Friday, October 30, 2009

A Few Minutes With Craig Stammen

After reading "Casey At The Bat" and playing catch with some of the young patients presently residing at The Children's Inn at NIH, Our Washington Nationals John Lannan and Craig Stammen stopped to take questions from a few bloggers attending yesterday's events. This provided an opportunity to have a few moments on the side with Our Number 35 to ponder a few thoughts, especially his off-season rehabilitation of his right throwing elbow. You may recall John Stammen had surgery in September and missed the final few weeks of 2009.

With that, here we go with A Few Minutes With Craig Stammen:

I find it interesting that you and John (Lannan) are both here today together because even though Lannan arrived in The Big Leagues before you, your professional careers have sort of tracked alongside each other. (SBF)

“That’s true. We were drafted one round apart from each other in 2005. We played rookie ball together. We were teammates in Vermont, Savannah and Potomac. He’s a little ahead of me in Major League time and experience, but we are friends. We know we can talk baseball and pitching. And we’ve been hanging out together some since the season ended. He asked me to join him and it was a no brainer to come here and be a part of this today."

Which actually brings me to an interesting point. In the past few years there have not been many players for The Nationals staying in the D.C. area during the off-season. A few more are now. If not for your re-hab from your surgery, would you be staying here too? (SBF)

“Yes. When you go to college and then you get put in the Minor Leagues, you really don’t have a place to call your own. So, when you finally get to the Big Leagues and get a place where you will probably be for a while, it’s good to stick your name out in the community, see what you can do, and give back from this great opportunity we have to play baseball. Why not?”

So, what was it like for you to be in Washington, D.C. for your rookie season? (SBF)

“Truly, it was an exceptional experience. For me, it was a blessing, a dream come true and all those superlative adjectives you can give to it. Right now, it’s all just starting to sink in, that first year in the Big Leagues. But now I need to look forward and get a lot of work done to be able to stick around and help turn this team around into an winner.”

Let’s talk about your rehab? (SBF)

“Everything is on schedule. I am feeling real good. I started throwing this past Monday and I will keep throwing all the way to spring training. Right now, I couldn’t have asked for better help than I have had with Liz Wheeler, who is our physical therapist, Lee Kuntz (Head Trainer) and the doctors. It’s going great.

Do you think you will be able to throw harder? (SBF)

“Maybe. (laughing) Hope so! I had some years of wear and tear built up, now everything is clean and ready to go.”

Can you explain exactly what happened to you and why you needed surgery? (SBF)

“I had a bone spur taken out of my back elbow and a bone chip taken out of the front. What happened throughout the course of the season was that extra bone built up in my elbow where I couldn’t fully extend my elbow any longer. So I was playing with a limited range of motion. I couldn’t fully extend on my pitches. And obviously that was affecting my ability to pitch. It’s just one of those things that happens over a course of time from throwing a baseball. And from playing golf, and throwing footballs from my younger days. It all caught up to me this year, but I had it all taken out and it really feels great.”

So you seem confident that you can come back even stronger? (SBF)

“Yeah, I do. Last year, I can honestly say I wasn't 100% the whole season, compared to what I was in the Minor Leagues in AAA and AA the year before. I am looking forward to this new season to see what happens and see how I feel.”

Mike Rizzo (General Manager) had stated that if the season had more time to go than just September when you were diagnosed—you could have come back quickly—is that correct? (SBF)

“Oh yeah. They (The Nationals) took it slower than what I needed because the season was going to be over. But if we had more than six weeks, I would say there would have been enough recovery time.”

You just mentioned that you are looking forward to the new season. Competition for rotation spots in 2010 is going to be tougher than last year? (SBF)

“Competition is always good.”

It’s makes everybody better. (SBF)

“That’s what people say and I believe that is true too. That’s why I can’t wait for Spring Training. There is a challenge to be met and I expect to meet that challenge. I am going to be healthy and I am going to be ready to go.”

Last question: watching The World Series from Yankee Stadium, did that bring back to your mind your first Major League victory in June? (SBF)

(Smiling Broadly) “Yeah, it did. Yeah, it did. I kept getting reminded from people back home about that fact. As you know, up until that game no one had played any game in that new stadium without giving up a home run. It’s something I can be proud of and look back on. No doubt, it’s something I will never forget.”

With that final answer Craig Stammen and John Lannan headed off to the Hospital at NIH to meet and greet sick children attending a special Halloween Party.

Photo Copyright--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Children's Inn at NIH

“The children who come here have exhausted all their other options," stated Meredith Daly, Media Relations Coordinator from The Children's Inn at NIH. "This is their last chance. Pediatric Cancer is 87% curable. We get the other 13%. So, the likelihood is that we will lose a lot of these kids."

"And while those kids are getting treatment here by the good doctors at NIH, The Children’s Inn tends to their heart and soul," said Cyrus Zolghadri, the President of The Formula Sports & Entertainment Group. "This place let’s them stay at peace with their families.”

Since 1990, over 10,000 seriously ill children and over 40,000 families have visited The Children's Inn at NIH. Started 19 years ago to provide a support unit for kids from throughout the world--who need the premier medical services only The National Institutes of Health can offer--The Children's Inn's 59 rooms are the temporary homes for those children sick from, not only cancer, but heart, lung, blood, bone and growth disorders, mental illnesses, and HIV infection.

It's a daunting task to care for these ill youngsters, while still helping them and their families keep their piece of mind and semblance of life. Raising the spirits of these sick children is an everyday battle, and that is where a recently developed program involving Sports Ambassadors begins at the Bethesda campus. The Ambassadors lend their names and likenesses to The Children's Inn to help raise money and build support groups for the many young patients that come from all our 50 states and 74 foreign countries.

For the past two years, The Children's Inn at NIH has worked with all seven Professional Sports Teams in the Washington, D.C. area. The Washington Redskins, The Washington Capitals, The Washington Wizards, The Washington Mystics, The Washington Freedom, D.C. United and now Our Washington Nationals. One-time Redskin Mark Brunell was the very first Sports Ambassador at NIH. Our Washington Nationals John Lannan, the latest.

“I have been trying to come out here the whole year and it is just great that I was in the area and able to set up this visit and see the kids," said John Lannan. "I’ve really wanted to do this all year. It’s great that they came to the games and I just want to show them I appreciate them coming out and supporting us (The Washington Nationals). So, I am here supporting them.”

“We were looking for a Nationals representative to join the rest of our athletes and we thought they would be a sports property that wanted to be involved," recalled Sara Stesis, Marketing and Project Coordinator." I called The Nationals and since John also has a program that he was attempting to do on his own (Lannan’s Cannons), we kind of fused the two together."

Since the launching of his "Lannan's Cannon's" program this past summer, John has dedicated some of his free time and his own money to the kids and family members at the NIH Campus. Over the last few weeks of the just completed 2009 Baseball Season, Lannan hosted sick children from The Children's Inn and their families during Sunday Home Games. Providing food vouchers and game tickets, John wanted to furnish an escape from the daily regimen of treatments and, hopefully, put some fun back into these youngsters lives.

“John has been so generous and he’s not even seen The Inn (until this day), proclaimed Ms. Daly. "This will be his very first visit. He really wants to see what can happen here. He has gone over and above what we originally planned. He contacted us and wanted to set up his visit. We usually get in touch with the team and they set up the schedule. But in this case, HE WANTED TO COME RIGHT AWAY, and was asking when we could accommodate him."

Arriving around 4:30PM this afternoon with teammate Craig Stammen alongside, John presented to The Children's Inn at NIH a check for $7,500. The Inn the beneficiary of Lannan's Nomination for the Roberto Clemente Award in 2009 for community service. Then, John and Craig sat down with those children able to come greet them. Whereupon Lannan read to the kids the famous baseball story by Ernest Thayer--"Casey At The Bat".

After reading "Casey At The Bat", John and Craig led the entire group outside to the Sports Court at The Children's Inn, where the kids and Nationals Players played catch for a good 20 minutes. Then, everyone was invited back inside where My Best Friend!! Screech!! was in the house to hand out "Build-A-Bear" Screech Dolls and a Baseball Card Team Set of Our Washington Nationals. Lannan and Stammen signed autographs and took pictures with kids and family members alike.

John Lannan: “They seem pretty excited and I am very excited to see them too. I am glad we got to come out here and play a little bit. I am staying around here, so I can get out into the community, talk to kids and make people aware that we are here. Baseball has been gone in the D.C. area for some time, so I want to get out and make people aware that we are here and we (The Nationals) support our community."

