an edge that always seems to pay off in the late innings.

It is far too early to definitely say that the Nationals will ascend to those heights. There are many games to win. Dusty Baker, for all his past success, has yet to prove the ability to win it all. Still, there is no doubt the Nationals have the talent – up and down the lineup, throughout the rotation and in the bullpen – to contend for a World Series.

If you’ve watched the Nats interact early in 2016, you’ve noticed a distinct difference in their attitude. It appears the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders. It’s not just Harper – the Nats have a collection of players, from Jayson Werth to Anthony Rendon to Michael A. Taylor, that play better with a smile on their face, not a scowl.

It should not have taken a public assault to get here, but the Nats franchise has finally arrived exactly where it needs to be.

The 2016 Washington Nationals are Bryce Harper’s team.

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