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Mr. Selig Goes to Washington, Part 1

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Bud Selig’s master plan was for baseball to return to Washington. In the dying days of the Montreal Expos, Selig made clear his desire that the team move out of Quebec and into the nation’s capital. There were rumors that other cities were being considered, sure, but few people took seriously the idea that major league baseball could succeed in Monterrey, Mexico. Washington had a baseball-ready stadium and, not so coincidentally, would put baseball in the back yard of the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill.

Well, it didn’t work out that way.

The Nationals inherited a front office run on a shoestring budget, a fallow farm system, and a team that hadn’t been interesting in ten years. In 2008, the team lost 102 games, the worst record in baseball, and the worst mark for the franchise since 1976. But on the bright side, at least the front office wasn’t under investigation by the FBI.

Oops . . .

Over the past year, federal investigators have been investigating charges that a handful of baseball teams were skimming bonus money away from young Caribbean players. The Nationals were among the teams named, with GM Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo targeted by the investigation. Rijo was fired by the Nats a week ago, and the axe fell on Bowden on Sunday. He “resigned” days after word got out that the team was probably going to fire him.

Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. But if you look at the situation realistically, we shouldn’t be surprised. Well, the FBI investigation is surprising, but the team’s overall failure was almost predictable given the circumstances.

There were three different problems that essentially “doomed” the Washington Nationals to this period of futility. They were: the city, the franchise, and the personnel. Each one played a part in bringing about the team’s humiliating 2008-09 performance.

The City

One wonders why Major League Baseball was so anxious to move back to Washington. Two different major league franchises ended up leaving town because of attendance problems: the original Washington Senators in 1961 (who became the Minnesota Twins) and the expansion Washington Senators in 1971 (who became the Texas Rangers). Granted, this was because the Washington teams were terrible. But that’s part of the point. Washington hadn’t seen a consistently good baseball team since the late 1930s. Before the Nationals came to town, a Washington baseball team hadn’t drawn a million fans since 1946. The last time they finished higher than 5th in attendance in the AL was 1945.

The question is why the MLB considered Washington to be a hotbed of baseball fever in 2005. The team hadn’t had a baseball team in 34 years, and before that, hadn’t drawn a decent crowd since the Truman Administration. This isn’t a slight against Washington baseball fans or the city itself. But when baseball moved into Washington, they were moving into a city that had been burnt out on baseball for thirty years and then deprived of baseball for the next thirty.

Again, I’m not knocking Washington baseball fans, who have shown admirable support for their new team. But when baseball decided to move to Washington, they either ignored or were ignorant of the discouraging history of Washington baseball over the past sixty years. Or, perhaps, the owners were just more interested in regaining a foothold inside the Beltway than they were in baseball.

The Franchise

The Montreal Expos were one of the NL’s best teams in the 1980s. They won at least 90 games twice in the decade, finished with a winning record in all but two seasons and made their only postseason appearance (in 1981). Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, Al Oliver, and Dennis Martinez were some of the stars that made the Expos so competitive.

The trend continued in the early 90s. After a last-place finish in 1991, the team finished 2nd in the NL East in both 1992 and 1993. In 1994, the team reached its peak. When the baseball strike stopped the season, the Expos had the best record in baseball, at 74-40. They had one of the best outfields in recent memory, with Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker patrolling the turf. The pitching staff was led by underrated hurler Ken Hill and power closer John Wetteland. They also had a raw, 22-year-old right-hander named Pedro Martinez. None of these players were older than 27, meaning that the Expos had the chance to build a contending team that would last.

Instead, the Expos went into extreme cost-cutting mode. Alou and Walker were let go as soon as they were free agents. Grissom was traded to the Braves for three players who would never appear on a Wheaties box. Hill went to the Cardinals for three guys named Bullinger, Eversgerd and Stovall. Wetteland went to the Yankees for Fernando Seguignol and cash. Future All-Star reliever Jeff Shaw went to the White Sox for the remains of Jose DeLeon. The only one who really stuck around was Pedro Martinez, who would finish his tenure with the team in 1997 by winning the Cy Young Award. That made him too expensive for the Expos, so he was off to Boston as a free agent. (Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for transaction information.)

The team was essentially stripped of its assets by owner Claude Brochu. The 1995 club finished last, and despite an encouraging second-place finish in 1996, the Expos were doomed to mediocrity thereafter, finishing in fourth place for four straight years before dropping to last.

If it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, they did in 2001 when art dealer Jeffrey Loria purchased the team. Loria stayed around long enough to scold the city for not agreeing to build a new stadium and scold the fans for not showing up. Loria blamed the 1994-1995 strike, which is odd, since attendance actually rose in 1996, when the team was contending.