Meredith Daly: "Yet not only did John want to come to the Inn, but he called back and asked if he could go to the hospital as well for the kids that can’t make it to the reading. All the families that stay here are outpatients. They are well enough to be staying here. Unfortunately, there are many more in-patients that can’t be here. He (John Lannan) wanted to make it up there (to the hospital) which is special. We have had Ambassadors for two years now and we have never had an Ambassador who has taken it to this level. He has gone so far above and beyond.”

Without hesitation, John Lannan and Craig Stammen walked over to the main hospital at NIH to visit sick children enjoying a special halloween party (pictures were not allowed here). But what John and Craig did provide was an ample amount of fun and joy.

Sara Stesis:“It’s all for a good cause, it takes the athletes just 30 seconds to fall in love with this place. They want to be involved and they want to help in any way they can. It’s not a hard sell. And when the athletes do come, I think they feel more for the kids than even the kids may feel.”

John Lannan agrees: This keeps you humbled and it keeps you grounded. I feel really grateful for being in the place I am at. And I am even more grateful that I can give back. They are sick and I am glad I can be here and have some fun with them—make their day a little happier.”

The role of the Sports Ambassador is to lift the spirits of the children, while not focusing on the illness. Happiness, which both Craig Stammen and John Lannan have both taken to heart. “It’s not like this is punishment," believes Craig. "We like doing these things. This is good. It is fun to see their smiling faces.”

Joy which Ambassador Lannan also sees: "Any time you are named an Ambassador, that is just an honor. I want to hold up that title of Ambassador and try to do my best to help these kids out.....we have to show (our) new guys that are coming up (to Washington's Team) that it’s not a pain to do these things. It’s actually fun. You get the chance to meet young kids and you get the chance to meet families in different areas and all walks of life. So, it’s really cool."

Yeah, today's visit by John Lannan, Craig Stammen and Screech to The Children's Inn at NIH was not only cool, but special, because this appearance occurred well AFTER the 2009 Major League Season had been completed by Our Washington Nationals. Lannan and Stammen did not HAVE TO BE THERE. They both could have been home relaxing. Instead, John and Craig wished to be different makers, even if only for one day, in the lives of these young children suffering through some of the worst health issues imaginable.

All Photos Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Z-Man, Hondo, Frank Robby, Killer & Kitty

Five Major League Baseball Greats--all with ties to Washington, D.C.--will be among the guests this weekend in Chantilly, Virginia at the Collectors Showcase Of America Event at The Dulles Expo Center. Ryan Zimmerman, Frank Howard, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew & Jim Kaat will be on hand to sign autographs (for various fees) along with a stellar group of Sports Figures from Hockey, Football and Boxing.

Lou Brock, Gaylord Perry, Carlton Fisk, Ozzie Smith, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins, Charley Taylor, Len Dawson, Bert Jones, Alex Ovechkin, Gordie Howe, Joe Theismann--on and on this impressive list grows. The Football and Hockey Players appearing on Saturday, October 31st. The Baseball Players on Sunday, November 1st. Check the complete schedule for times. Over 300 Dealer Tables selling sports memorabilia and collectibles.

Complete details here. Depending on who you might be interested in obtaining autographs from--you will have to plan your visit accordingly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

One Person Can Make A Difference

One person can make a difference.

That's the belief of The Jefferson Awards For Public Service. Since 1972, what began as the "Nobel Prize" for civic duty has transformed into a "Call For Action" for volunteers. In an era where individual accomplishments many times overshadow community needs, those involved with The Jefferson Awards believe Americans still have that heart and passion to work with others less fortunate--to better the society in which we all live.

Co-founded by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, The Jefferson Awards have transformed over the past 37 years and currently presents national and local awards to Elected or Appointed Officials; Private Citizens; those benefitting the disadvantaged; those providing public service under 35 years of age; and to those for benefitting local communities. Past winners have included Melinda and Bill Gates, Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Newman, General Colin Powell and President Jimmy Carter.

Select company all.

And now Our Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman has been nominated for The All Stars Helping Kids Award to join that elite group--the latest Jefferson Award for Public Service honoring athletes for volunteerism in their communities. Founded by former San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott--the NFL Hall Of Famer always has believed "I didn't want to walk away from my life feeling that I didn't do enough." His All Stars Helping Kids Foundation is the national recognition program helping to inspire and shape values in youths while honoring athletes for being role models.

"We were absolutely thrilled to hear about The Jefferson Award," proclaimed Cheryl Zimmerman, Ryan's Mother. "Even Ryan did not know about the nomination, but he was very pleased that someone has noticed his effort."

Our Number 11 was nominated along with 51 other athletes who have given back to their communities. The Z-Man honored for his work with his ziMS Foundation, The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, The American Red Cross and The Professional Baseball Trainers Society.

Cheryl Zimmerman: "We've only been around for a few years, but knowing others are paying attention and recognizing what Ryan is trying to do--well--that's something we really, really appreciate.

You too can participate, by voting online or texting STAR49 to 55333. Voting ends November 15th.

10 Athletes will win spots on the "Dream Team Of Public Service" at the December 8th Sports, Business & Philanthropy Luncheon in New York City. Then, those "Dream Team" Members will be invited to Washington, DC in June, 2010 for The Jefferson Awards For Public Service. Two of whom will be presented The National Awards for "Outstanding Athlete In Service" and for "Outstanding Athlete As A Newcomer To Service".

Worth repeating yet again, Major League Baseball in The Nation's Capital, Our Washington Nationals and The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation all provide more to our community than just the baseball played on the diamond. And Ryan Zimmerman has perfectly proven that point.

Yes, one person can make a difference. Please Vote for Ryan Zimmerman. Let HIM know, you not only care, but you can make a difference too.

PS--Also, it is still not too late to purchase a ticket to The 4th ziMS Foundation Gala in Virginia Beach on November 6th. The November 7th Golf Tournament is sold out, but some $95 Gala Tickets are still available. All the details here.

Zimmerman Family Photo--copyright Nats320--All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Good For You Manny

While driving around running errands this afternoon, WTOP announces at 3:15PM that Manny Acta had been named the new Manager of The Cleveland Indians. I shouted out the loudest "YEEEES!!" in some time. This guy stopped next to me at the red light looked over. He happened to be wearing a Red Curly "W" Cap too. This driver says: "What are you so happy about?"

"Manny Acta was just named Manager of The Cleveland Indians," I replied.

"Really? Well good for him," this guys stated back. "It wasn't his fault here in Washington."

And it wasn't.

You can dicker over Manny's managerial decisions with his personnel (we've done it here many times--especially over his fascination with Alex Cintron), but "The Most Charismatic Of Men" wasn't responsible for the roster given to him by Former General Manager Jim Bowden. Problems which are currently being worked out by New General Manager--Mike Rizzo.

The African Queen was so happy when I called to inform her of Manny's new found fortune--she screamed too. We love that man. We really do. He's one of the nicest people we've ever met in our lives. Hands down, not many come close when it comes to being as genuine as Mr. Acta. Manny Acta deserved another chance and we are thrilled The Cleveland Indians have made him their new field boss for the next three years (with an option for 2013).

Good for The Tribe to see past player personnel issues in Washington that ended up costing Our Former Manager his job. And Good for Manny for again keeping positive, pushing forward and landing his second job as a Major League Manager. One of just 30 such positions in The Big Leagues.

Too bad The Indians don't conduct spring training in Florida anymore, because Sohna and I would have travelled to see him in February or March. Unfortunately, Cleveland moved their spring headquarters to Arizona a few years back. Of course, if Manny had taken The Houston Astros' job--apparently also offered to him--we would only have had to travel less than an hour from Viera to visit him in Kissimmee--The Astros spring base.

But you can bet while every single Media person in Washington, D.C. is circling their calendars for the weekend of June 11, 12 & 13, 2010 when Our Washington Nationals play a three game set at Progressive Field in Cleveland--Sohna and I are looking forward to the weekend of May 14, 15 & 16, 2010. That's when The Cleveland Indians play at Camden Yards against The Baltimore Orioles. With D.C.'s Team in Denver that weekend--The African Queen and I will travel one hour north from our home in Alexandria, Virginia for the series--just to see Manny Acta--"The Most Charismatic of Men" in person and say hello.

We can't wait to see him. And his wonderful smile again.

Good For You Manny!!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood--The Final Chapter

Whether this particular player is available and willing to play for Our Washington Nationals in 2010, Phil Wood believes this sure fire Hall Of Famer would be an asset to D.C. Baseball--whether he's near the very end of his stellar career or not. As we conclude Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood, the Washington Baseball Historian and MASN Broadcaster and I pick up our conversation talking about John Smoltz and a few other moves Phil believes Washington needs to seriously look into this off-season. Then, like chats always do--we get off on a tangent and Phil made some points about media coverage and the response that receives among fans in the greater Washington area.

