Bye-bye Frank: The Nats Get Serious
In last night's 14-inning thriller at RFK, a team that in theory is just playing out the few remaining games of the season instead did everything a fan could ask for, battling back again and again in a valiant effort to stop the Phillies from squeezing into the playoffs.
The Nationals have been mediocre in drawing fans and darn-near miserable on the field this year, and even amid last night's extra-innings excitement, you could easily see one big reason for the team's overall malaise: The manager is seriously deficient. In the 14th inning, Frank Robinson was reduced to using pitcher Beltran Perez as a pinch-hitter. The box score will reflect that this was a brilliant move, as Perez thrilled what was left of the crowd by slamming a persuasive single to right. But really, there's no way Robinson should have been in a position to have to use a pitcher as a pinch-hitter, even in the 14th inning. Yet this kind of thing happens all the time under Robinson. Last night, the Nats used eight pitchers (the Phils used nine), yet the Nats were stuck using Jason Bergmann for the last four innings, while the Phils were rolling in relatively fresh arms every inning or so. Throughout his time with the team, Robinson has consistently used up pitchers way before their time.
A Sports Illustrated poll of major leaguers last month found Robinson to be the single worst manager in the majors. So it is with great relief that many Nats fans will greet this morning's Barry Svrluga story reporting that Frank is going bye-bye.
Oh, there'll be some whining from nostalgics about what a great guy Robinson is and how he stabilized a sinking franchise and did something with next-to-nothing. And there will be calls for a proper tribute to a great player who broke the race barrier for managers, and that would indeed be the right thing to do. But let's face it: He's not a good manager and never has been. As Barry notes, he has all of five winning seasons in his 15 years of managing. He's a difficult and sometimes nasty guy. Above all, he's just not a very sharp or interesting tactician. He carries grudges against players that seem to have little connection to their talents. His misuse of pitchers is evident in the relative success of so many Nats pitchers once they leave Washington. He has his good side, of course: He is loyal, sometimes to a fault. He seems to be especially effective with some young players who perhaps remind him of his younger self; most recently, Nook Logan seems to fit that mold. Robinson figured out how to handle Jose Guillen and managed to keep the famously volatile player under control for his entire tenure with the Nationals.
But it is indeed time for the Nats to move on, and the apparent decision to jettison Robinson is a good sign that the Lerner family is serious about making real improvements in this team. The off-season will be the true test of the willingness of the Lerners to spend money on talent, but for now, this is as good a signal as we're likely to get that they mean business. The new owners started off with a bang, making significant improvements in RFK and the fan experience during the game. The Presidents Race is an instant winner, something fans and casual visitors love. The food is somewhat better, the offerings more varied. The concession stands are staying open longer, though it's still hard to buy much after the 7th inning. The Nats are finally on Comcast cable, though that happened only in the final weeks of the season, to virtually no effect since the team was already an afterthought in baseball's race to the finish line.
But the stadium project is a mess and the hope that the Lerners' development experience would mean that they would be a creative and energetic partner in creating a new neighborhood around the Southeast ballpark seems to be dashed. The ugly combination of a lame duck mayor, squabbling developers, and an overall lack of leadership has stymied efforts to open the stadium on time with an attractive and early start on the larger development scheme. Instead, in 2008, we're likely to see an orphan ballpark in a sea of surface parking lots and nasty-looking vacant properties. Not good.
The Lerners still have their work cut out for them. They need to keep building the team's minor leagues and collecting prospects, but they also need to find a couple of marquee players to revive fan hopes for at least a .500 season next year--or else attendance is likely to stay depressed. They need to pump up the promotion machine, big time. And they need to land a first-rate manager. The amazing catch would be Joe Girardi, the likely NL Manager of the Year, who is bizarrely caught up in a tiff with the owner of the Florida Marlins. More likely, they might land Tony Pena, a Yankees coach who managed the KC Royals from 2002 to 2005, winning Manager of the Year honors in '03.
This will be a busy off-season for the owners and GM Jim Bowden, and what happens between now and March will very much determine the face and shape of the team that moves into the new stadium in 2008. A new manager, new players, and the Lerners' next big political challenge: creating an effective working relationship with Mayor-to-be Adrian Fenty, who opposed the baseball deal every step of the way. Oy vey.
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