The solution to Loria’s problem involved a complicated three-way ownership change the likes of which hadn’t been seen in baseball since the turn of the century. Loria was allowed to buy the Florida Marlins. He stripped them down like he did the Expos, and is currently using them in an elaborate protection racket perpetrated against the state of Florida; “give me a stadium or the team dies,” in a sense. Marlins owner John Henry, as part of this agreement, was allowed to buy the ownerless Red Sox. As for the Expos? They would be owned and operated by the other 29 major league teams. Does anyone see a potential problem with this?

The owners ran the Expos on a shoestring budget. GM Omar Minaya once said that he had “29 owners but only six employees” (Dewey & Acocella, Total Baseball). The Expos were denied anything that could be classified as a “perk,” giving them a huge financial disadvantage, which was quite likely by design. With the MLB literally controlling the Expos, they could talk openly about moving the team to Washington, Portland, or Monterrey. And then they had the gall to publicly ask why the Montreal fans were giving up on the team.

Amazingly, the Expos still managed to perform on the field. Their 83-79 finish in 2002 was striking in view of their numerous handicaps. They managed the same record in 2003. But 2003 was more impressive, because the MLB forced the Expos to play 22 of their “home” games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This was a horrifically cynical move by baseball. The games in Puerto Rico were great for the Puerto Rican fans, despite the fact that the park’s capacity was a slim 19,000, which doesn’t make for a big gate. The travel took a terrible toll on the team, which logged miles by the thousands shuttling between the east coast, the west coast, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Despite the fact that everyone knew it was coming, team officials didn’t officially announce the move to Washington until September of 2004. The Montreal Expos were dead, killed off by a real-life Rachel Phelps.

Everyone blamed the death of the Expos on the Montreal fans. After all, they said, the attendance was so low in those last years in Montreal that they just “had” to move away, right? The reality is that fans stopped showing up after ownership stripped the team in the 1995-97 period. From 1997-2004, no one in the Expos’ ownership showed any commitment to fielding a winning baseball team. Instead, they were either demanding money from the city of Montreal, moving home games across the continent, threatening to contract the team or openly speculating about moving away. Why should the fans care about the Expos when, quite obviously, no one else did?

And besides, the idea that Montreal could never be a baseball city is absurd. The Dodgers had their top minor league team in Montreal for years; Jackie Robinson integrated the minor leagues as a member of the Montreal team in 1946. The team’s move to Olympic Stadium in 1977 saw attendance more than double, to 1.4 million, ranking them 6th in the NL. The Expos were never among the league leaders in the category, but they were consistently drawing crowds above the National League average. This didn’t change until 1998, the year after Pedro Martinez left for free agency. With all the stars of the 1994 team now gone and no sign that management planned to replace them, the team finished last in the NL in attendance. The fans didn’t kill baseball in Montreal; bad management and bad baseball teams did that.

The team that arrived in Washington for the 2005 season was a shambles. Their biggest stars were Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, and Livan Hernandez. They were coming off a 67-95, last-place finish in 2004. Their farm system was more like a dust bowl. From 1997-2004, the best players taken in the draft by the Expos were Wilkerson, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Jason Bay, Chad Cordero, Ryan Zimmerman, and current prospects Ross Detwiler and Chris Marrero. That’s not a bad haul, but of all these future stars, four of them were traded away in woeful deals.

The worst came in 2002, when the Expos were desperate to get some help via trade. So Minaya acquired Bartolo Colon from Cleveland. Colon pitched well, but left after the season as a free agent. In exchange, the Expos gave up Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens for Colon and spare arm Tim Drew. It’s easily one of the worst trades in recent history. In fact, it may turn out to be a record. If Grady Sizemore ever wins an MVP (and I think he will), then the Indians will become the first team ever (I think) to trade away a future MVP and a future Cy Young Award winner (Lee) in the same deal. As for Bay, current Red Sox hero, he was traded to the Mets in 2002 for Lou Collier, an utterly forgettable utility infielder. As if this weren’t enough, the Nationals failed to sign their first-round draft pick in 2008 (Aaron Crow), because they were too cheap to meet his bonus demands.

So the Nationals were a poor team with an even poorer farm system. It would take a real genius to make a winner out of that combination. For that genius, the Nats turned to baseball’s former boy wonder, who got the General Manager’s job in Cincinnati at age 31 and sent his team to the playoffs in 1995.

But the Nats would get more than they bargained for in Jim Bowden . . .

TO BE CONTINUED

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