With that here is Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood--The Final Chapter

So how creative does Mike Rizzo have to be if Washington isn’t going to be spending a ton of money on free agency? (SBF)

“That’s what 2nd Division Club need to do—be creative. The number of free agent pitchers out there will be about 20—who are veterans with some degree of success. Well, you are going to have to overpay for some to come in—whether it is John Lackey or whomever else. I did a piece the other day after watching John Smoltz pitch for The Cardinals in the National League Division Series. And after talking to John a handful of times over the years, he is really, really smart. He is really a smart guy. There is no question in my mind that if you brought him in (to Washington) as your 6th starter—almost as a swing man—just for the impact he could have, even on the local media—would be tremendous. He gets it. He really gets it. He gets (pitching) almost as if he wrote it. They (Washington) talked to him last year but he wanted to go to a contender. And obviously, if The Cardinals want him back—it’s a moot point. But of all the guys out there—just in terms of what they bring to the table intellectually—he is number one. And he is 43 and I am aware of that.”

You read a lot online where people say The Nationals should have signed Randy Wolfe. The Nationals should have signed Orlando Hudson. Whether Washington offered them a contract or not—I wonder whether they WOULD have come here in the first place—not being a contender? (SBF)

“I think Hudson would have come here. The Nationals had him take a physical. (Hudson says that didn’t happen—SBF). Well the thing is that he didn’t take a physical with The Nationals. They got the results of another physical. That’s the difference and there was something in that report they didn’t like. But the point is that Hudson is available again. Isn’t it interesting that Ronnie Belliard goes out there (to Los Angeles) and takes his job away? But to be clear, if Guzman is going to play 2nd Base, I don’t think you bother with Hudson. I think he is going to be pricey and other clubs are going to be interested in him.”

Catching wise—if Jesus Flores is not healthy. Is there really anyone out there that Mike Rizzo can go after? (SBF)

“The only way you are going to find someone is in a trade. I don’t think you are going to find anyone that is going to be a free agent that is worthy of spending the money on. There is always the feeling that you can find a backup catcher and that some team might throw you one in a deal. No one really comes to mind and there are certain guys that I like, but they are all right-handed hitters. And I want to see a left-handed hitting catcher here.”

Is Brian Schneider in your mix? (SBF)

“It’s been a limited sample watching him (of late), so I don’t have any real feeling about him.”

Up the middle, if Washington is unsure about Ian Desmond. If J.J. Hardy is not available in trade, what should they do? (SBF)

“Unless you can actually get a guy that has actually done the job (play shortstop) in the Major Leagues for a couple of seasons—and since you are coming off 103 loss—let’s see if Desmond can do it. You are not looking to contend. You’ve seen he can swing the bat. Offensively, a scout I was with yesterday said: ‘that kid can hit. You have to respect the way he plays. He puts the ball in play.’ That home run he hit into the Red Porch Seats (in his first MLB Game) was a bomb. He’s got some power. It’s really a matter of sitting down with your people and saying: ‘Do we give him the job with no real resume?’ And if push comes to shove—we will move Guzman back and get by for the rest of the season.”

“It’s one of those things where in some point in time you are going to have to find out whether he can play. And you can’t just say this is what he did in September and go yeah or nay on that. Look, they have the luxury of coming off 103 losses. If you were coming off of 75 losses, it would be a different story.”

Winter Meetings are coming, is Washington opportunistic shoppers or players? (SBF)

“When we see who gets non-tendered (right before the Winter Meetings) and who gets dropped off the Major League Roster and who is going to be available as a Rule V guy—that’s when you can figure out if The Winter Meeting offers opportunity. The past two years, most of the trades that have been made are completed after the Winter Meetings. You troll out there at the Winter Meetings, see what you snag and, hopefully, in the next 30-days before spring training starts, get a match-up on some package of players or individual player—whatever.”

And it's at this point in our conversation where Phil and I got off on that tangent discussing coverage of Our Washington Nationals and their Fan Base.

Where do you think this franchise stands right now? (SBF)

“Understand, there are only 30 teams in baseball and only eight of them get to the post-season. Some teams start from scratch. That is exactly what The Nationals did when the club moved here. In ’05, I thought they played over their heads. The fact they were 51-31 at the halfway point was amazing. I give a lot of that credit to Frank Robinson. And I give a lot of credit to the fans who showed up in huge numbers that year. But I don’t think anyone really paying attention right now can honestly say: ‘Oh, there is no hope.’

Now there is a guy that writes for, not in Washington and it’s not Bill Ladson. It’s another guy. But let me say this, has some terrific baseball writers and they have some awful ones too. And this is one of the awful ones. At one point he was sitting next to me at a game and he said: ‘Nationals are the worst team I have EVER seen!’ And I said: ‘You haven’t seen many teams then I guess.’ Now this conversation was during the first half of the season. ‘Well, they are just awful.’ (the reporter) So I ask this guy how many times he has seen The Nationals? ‘This is the 3rd time I have seen them.’ Well, you know, that is kind of a small sample size. So I said to him: ‘you know, your team is not much better.’ He responds: ‘they are going to end up well ahead of The Nationals.’ They did, but not by much. And there certainly was a point after that eight game winning streak where The Nationals were a threat to pass them.”

(Shaking his head back and forth) “If you are an intelligent baseball fan and you are not just a fantasy guy. If you look at the game and read all you can read about it and you talk to a lot of people inside the game that say quasi-complimentary things about The Nationals--or raving about some prospects they have, or raving about Rizzo. Anyone who spends time with Mark Lerner (Nationals Principal Owner) would not have that impression. But this is the issue, the casual fan will sit back and throw out so and so has lost the clubhouse. Or, there is a culture of losing that has to end. It isn’t like that at all (in Washington). That’s not to say there have been clubs that weren’t like that. But it’s not with this club and with these people in charge of it. The perception is wrong.”

“People who complain about The Nationals, I always bring up The Mets. In their first five years (after expansion in 1962), they averaged 108 losses per year. Of course, in their 7th season they were World Champion. This game has such a degree of difficulty that transcends every other team sport—even though on the surface it all seems so simple. There used to be a sportscaster in Baltimore that used to say it’s a simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball and you hit the ball. Well, if it was that simple, we all would be doing it. This is a remarkably difficult sport and to put the pieces together to get you to a championship is not easy. Even if you’ve got $200 Million dollars to spend like The Yankees do every year, or even $100 Million—it does not guarantee that you are going to win. It comes to showing patience. And as a fan, if in the back of your mind you say when they start to win—I will buy a ticket—well what kind of a fan are you? Let’s not define what a frontrunner is.”

“I am old. I grew up with a bad baseball team (The Senators) and a bad football team (The Redskins), but it didn’t make me any less of a fan. Now, certainly there have been disappointing losses. But I don’t think I have ever gone to the ballpark where I thought: ‘now that was a waste of time.’ I find the game today remarkably entertaining night after night after night.”

“But my point here (in a roundabout way) is that if you are going to cover baseball and do it competently, I think you have to immerse yourself into the game. And if you don’t have any passion for it, then why are you doing it? Do something else. When I see young broadcasters and young prospective baseball writers and they go and sit with each other (it bothers me). It’s just the idea that they are just not interested (in the sport). It’s like: ‘I know the object of the game. I think I know what I am doing here, but don’t get me bothered about other stuff, that might make me change my mind about it.' (better understanding the nuances of the game). The stuff I knew about baseball 25 years ago--I don’t think about anymore. The stuff I thought I knew? I was blind back then and I watch the game much differently now.”

“And while I would never be competent enough—no way, in no way—to be a scout, I have a perspective from those guys that I know what they are talking about now (because Phil keeps in touch with them). I am seeing the things they are seeing before they have to tell me. It always amazes me that there are writers that don’t want to embrace the game more than what they think (wrongly) is all there is.”

“It’s easy for me to be upbeat about The Nationals because I went through The Senators experience when there was no hope. The fact that this year’s club did not lose 107 games means the ’63 Senators were still the worst team of my lifetime (56-106). And you could look at that club in 1963 and look at The Senators Farm System then and know there was no hope back then. There was no hope. They did not grow their own particularly well. They spent no money on scouting to speak of. They scouted amateur players out of college yearbooks, I think (only half joking). That is not something they handled well back then. They made the big trade with The Dodgers (for Frank Howard). Without that trade, that club would have never finished over .500. Without Ted Williams they would have never finished above .500. That was a franchise owner’s owned just to say they fielded a club. That was the Expansion Senators. That was hopeless baseball."

