Here in the cold dreariness of early spring we await the joy that is Opening Day. The road ahead is, as always, unclear. What we do know is that warmth is coming, the daily rhythm of the game will be re-established, and that we will ride the arc of the season until autumn. Those things we know. The results of that trip are hidden from us until discovery. The illusion of Opening Day is that the slate is fresh and clean. It is not. Every baseball fan has expectations for their team. Some anticipate the moon and stars. Others expect a bucket of mud.
This Nationals franchise has provided great success…or failure depending on the perspective. For a town without a team for 34 years, the sight of 9 players on the field with a “W” on the jersey was a great thrill. The arrival of Steven Strasburg signified a change in direction upward. The first Division title was sheer joy. By the fourth time it was simply nice. Inexorably fan bases become victims of success.
The cruelest physical formula in the book was originated in the early 19th Century by French engineer Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis: “Work equals force times distance.” We are all products of our various ages and experiences. Somehow during my work career I had no less than a half-dozen experiences that were almost identical. New boss stands at the blank flip chart. After drawing a rock and a stick figure of a person pushing on it a question to the group is posed: “Ok, all you engineers. If you put 100% effort into moving the rock, and it goes nowhere; how much work did you do?” The answer, of course, is zero. “I’m going to ask you how it is going. You’re going to tell me how hard you’re pushing. I don’t give a rat’s (behind) how hard you’re pushing. I just want to know how far you’ve moved the rock.”
The Nationals’ rock has come to grinding and painful halts in the post-season all four times now. It was never about effort. Professional teams in playoff situations give everything they have. The rock stopped cold nonetheless. Backing away from the gory details one starts to see common fault threads mostly run through the manager’s role. The Regular Season is a different animal than the post-season. They cannot be treated the same if the results are to be there. Things change.
This dichotomy of regular season success/ post season misery is not something confined to inside of the Beltway or even sports. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 left the submarine fleet largely unscathed. The “boats” were not very good. The torpedoes were godawful. Yet, there was an even bigger problem: The boat commanders had spent their careers in peace time. They could pass an inspection with flying colors. But, they had no earthly idea how to use their vessels as weapons. Their skill sets were all wrong for the task at hand. The new fleet commander, Admiral Lockwood, purged them all. He went looking for young unknown guys with a penchant for trouble. A bar room fight or two on the record was suddenly a ticket to a boat command. He needed guys that would take chances and stick their nose into situations the peace time guys would flee. The tack worked brilliantly.
Regular season baseball and post-season baseball are different entities. Managing the two disparate seasons requires different skill sets. The Nationals have learned this lesson the hard way. Dusty Baker might be the best Organizational Development manager ever in the history of baseball. He could take old guys on their way out of the game and get more out of them than anyone could anticipate. He could cobble together lineups in the face of numerous injuries and still win. He could coax stardom out of a young player who previously could never show more than flashes of potential. And, he could keep a clubhouse cohesive in a media market based upon sowing discord. But, he couldn’t win in the post-season. He had weapons he never used properly, if at all. The man he replaced could not see past the roles and narrow responsibilities he had placed on players in the regular season. “He’s our Closer,” is shorthand for, “I have no earthly idea how to think ‘outside the box’.”
The refrain from up the Parkway after the playoffs last year was that, “You’d have won if you had Buck Showalter for a manager.” This is risible. Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker are more alike than perhaps any two managers in the game. Both are noted for getting more out of lineups than meets the eye. Buck, however, has the poorer record in the post-season than Dusty. It says in Baseball Reference that he is 9-14 in post-season. He has never won a pennant. If he owns a World Series ring, he bought it in a pawn shop. Buck and Dusty are regular season commanders.
So, who is Dave Martinez? We have no idea. Conventional wisdom says to get the most experienced guy with the highest success rate in the post-season. Unfortunately, Casey Stengel is long gone and Bruce Bochy is still employed elsewhere. It appears that the Nationals’ brass has taken a page from Admiral Lockwood’s strategy book. Put the young unknown guy in the driver’s seat. Let’s see if he will use his weapons at the right time. It’s a crap shoot in some respects. Then again, it always is.
One thing is for certain. There are expectations now. There is also the “Doomsday Clock” running in the background with Bryce’s pending Free Agency. The fan base is like the boss with the flip chart drawing: All they care about is moving the rock into new ground while the opportunity is there.
With that in mind, it’s time to start shoving on that rock.