“Here, now, you see what is going on. You see what is going on in the Farm System. You see what money is being spent on player development. And you can see a light down there. It’s not a mile away. It may be 10 miles away—if a mile is six months—it’s going to take a few more years. But having been through the experience with The Senators, this is nothing like that. This is nothing like that. So, if you just want to look at wins and losses—that’s fine if you are happy doing that. If you really like the game, look beyond that and realize what else is going on. See what is going on in other markets like in Pittsburgh or Kansas City? The Pirates have had 17 straight years under .500. But over that same 17-year span The Royals have lost more games.”

Stan Kasten always has stated again and again: “We will get the attendance we deserve.” (SBF)

“He is right.”

But has some of the bitterness from the media and the fans affected what the team has tried to accomplish? (SBF)

“It probably has, but this year I think the economy had a lot to do with it. An out of town writer recently wrote about The Nationals ‘dwindling’ attendance. ‘Dwindling’ to me would indicate you were rock-bottom and you weren’t drawing flies. Well, The Nationals outdrew six other clubs with that many losses and that horrible first half. My challenge to those people who write that stuff and post that stuff online is go to a game—walk up and down the aisles—and tell those people they are not having a good time. Tell them how stupid they are? They shouldn’t be there because they can’t possibly be having a good time watching a losing team? This year you had 10 times where Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn homered in the same game. My daughter and her friend loved that and I am sure many other fans did as well.”

"In terms of bang for the bucks—baseball is still the most affordable. Both my girls love the $5 seats. They love that section. They love the view of The Capitol and the view of the scoreboard. And I understand there is a lot of deals this coming season for Season Ticket Holders (Red Carpet Benefits). That’s great—that’s responding to the market. That’s saying: ‘we know the last couple of years have not been what you wanted to see. We are a work in progress and we appreciate your support.' Those things are wonderful.”

How about with The Nationals? (SBF)

“Do I think The Nationals could do more? I've spoken with several club employees who feel the same way. I think there are still too many people who don’t embrace the sport as much as they embrace their job. And those people need to have the riot act read to them or find something else to do. If you don’t love the sport? If you don’t embrace the sport? Then how can you do the best possible job?

Does the negativity hurt the chances for players to come here? Or, are we past that? (SBF)

“I think we are past that. Zimmerman has made a good case for himself in baseball. He knows everyone now in the game. Adam Dunn too. In fact, George Sherill (one time Oriole, now Dodger) told me when the Dodgers were in town—that Ronnie Belliard told a lot of people what a good time he had playing here. What a great town it was and there was a lot to do. So, when you have a lot of players who have been here and gone elsewhere and say: ‘it was terrific!’ that goes much further than some disgruntled fan on an internet bulletin board. The people who play the game that have to come here to live—you are hard pressed to find any player that will say anything bad about their experience. They might say something bad about Jim Bowden, but not about the market.”

With that final answer--Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood concluded. Phil will be heading to Indianapolis this December to cover the 2009 Winter Meetings. As we were leaving the restaurant in Arlington, Virginia this past week--he shared this funny story about running into another Hall Of Famer at The Winter Meetings--23 years ago.

“At the Winter Meetings in Hollywood, Florida in December of ’86, I am walking down a hallway that meets another hallway (running in a different direction). And as I get down to the intersection, I walk right into Ted Williams. We bump together. We each take a few steps back. I was like: ‘hi, hi, hi, hi, hi…..!’. (not knowing what to say)."

"As for Ted Williams-- he just kept going."

PS--Phil is also of the belief that Washington should sport a pinstripe uniform—whether it be with red trim or blue trim—without the gold. And he agrees with me that the Away Uniform needs to sport a Red Curly “W” on the blue cap to match the Red Curly “W” on the script uniform front.

PPS--And Phil also believes Major League Baseball should return to The Balanced Schedule:

“This year if the playoffs meant the top four teams with the best records would go, then no team from the AL Central would have made it at all. So, it’s going to be frustrating because The Yankees & Red Sox situation is not likely to change. They are always going to have more money to spend. And they will spend it. I think if you cut down on the number of games the other clubs in the American League East have to play against The Yankees and Red Sox and you spread the wealth a little bit—if you are a team in the central or west and you know the Yankees are going to be better than you when they come to your town—they are going to sell more tickets. So, it almost becomes a financial incentive. And I am also of the belief that as long as baseball is committed to inter-league play, they should have never had a 14 team league and a 16 team league. They should have had two 15 team leagues and played inter-league series everyday. I also think they should try to compress the schedule a little bit. You can still play 162 games, but schedule a few day/night doubleheaders because you need to avoid playing baseball in November. And what is going to happen in a few years if Colorado and Minnesota make it to The World Series? It’s going to be brutal.”

“If baseball is not going to realign, then one very small step would be going back to a balanced schedule. People will then complain that teams will end up playing more games with teams outside your division—well that is the way it goes. They (MLB) did it that way for years and nobody died.”

Many thanks to Phil Wood for again getting together and chatting about Our Washington Nationals.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood--Part Two

Washington Baseball Historian and MASN Broadcaster Phil Wood spent the the first part of our lunch time chat discussing philosophy. What Our Washington Nationals are attempting to accomplish with personnel since Mike Rizzo was named permanent General Manager. And when we concluded yesterday's Part One--Phil was beginning to touch on Mr. Rizzo's recent front office hires. So that's where we pick up today followed by an in-depth look at what Washington currently has and should keep on their 2010 Major League Roster.

With that, here we go with Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood, Part Two.

What do you know about these recent Front Office hires—Roy Clark, Johnny DiPuglia and Doug Harris? (SBF)

“Harris I had heard of because he had scouted with The Rangers for years and was just with Cleveland last season. He’s a veteran, but the scouts I have talked to with other clubs say Roy Clark is as sharp as a tack. I don’t know what they (The Nationals) are paying him, but the point was made that to get a guy like Roy Clark to leave where he was (Atlanta) to come to Washington—they probably paid pretty well for the privilege. The guy from The Red Sox—DiPuglia—he’s had great success scouting Latin American countries for The Red Sox. The Nationals needed a greater presence there after the whole “Smiley” Gonzalez debacle and Jose Rijo. They’ve hired some really good people. Certainly, Rizzo has been around long enough that he knows where all the good people are.”

These hires are all Rizzo? This has his mark all over it? (SBF)

“Absolutely. When Rizzo was hired in 2006 (VP and Assistant General Manager) right after the club was awarded to the Lerner’s, Riz was one of the first hires. A friend of mine—a long time National League Scout—told me Kasten brought Rizzo in to be the next GM. And I think the expectations throughout baseball was that Rizzo would be the GM between six months to a year—because it was well known that Stan Kasten was not a fan of Jim Bowden. But Bowden had ingratiated himself to ownership and was basically able to keep his job. Of course Stan had to say nice things about Jim, which I am sure, wasn’t easy at times. But people knew that Bowden would eventually implode and it happened. And Rizzo was there to pick up the pieces.”

“You look at the job he did once that transition took place—it was remarkable. Rizzo did a remarkable job. All of these others saying it’s going to be Jerry Dipoto (Arizona Scouting Director). Jerry Dipoto? Jerry Dipoto has been an executive for a while, but he’s never been a GM. It was well known he wanted to be a GM. The idea that The Nationals would let Rizzo go through what he went through, then go through the Strasburg deal, sign Strasburg on Friday and Monday Mike cleans out his desk—that didn’t make any sense!!”

We didn’t believe it. (SBF)

“All along, I never bought into the whole thing either about Dipoto or any other guy coming in to supplant Rizzo. And in the end, I think Kasten accomplished what he set out to do once he first hired Mike. It took a while longer than expected, but I don’t think they would have made Mike go through that dance if there wasn’t going to be some Hot Fudge Sundae on the other end.”

All the rumors really just made no sense. (SBF)

“Mike is a guy who I believe has the ‘make-up’ of a (John) Schuerholz (long time Atlanta GM, now Braves President) in a sense he is not prone to panic modes. He is very deliberate about things and I think there is a payoff there. Mike's dad was a scout. Mike played minor league baseball (in The Angels system) and recognized he didn’t have the wherewithal to play in the Major Leagues and got into the backroom part of baseball. From the very first time I met him when he first got his first job in Washington, he was impressive. Mike knows every scout in baseball—for every team. He knows EVERYBODY!! And I have yet to find anybody to say: ‘you know, he is weak in this area. Or he is good at this, but not at that.’ Everybody thinks the world of him. And because so many people in the game want to see him succeed, there is something very positive about Mike Rizzo as GM. Again, Rizzo as GM. Riggleman as Manager—that works for me.”

Are you surprised Bob Boone has made his way through this changeover and will continue in his role (as Assistant GM—VP of Player Development)? (SBF)

“If you had asked me that six weeks ago, I would have said—yes. But now finding out that once Bowden left and whether it was a sit-down with Rizzo or maybe well before that—Bob wanted to make sure that people knew that while, yes, he had known Bowden in Cincinnati and yes—he had been hired by Jim for The Nationals--that in general he did not consider himself a Bowden Guy. Because he had been around the game for so long, as a player, coach and manager, he felt like he pre-dated Bowden. Certainly, he gave advice to Bowden, but Bowden didn’t always take it. So I think he successfully convinced everyone: ‘I worked for him but I am not his boy.’ Since then, there are scouts who were saying earlier to me that Bob will probably be gone once the season is over. Well, you know what—they are saying now they think Bob and Mike have found a real connection. Whether it’s in terms of special assignments or whatever, I think Bob Boone figures to be around for a while unless somebody else offers him a job.”

I have always thought Dana Brown to be an unsung hero of sorts. Are you surprised to see him go to Toronto as Special Assistant to The New GM? (SBF)

“They (The Nationals) probably thought Dana would be around for a while, but being an assistant GM is a little bit better. Apparently he and Alex Anthopoulos have a history together which I wasn’t aware of. Any time you get a chance—especially at Dana’s age—to move up even if it’s just a tiny move up—you have to do it. Although let’s be honest, The Toronto Blue Jays are not likely to win the American League East any time soon. They can be competitive, but that’s about it right now.”

So we are now in the off-season, Rizzo is truly in control. What does he need to do? (SBF)

“There are a couple of determinations that need to be made. First of all you have to see if Jesus Flores will be able to play 130 games? And if he is not, you have to do something about that. You have to get another catcher. I don’t think you want to go into a season with (Josh) Bard & (Wil) Nieves as your two catchers. Now, I will say this. If you add up their numbers they did OK. Neither one of them is much of a threat at the plate. Nieves not much more than a threat to hit a single to right field. Bard is a switch hitter and he has some power, but he’s not a very good receiver. He’s adequate. Derek Norris is a couple of years away, but Norris may end up as an infielder when he gets to the Major Leagues. If you decide that Flores isn’t going to be an everyday guy, then you maybe look for a left-handed hitter who is a good receiver. A veteran, a young veteran in their late 20’s, early 30’s because catching is such a critical spot. Again, if Flores is healthy, I think you have to give him another shot and you go into it (Spring Training) assuming he is not going to get hurt again.”

“You are set at third base (Ryan Zimmerman). At first base, I think you are set (with Adam Dunn). The point is that Adam only has a year to go on his deal. I think if they could go back in time, they (Washington) would have signed him for more than two seasons. But if you talk to Adam, Adam is not unhappy. He is not unhappy in Washington. He and Ryan Zimmerman have become very, very tight. And I think he would be open to an extension. But obviously, if Albert Pujols becomes a free agent and declares that he wants to play close to The White House (joking), all bets are off at that point. But seriously, look; Dunn did what they got him here to do. He produced a lot of offense. He had a higher batting average than he ordinarily does. He walked a lot and was a great guy in the clubhouse.”

“The trade last year with The Marlins. If they (Washington) had gone into the season with (Josh) Willingham playing every day then I have no doubt Willingham would have hit 30 homers. And again, there is another guy with great make-up and he is a couple of years away from walking away as a free agent. Those fans that have been posting on these online bulletin boards: ‘oh, they have to trade Willingham. They have to trade Dunn.’ Well, why? Why do they have to trade them? Willingham is just 30 years of age. He is a dangerous hitter. And frequently, he was a dangerous fielder (chuckling). He had some adventures out in leftfield I didn’t expect. But as I look now at guys on other teams having the same issue, there had to be something going on with the lights or something (at Nationals Park). Be that as it may, Willingham can play. Nyjer Morgan can clearly play. And if they had a vote for Most Valuable Player this year, I would vote for him (Morgan). He made all the difference in the world.”

Was Nyjer playing over his head? (SBF)

“No, I don’t think so. I think this was the first place he played where he wasn’t labeled—as he was in Pittsburgh—as just a speedy guy who can play the outfield—not a guy who can put the club on his back and be an offensive catalyst. That is exactly what Rizzo saw in him and clearly that is what he became. He embraced that role. He had a couple of adventures on the bases, but they were errors of aggression and I don’t have a problem with that. But when Nyjer went down—Willie Harris we all like—but he wasn’t Nyjer. He (Harris) wasn’t going to make the same things happen. And then (Elijah) Dukes in rightfield. I like Elijah Dukes a lot and I think he is a better hitter than he was. He still has the occasional adventure in rightfield. He’s that toolsy guy who doesn’t have all the greatest instincts in the world. But, he’s shown a great willingness to work on it.”

Were you surprised to see Dukes recalled in August? (SBF)

“No, actually I was not.”

I thought there was a possibility we might never see him again. (SBF)

“There was danger of that happening because when he went down (to Syracuse), he was completely out of whack at the plate. And I think there was a fear he would sour on being sent to the minor leagues and just shutdown. That didn’t happen. He hit the ball very, very well at Syracuse and he showed a maturity I don’t think they (Washington) were expecting.”

“Up the middle can (Cristian) Guzman play second base? I am sure he can. He did not play it last year out of any conceit or anything. He just had never played 2nd Base and his point was: ‘you are not going to make a veteran play a position he has never played before’ at the risk of embarrassing himself this late in the season when The Nationals are hopelessly out of the race. He stayed at shortstop and kind of got banged up and was basically a pinch hitter the final weeks of the season. But he’s got a year to go on his contract. He showed a little bit more patience at the plate. When he walked twice in one game I nearly keeled over! (Laughing) However you want to slice it, he is another one of those guys, another one of those middle infielders who if they can reach it, they are going to swing at it. Obviously, he didn’t hit .300 this year, but he came close. He was well over .300 for a period of time. He had that foot problem and any number of things that probably impacted his swing—but with a year to go (on his contract)—I don’t think they want to pay him to go away. I think Guzman is still capable of being a productive player at second base.”

But you feel he will move to 2nd base? (SBF)

“Oh, he will move to 2nd base. There will be no issues with that. It just came down to…..”

Timing. (SBF)

‘Yes, timing. Perhaps if he (Guzman) had been 100% at that point in time, he might have moved then. His biggest fault, from my perspective is, if he was a victim of a drive-by shooting on the way to the park--he wouldn’t tell anyone about it (chuckling). He would wrap an ace bandage around it, put a uniform on it and hope no one notices he’s bleeding. (Laughing)

He never says anything about any injury. (SBF)

“He just wants to play so badly—and you have to respect him for that. This has already happened a couple of times since he got here. He’s gotten hurt and he tries to compensate for it and do anything to stay in the lineup. There are a lot of other players out there who would milk it (injuries), but he (Guzman) is not one of those guys.”

Then what about shortstop? (SBF)

“Can Desmond play shortstop everyday in the Major Leagues? I don’t know the answer to that. Some scouts have said he is one of those guys that will be a better fielder in the Major Leagues than the Minor Leagues. Well, I guess, we will have to wait and see. But, on the other hand, if they had an opportunity to pick up a J.J. Hardy (Milwaukee Shortstop), I think you would have to go with someone like that. Hardy is coming off an off-year offensively.”

Hardy has been mentioned is a few stories I have read. If Washington were interested in him--whom would they give up to receive him? (SBF)

“I think because Washington has a lot of arms in their system you have to look there. I think you also look at the Big League Pitching Staff now. You see (John) Lannan as a sure thing. We read some of the scouts at Stephen Strasburg’s first Arizona Fall League start say he should be Washington’s Opening Day starter. He is better than anything they have now. So, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, Stephen Strasburg is with the club from April on next season. So you have Strasburg, you have Lannan and after that you have to decide. Will (Scott) Olsen be 100%? I don’t know. But Olsen doesn’t have much in trade value because of his surgery. You are going to have to wait another year for Jordan Zimmermann. But from my perspective, the thought of having a Strasburg, Zimmermann and Lannan top of the rotation—well the back end could be you and me! You want better than that, obviously. But we have three guys; you think, in Strasburg’s case, Zimmermann’s case—great command, terrific fastball. And a solid young pitcher in Lannan.”

“J.D. Martin made a good case for himself for the 2010 season with the way he pitched in September. (Craig) Stammen I am a little bit on the fence about.”

How about Garrett Mock and Ross Detwiler? (SBF)

“Ross Detwiler to me is the wild card because once he came back (to the Big League Club) and they said go ahead and throw across your body—he was much better. He was far more relaxed out there. I can’t look at him and not think he is the guy that delivers my papers (young and thin body build). He looks so young. His last couple of starts were pretty good, he got that first win. I can see Detwiler, if he has a strong spring, start the season on the Major League Staff.”

“Mock is enigmatic. Mock I think has a future as a Major League Pitcher, but whatever light bulb needs to go on--is just flickering right now. He has some innings where he is brilliant and some innings where his command is off and he keeps going back to the same well. He leaves something up and he’s looking over his shoulder (at the hits going past him). He is still a young guy and I think the ball club looks at Mock as having more upside than Martin or Stammen. The results haven’t quite been there yet. There are some other guys who are in the system that can throw, but they are a little bit further down in the system.”

“Talking about trades, and I bring up The Marlins because they have dealt with Washington in the past. Can you imagine if Josh Johnson was available?

I would take him in a heartbeat. He throws smoke. (SBF)

“If The Marlins are really and truly going to try to move Josh Johnson, Dan Uggla, Jeremy Hermida—to get an arm like Josh Johnson—maybe you take something else you don’t want and maybe trade someone you might not want to get rid of. Somebody young who has a high ceiling. I just think Josh Johnson is one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball and he’s one of those special guys if you can pick him up—it’s a coup.”

Did not Josh Johnson have the same surgery that Jordan Zimmermann had? (SBF)


And he still throws that hard. (SBF)

“He’s got a pitcher’s body (tall, big legs). He’s a big guy, throws hard, has a decent breaking ball and has that great make-up.”

What does Rizzo do about the bullpen? Are there really any keepers already there? (SBF)

“Yeah, I think there are. He had more walks than strikeouts, but I have to bring back Mike MacDougal. He’s kind of an interesting story. Mike’s dad was a Washington Senators Bat Boy in the 1950’s. And Tom (Mike’s Dad) pitched in the Kansas City A’s Farm System in the 60’s. When Mike first got here, I was talking to him in the dugout and I asked him what else he throws. ‘Well, I throw a slider and kind of a changeup.’ Well, kind of a changeup is really not a changeup. But of course you never saw him throw it because they (Washington) told him not to. And one of the issues he had in Kansas City and Chicago was that he would get away from his great fastball, throw more breaking balls and get into trouble. Everything he throws up there is 95 or 96 MPH, but what the problem is with Mike is that he has so much movement on everything he throws that frequently the ball moves right out of the strike zone. That's where all his walks come from, but I think there is something there. There is something there than can be worked on. Maybe if (Steve) McCatty and some of the other guys have him from spring training on—something can improve.”

Jason Bergmann, Sean Burnett? (SBF)

“Sean Burnett is clearly coming back. He’s a very effective lefthander, situational guy. He’s a lock. Bergmann is interesting. Jason is a guy, and this is said about a lot of young pitchers, he doesn’t pitch up to the level of his stuff. He understands that as well as anyone. If you look at the numbers he put up in Syracuse as a reliever—he was great in AAA ball. And he had some great outings with The Nationals and some awful outings for The Nationals. He’s got a solid Major League fastball. He’s got a plus slider. When he has command, he is terrific. And as you saw in ’08 when he was a starter, he was great at times. That game against The Mets at Shea.”

He also nearly pitched a no-hitter in 2007 at RFK Stadium. (SBF)

“I think he is one of those guys that embraces being a Major League player. He wakes up every morning thrilled to be a Major League player. A guy that likes the game enough that when The Dodgers were in town he walked across the field to introduce himself to Joe Torre and had Torre sign a ball for him. Bergmann appreciates the game. He really appreciates the game.”

“The bullpen is an evolving thing. And if you look at what is available in the off-season, there really is not much out there. Would you want to spend $5 to $6 Million per year on a multi-year deal on a closer on a club coming off two straight 100 loss seasons? There are a couple schools of thoughts about a closer, but the conventional wisdom is a 2nd Division Club doesn’t need a dominant closer. So at this point in time, neither one of us expects The Nationals to contend next season, so going out and getting a guy who has had multiple 30 save seasons is not necessarily the way to go.”

“For another season, you can go with MacDougal. Or maybe at some point, Bergmann becomes a closer. The wild card in this is Drew Storen. If Drew Storen has a great spring, I think that Storen is your closer Opening Day.”

From this point on--Phil Wood and I began to discuss specifics about who might be out there for Washington as roster additions this off-season. Free Agents and other creative opportunities that might arise and which General Manager Mike Rizzo might have to consider between now and February, 2010. All that and more coming in Part Three of Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood tomorrow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood

Phil Wood on the right in this photo along with Hank Thomas--Walter Johnson's Grandson, Sohna and myself

Most fans of Our Washington Nationals know Phil Wood. The Washington Baseball Historian, MASN Broadcaster and columnist omnipresent at Nationals Park covering D.C.'s Major League Team--and Baltimore's too, The Orioles at Camden Yards. Well versed in the game of baseball, Phil and I are sort of kindred spirits. We both grew in the Washington, D.C. area with The Expansion Washington Senators as our team. The '60's Nats were fairly awful record wise (except for that wonderful '69 turnaround), but The Senators were Our Team and Frank Howard was Our Guy!!

As Phil likes to always say: "If we went to a Senators game and they lost--but Hondo hit one out--we went home happy."

So, very true. We had take what you could get out of D.C. Baseball back then. There was no future for Major League Baseball in The Nation's Capital after 1971 for over 33 years. A far different situation now surrounding Our Washington Nationals since Major League Baseball returned in 2005 and a new ballpark opened in 2008.

As the 2009 Season wound down--I approached Phil to see if we might get together again and review the just completed campaign and look ahead to what might be in store this off-season for Major League Baseball in the Nation's Capital. He readily agreed and just like last season when we met over lunch for a similar chat, this time we devoted ourselves to just talking about Our Current Nats. Phil Wood and I had lunch together this past Wednesday, October 21st in Arlington, Virginia to talk about all things Nationals. This conversation lasted nearly 90 minutes and is pretty encompassing. Most likely there will be at least three installments, but for sure this is part one. And we begin by chatting philosophy. What Washington is looking for in their managerial search and even from their players? Not necessarily who Mike Rizzo should trade for, or what guy they should sign this off-season.

With that, here we go with Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood.

I want to start with the managerial search. I’ve noticed that many of those that cover the team on a regular basis, including you, like Jim Riggleman as the choice. Why is that? (SBF)

“First of all he is experienced. Number two; he didn’t do anything to lose the job. I wasn’t thrilled when he put Ian Desmond in rightfield, but that was more Desmond’s idea, instead of Jim’s. And if you are a second division club and you want to see what someone can do—you can experiment like that. In general, he didn’t do anything to lose his job. I thought when they (Washington) brought him in as bench coach, that’s a brilliant move because he’s a local guy and because he is extremely experienced. And I know from talking to Manny Acta that Manny knew Jim and respected Jim. And having talked to Jim, he (Riggleman) felt they were of similar managerial styles. I thought they would be comfortable with each other.”

“As you look at all the other potential candidates in the field, whether it’s Bobby Valentine, now even Don Mattingly. Mattingly I am intrigued by. I have spoken to Don a few times. He’s a very smart guy. And as a player, he had that tangible that players these days seem to lack, which is he was intense whether he was doing infield practice before a game or actually playing in a game. Mattingly approached everything as if ‘this is important. We are not kidding around here. This is important.’ You have to love that. Right now in baseball you have 750 players where 730 of them don’t play like that (chuckling). But the fact is that he has never managed on any level. He’s been a hitting coach and he’s probably very good at that. Of course, there is an interesting tie-in locally, in the sense that Mattingly’s minor league hitting coach was Mickey Vernon (Washington Senators Great). And he (Don) loved Mickey. In fact, when Mattingly had his retirement ceremony in New York, he insisted Mickey be a part of it.”

“As you know, I knew Mickey pretty well, and having talked to him about Mattingly, I said: ‘What did you do with him when you had him at Columbus (then The Yankees Top Farm Club)?’ He said: ‘I looked at his swing and said—Son, stay away from me because there is nothing I can do to help you out! (Laughing). You’ve got a perfect swing now.’ Apparently, Mattingly had other hitting coaches who would say try this, try this, try this—to the point of changing him. Mickey was the first one to say: ‘Well, you seem to have it down.’ So, if that is his approach (Mattingly in instructing), then I think he has a very evenhanded approach. Not, I need to do something just for the sake of doing something.”

“But Riggleman is the type of guy that is solid--as solid of a baseball guy as you will find. He is exceptionally respected throughout the game. Every scout I know feels Jim deserves the job. I don’t know. I just think there is something, purely from the issue of karma, that fits. Here is a guy that grew up in Montgomery County (Maryland). He was an expansion Senators Fan, like you and me. He knows what it’s like to suffer and wake up smiling. And I think there is a positive to that. I can’t make the decisions for Mike Rizzo or (Stan) Kasten, but when Mike says that Jim has just as good a shot as anybody—I don’t think he is kidding. Rizzo really likes Jim. But I think they (The Nationals) need to go through this exercise looking at other candidates.”

You’ve sort of eluded to this right off the bat, when The Phillies came back to win in their last At-Bat the other night (Game 4 NLCS), both Barry Larkin and Dan Plesac on MLB Network stated The Phillies always play until that 27th out. And are one of the few teams that seem to do that consistently. Why is it that The Nationals can’t play that way? (SBF)

“Let me preface this by saying: the more I am around people who are inside the game, the more you get to appreciate the aspect of the game that is referred to as ‘make-up’. When I say there are only a handful of players that really have that ‘make-up’ to play to the 27th out, there are not many of them. The Phillies have several of them. The Boston Red Sox have some of the best in Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury. (Derek Jeter of The Yankees-SBF) Yes. They are all playing on that higher level—if you will—of observation. They see everything around them and every move they make is important. I just don’t think The Nationals have enough of those players. In general, 2nd Division Clubs don’t and it’s difficult to scout those type of guys in high school or college.”

“Now, the one player that has it, in spades, on The Nationals—is Ryan Zimmerman. There is no doubt. You spend five minutes talking with him and it is clear he is focused. He is absolutely on it! And I think to a similar extent, although he is not gifted athletically, so is Adam Dunn. Once he got to play first base on a daily basis, Adam became a much better first baseman. He was so focused on doing a better job there that I think, at times, it impacted the way he swung the bat. He knew how he had embarrassed himself and the club in leftfield and wanted to avoid doing that at first base. Now he made some mistakes, but by season’s end he was at least average.”

“I think (Josh) Willingham has that same kind of make-up. But there are a lot of guys on this club—I wouldn’t refer to it as a culture of losing—I would refer to it as the comfort of losing in the sense that, win or lose, they feel pretty much the same after a game. And it’s not just The Nationals; every club has a lot of those guys. Some of them are gifted enough that the other players can kind of compensate for it. The more time you spend around scouts, and I have been absolutely blessed with about a dozen Major League Scouts who have trusted me—I’ve gotten some insights I would never get anywhere else. They (the scouts) talk about make-up over and over and over again. It’s that intangible that is important.”

“For instance, you have the guys that are referred to as ‘baseball rats’—guys who hang around the diamond. They are not great players, but they love it. One good example is a young man that played at Towson State University (Maryland) named Gary Helmick—an infielder that puts the ball in play, pretty good fielder, nothing special in anything that he does and he went undrafted. Well The Orioles signed him as a free agent and they sent him to the minor leagues. He hit around .270 (Rookie Ball). He hit better than many of the guys that were drafted. Everyone talked about him. This guy has got such great make-up. He wants it so badly that he is going to make sure he gives more, as they say, than 100%. It wouldn’t surprise me if in three or four years, Helmick is a utility player on some club in the Major Leagues. And you will know that he got there on his own. He didn’t get there because he is exceptionally gifted. So finding players that are gifted, athletically, as opposed to being just a ‘toolsy’ guy is just as important. Someone said a long time ago, you can have all the tools in the world, but if you can’t figure out how to use them you are not going to help."

"For instance, if you are an outfielder and you’ve seen something happen a number of times—and we certainly saw this with Lastings Milledge--and you can see it in Baltimore with Adam Jones--guys who are athletically gifted enough to get to anything. But the strategy of knowing what angle to take to get to it and actually catch the ball is something else. Which is why you will see lesser athletically skilled players as much better outfielders than the guys who have speed to burn. They get to the ball and can not catch it. Or, overrun it, or turn the wrong way. There is a mental aspect to this game that trumps pure athletic ability.”

Mike Rizzo talks about ‘make-up’ all the time. And Washington certainly needs more talent. But is he looking for ‘make-up’ in his new manager too? (SBF)

“Make-up in a manager comes down to whether the guy has the ability to determine which of his players have that make-up and which of them don’t. It’s also about having the relationship between that manager and the general manager where the field manager can go to the GM and say; ‘you know what, I know you like this guy, but let me tell you, he ain’t got it.’ For instance, as a pitcher he’s got it here (pointing to his throwing arm), but not here (pointing to his head). Baseball history is full of guys like that, million dollar arms and 10-cent heads. Certainly, The Nationals have had their share of guys like that. So yes, it’s the make-up of the manager, but it’s more the ability of the manager to recognize make-up in players.’

Was Manny Acta different in that respect? (SBF)

“Not really. Manny would be the first to tell you this. There are guys on the roster that he didn’t care for personally, but he put them in the lineup because he knew they could play. But I look at the demise of Manny Acta (in Washington) and it’s traceable to just one thing—the bullpen was just awful. It was something that Jim Bowden ignored. If Manny had the bullpen Riggleman finished the year with, he (Manny) would still be manager. I have no doubt. They would have won 72 or 73 games—somewhere in there. Look, they had, I believe, 22 blown saves; most of those came in the first half. You almost hated to see Manny walk out to the mound. The idea making you think: ‘who are you going to bring in that can do any better than the guy who is already in there.’ You go through that and hope that one of these guys (relievers) will figure it out. The light bulb will go off and he will say: ‘oh, that’s what he was talking about!’

So you are not surprised that Manny has made it, reportedly, to the finals for the Cleveland Indians manager? (SBF)

“No, I think he is deserving. I actually spoke to him the other day. He admitted the Cleveland thing came to him unexpectedly. He had already talked to Houston and he has a history with The Astros. When that position opened up and they (Houston) fired Cecil Cooper—that’s a job he really thought he had a great shot at. And he still may for all I know, but when Mark Shapiro (Cleveland GM) called him and said The Indians wanted Manny to come talk to them and then called him back for a second interview—Manny thought the first one went about as well as could be expected. He said you don’t go into these things knowing what phrases they are looking for you to say, or what buzz words they want to hear. It’s purely a gut feeling. But he thought it went well. My response to him was—it would have been lovely if it were a job with a contender? He said there are only 30 of these jobs—you can’t afford to turn anybody down.”

There is a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a press conference Manny had after his second interview (but not yet been offered the job). That article was just like reading The Washington Post a few years back when Manny first came on board here—everyone in Cleveland—including the reporters was enamored with him. (SBF)

“The casual fan, not just here but anywhere, will look at a managers won and loss record and say—‘Oh, he stinks! He can’t do it.’ Or my favorite: ‘He lost the clubhouse.’ That always makes me laugh. People who wouldn’t know where to find the clubhouse say ‘he must have lost the clubhouse.’ The only guy that I thought Manny really had an issue with personally—was probably (Elijah) Dukes. It wasn’t because of Dukes’ past. It was times when they would go over things, over and over again—and they would think he had it. And the very next day, it was gone, whatever they talked about.”

“Now, when Dukes went back to the minor leagues, I think Tim Foli (Syracuse Manager) got something out of him by pushing the right buttons because when he came back (to DC) he was far more patient at the plate. But in general, Manny respected his players. He understood that many of them were not Major League Players and you play the hand you were dealt. The casual fan will take a look at this just completed season with 59 wins and say: ‘well, they were just as bad as the previous year. They are still the worst team in baseball.’ Well, they (The Nationals) had the worst record in baseball, but clearly from the second half (of ’09) they were not the worst team in baseball. They had gotten much better.”

“Obviously, there is the bullpen. There is the shoddy defense. Offensively, they scored a lot of runs. They scored enough runs to win a lot more games! But they couldn’t keep the other team off the scoreboard and they consistently gave the other team more than 27 outs night after night after night.”

You’ve just touched on something that many others always write about. I don’t think this franchise is as bad off as many continually claim. Where do you think The Nationals are solid? What have they done really well? (SBF)

“I think they have drafted pitchers very well. The Stephen Strasburg decision aside—which was basically a no brainer—they’ve got some other arms in their system that really show promise. Talking to the scouts who have seen these guys tons of times, and in fact a couple of scouts believe if you take Strasburg out of the equation and you look at just the other players The Nationals drafted—they still had one of the top two or three drafts in baseball. (2009 right? —SBF) Right. They had a pretty good eye for certain players and you give Mike Rizzo a lot of credit for that. You give the departed Dana Brown (former Director of Scouting) some credit for that as well. The Nationals Scouting Staff was rather small. This off-season they have hired some more scouts. That’s one of the things that Mike really wanted to do. Clearly, that is what his background is and he knew they were woefully short in that area. So, arm wise, I think they still want to have a veteran on the staff as some kind of mentor—which I think is a little overrated. But anyway, depending on whom you are able to get, whose name is not Daniel Cabrera (laughing), they’ve got some guys. Now, they don’t have a lot of position players, but if you look at what this club was when it moved in ’05 and what it is now—it is where you would expect a fifth year expansion club to be.”

“People want to say: ‘The Expos were around since ’69.’ Well, the last few years of The Expos, Major League Baseball spent no money on the farm system and spent no money on scouting. You couldn’t look at that objectively and say they came here (to Washington) with a system in place. It was again like starting over. But those things will work their way out. They clearly don’t have the strongest farm system in baseball, but they are now far from the worst. At this point, I would say they are somewhere between 11th and 12th. And that comes down to how much resources you are devoting to player development.”

“While the payroll has not been that high since the Lerner’s got the club, they’ve spent some money on player development. Has it been enough? There is really no way in knowing that yet. But when you start getting guys this next season coming out of their own farm system—like if Ian Desmond makes his mark? If Drew Storen is on the Big League staff next season? Some of the other guys they brought up. They got J.D. Martin as a minor league free agent. He pitched much better than I expected. Craig Stammen is a bulldog, but I don’t know if you could ever project him as more than a 4th or 5th starter—that's not bad though. So, they are getting something of their own out of their farm system. But there are still holes and there will be holes for another few seasons anyway. You can’t judge The Nationals Farm System and put it up against Boston or Atlanta. Some of the guys they just hired were hired to get them up to that point.”

That answer concludes Part One of Talking Nats Baseball With Phil Wood. Tomorrow in Part Two, Phil & I are going to pick up this conversation chatting about all those front office moves he just mentioned. The realignment of Our Washington Nationals off the field which hopefully sets up an ever brighter future for D.C. Baseball on the playing diamond.

Monday, October 19, 2009

History Makers--The Picture Of The Day

There is so much Major League Baseball History represented in this one photo from a late season game between The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals played on September 16th, 1963. With two weeks left in the '63 campaign, The Dodgers were holding on to a slim one game lead for the National League Pennant. Yet the outcome of this game (an L.A. Win) played at the soon to be replaced Sportsman's Park in St. Louis is not what is compelling. What is remarkable about this otherwise mundane in-game photo is that all but one person clearly depicted in uniform played a significant historical role in baseball history. And the one that didn't eventually became The Captain of The Washington Senators--and was involved in the best trade the Expansion Nats ever made. The one that brought My Favorite Player Of All-Time!!, Frank Howard, to the Nation's Capital in 1965.

I love this photo for the History Makers depicted. And not all of the sagas they represent are pleasant ones.

Here's why.

Number 11 with his back to the photographer in this shot is none other than Ken McMullen, the heart and some would say, the soul of the Washington Senators from 1965 through early 1970. The team of my youth. McMullen was a good third baseman with good pop in his bat. And when Senators Owner Bob Short traded Ken away for Aurelio Rodriguez and Rick Reichardt to The California Angels--the official dismantling of Washington's Major League Team truly began.

But wait--there is so much more to follow.

Bending over on the mound picking something up is Johnny Roseboro. The very Dodger catcher who replaced Roy Campanella behind the plate in 1958 when Campy was involved in the horrific car accident which paralyzed the three time NL MVP and ended his career. Roseboro would also be involved in the most violent ON-FIELD incident between two players in Major League History. A well known fracas documented in a special television program currently running on the MLB Network. On August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco--Roseboro was upset with San Francisco Giants Pitcher (and eventual Hall Of Famer) Juan Marichal. Earlier in that game, Marichal had thrown brushback pitches to Dodgers Maury Wills & Ron Fairly. Roseboro wanted his pitcher--eventual Hall Of Famer Sandy Koufax--to throw his pitches directly at Marichal standing at the plate. The gentlemanly Koufax refused. Upset about no retaliation and taking business into his own hands, Roseboro whizzed his return tosses to Sandy RIGHT PAST Juan Marichal's face. Not taking kindly to Roseboro's too close for comfort throws, Marichal, out of nowhere, raised his baseball bat above his head and proceeded to pummel Roseboro's noggin.

Three times Juan Marichal pounded Roseboro's head with his baseball bat, opening up a huge gash that required 14 stitches and started one of the biggest brawls in baseball history. Roseboro survived, played for five more seasons, and ended his career in 1970 as a catcher for The Washington Senators. Marichal was suspended for nine games in 1965 by The National League and fined--what is today--a ludicrously small amount of dollars ($1750) and was banned from playing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for the remainder of that season.

Number 6 standing on the mound is none other than Ron Fairly himself. Roseboro's Dodger Teammate and eventual unwilling participant in The Marichal Beaning. But what is interesting about Fairly is that in 1969 he would be traded by Los Angeles to The Expansion Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) for none other than Maury Wills. The other unwilling participant and his one time teammate in The Marichal Beaning Game. Ron Fairly would play 21 seasons in The Major Leagues. Fairly would become the very first player to ever play for both Canadian Franchises (Montreal & Toronto). And be the only player EVER to be an All-Star for The Expos and The Blue Jays.

The Dodger Pitcher on the mound is Johnny Podres. The winning pitcher in Game 7 of The 1955 World Series. The only time The Brooklyn Dodgers won The World's Championship. The most satisfying moment for any Brooklyn Dodger Fan and The Boys Of Summer. A long awaited Series victory over their arch rival in the American League--The New York Yankees.

Number 24 in Dodger Gray Away Wool is Walter Alston. Hall of Fame Manager who led The Brooklyn Dodgers to their only World Series Championship. Then, led The Los Angeles Dodgers to three more World Series Wins and five total National League Pennants after The Dodgers headed west to Southern California after the 1957 season. Alston would manage The Dodgers Franchise their last four years in Brooklyn and their first 19 in Los Angeles.

The St. Louis Cardinals player wearing Number 21 is Curt Flood, one of the most important figures for player's rights in Baseball History. A Gold Glove Outfielder, Flood was traded by The Cardinals to The Philadelphia Phillies in late 1969. Flood refused to report claiming Baseball's Reserve Clause (which retained a player's right in perpetuity to the team that originally signed them) was tantamount to slavery. When then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declined to allow Curt Flood Free Agency (an unknown territory for baseball players at that time), Flood filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball and sat out the entire 1970 Season. Eventually, Curt Flood would lose his case 5-3 in The Supreme Court of The United States. But ground had been broken and a new era of rights for baseball players was soon to follow.

Flood would NEVER receive any of the fruits of his hard fought labor war. Yet every single baseball player that followed in his footsteps did. In 1975, The Reserve Clause was struck down for good by Federal Arbitrator Peter Seitz. A new era had begun in Major League Baseball. Higher and Higher salaries for players was just around the corner. To really understand Flood's importance, a must read is the excellent book written by Brad Snyder that covers Flood's plight and life: A Well-Paid Slave.

As for Curt Flood, he would finish his baseball career in 1971 after 13 games with, yes, The Washington Senators. Feeling he was no longer capable of playing and having lost the passion for the sport, Flood skipped out on The Senators and took a flight to Spain--where he stayed for a number years while running a bar in Mallorca. Curt Flood battled alcoholism for a number years before turning his life around. But sadly, died of throat cancer in 1997 at the age of 59. Every single baseball player today owes Curt Flood homage for giving up everything in his life--leading to all the benefits players receive today.

Finally--Ken McMullen, Johnny Roseboro, Ron Fairly, Johnny Podres, Walter Alston and Curt Flood--all pictured in the above photo--won a total of 16 World Series Rings between them. And when this game was played that late September night in 1963--The Great Stan Musial was winding down his illustrious Hall Of Fame Career. He would retire at the end of this season. And just three batters before this picture was taken, "Stan The Man" had cranked out the 475th and FINAL Home Run of his wonderful career off Johnny Podres.

And oh--one more thing. The 1st Baseman for The St. Louis Cardinals this night (but not pictured here) was Bill White. The seven time Gold Glove Award Winner who would become the very first African-American President of The National League in 1989. The highest ranking minority executive in sports--at that time.

History Makers--The Picture Of The Day.

Life Magazine Photo Copyright--Time, Inc. (Photographer--Robert W. Kelley)