The great thing about blogging on baseball is that you are kind of blurring the line between just a fan and someone who actually works in baseball. The Nats helped blur that line even more on Saturday by inviting bloggers to the stadium for a packed day of activities. I was not able to go, as I was about 1,000 miles away. But I really wanted someone to represent The Nationals Review. Friend of the blog, someone I bounce many ideas off of, and now fellow contributor Brian was happy to go to a free baseball game and meet baseball players. Go figure. Call him the official Nats Review beat reporter now. Here’s his take on the day:
I’ve never been to a baseball stadium at three in the afternoon for a night game. I’ve never had the reason to be. Today was different though. We here at The Nationals Review were invited to attend a blogger’s day at Nationals Park. The Nationals really rolled out the red carpet for us and a number of other Nationals blogs. Arriving at the stadium I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was able to make it to the home plate gate with a few minutes to spare. Once there, Mike Gazda (Nats Director of Baseball Media Relations) brought us upstairs to the main press briefing room. This is where they will hold the post game press conferences. Here, Mike went over the ground rules. I was expecting him to say that we couldn’t ask about Strasburg or steroids or the Manny Acta situation. I was surprised to learn that NOTHING was off-limits. This was very cool and appreciated from my perspective.
Israel Negron and Lisa Pagano came in first to talk about the Nationals work in the community. Israel mentioned that community was one of the three pillars of what the Nationals were trying to build. The three targets of the Nats community outreach are education & literacy, youth baseball, and health in the community. Their activities are not limited to these ends of course, but I think we can all agree that they are a pretty good start. One of the challenges of community outreach is getting the message out. Just letting people know that the club and the players are out there doing things with kids, schools, hospitals, etc takes time and effort. It won’t be an overnight sensation so that is why we’re writing about it here: the Nats need the fanbase to get involved in order to make these programs more effective.
Next thing you know, a couple players roll in. Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, Willie Harris, and Nick Johnson came in to take some questions. I had heard that Dunn was kind of funny but it was real obvious here that he’s just a great clubhouse guy; keeping everyone laughing and loose. He was very honest though about his disappointment with the way that the club has played. He did add that despite the team’s struggles, he felt as though they were improving and with the pitching and defense starting to come around, the team could turn it around in the second half. He also joked around that he was working more on his speed game and trying to slap the ball the other way, which was hysterical because we all thought he was serious at first. Zimmerman was pretty quiet, not really saying too much. Nick Johnson mentioned something about his bottom half (of his swing) and how important that was. All the players found this to be pretty funny. Good stuff from Willie Harris about staying positive and having more good days than bad days. He said how important that was with a clubhouse filled with young guys to stay upbeat and make sure that no one gets too down. All in all, it was pretty cool that the players took time out to come and meet with us.
Manny Acta slid in during the players session and was up next. The first thing that struck me about Manny was how it looked like he could pencil himself in the lineup and play. He was also very laid back and cool about meeting with us. He sat in front of the podium and was very open and direct with all of his answers. The most important piece of information to come out of our time with him was that he flat out said that he doesn’t have the type of team that he really wants. He would love to run and be more aggressive on the bases but he doesn’t have a burner. He said he’d love to have Jose Reyes or Hanley Ramirez or Willy Tavarez (gulp) but he doesn’t have a guy like that. At the same time, he did admit that this year’s lineup is much better than last year’s. The addition of Dunn, re-emergence of Nick Johnson, and performance of Guzman has insulated Zimmerman in the lineup so that he cannot be pitched around. Manny also talked about how he felt the team was starting to improve. The pitching and defense has been better which has kept them in games. He also spoke about pitch counts. Even though he has a young staff, he doesn’t pull pitchers based on their pitch count. He stays with a pitcher as long as he feels they give him the best chance to win the game. Later on in the game, he pulled Detwiler after 100 pitches in the top of the 8th. I believe he kept his word though: Detwiler had walked the leadoff man and he went to a fresh arm.
After these Q & A sessions, we were treated to a tour of the stadium by Ron “Coach” Simms. To say this guy had personality would be an understatement. He lived this tour. Even though he was under the gun as far as time concerned he led us through the whole stadium, even taking the time to imitate the voice of a young Dwight Eisenhower growing up. If you’ve ever wondered what the inner workings of the park are like, it is highly recommended that you get a tour from Coach. The tours are given when the team is on the road. Lots of good stuff here, too much to mention. The highlight was probably when the scoreboard booted up in Windows.
On to the field for batting practice. Overwhelming for me, being a baseball player for most of my life yet never stepping on an MLB field. The game up close is much faster than you think. The infield looked great though, balls take crisp, true hops. The crack of the bat is awesome from up close. Here we had a quick state of the minor leagues with Mark Scialabba, Assistant Director of Player Development. The guy knew his stuff, flat out. He answered every question about a minor league player with so much detail; he knew it cold. You assume these guys know that kind of stuff about their players but to see this guy actually do it in front of me was impressive.
Dinner in the press box followed as well as a visit from Racing Teddy (he’d lose again that evening). We were joined afterward by Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten. This was incredible. I asked Stan a little bit about his work in Atlanta and when he knew that team was ready for prime time (more on that later). We asked about Manny Acta’s status (reports of his demise are premature), Rizzo’s interim title (when they feel the need to make a change, they will), and the trading deadline (they’re open for business).
To say the day in total was overwhelming would be an understatement. Everyone with the Nationals was incredibly accommodating, welcoming, and generous to myself and all the bloggers. It was a very cool event and we hope to get a chance to go back for a repeat sometime soon.
Oh, and did I mention Willie Harris hit a two-run, walkoff home run in the bottom of the 12th to win the game? Perfect day.
As for the Kasten stuff, I grew up watching the Atlanta Braves on TBS. Back in the late 80’s, the Braves were on almost every night. As a kid, this was great because I loved baseball. In reality though, the Braves were not that great to watch because as far as baseball went, they were awful. I remember Sports Illustrated ran a story about how Atlanta was the worst sports town in America. What I didn’t know is that Stan Kasten and Bobby Cox were slowly building a dynasty; one that would last for 14 years.
How does this relate to the Nats? It’s very relevant. Washington, despite the inaugural 81-81 season inherited a very sick franchise. In that season, the Nationals flirted with 1st place and gave their new fan base a reason to think they were destined for greatness right away. Some of us knew better. Much like the Braves team that Kasten inherited back in 1986, the team would need to get much worse before it could get better,which is where we find ourselves today. Instead of names like Glavine, Smoltz, and Justice, we have Lannan, Zimmermann, and Zimmerman.
So welcome to the “getting worse” period. It’s understandable that Nats fans are frustrated – the media has made the Nats the whipping boy for MLB futility. It was a common theme on this day. Adam Dunn said what has surprised him the most of coming to Washington is just how bad they’ve been. While it was obvious they weren’t exactly World Series favorites, I think we all expected a little more from the team this year. Manny Acta echoed Dunn’s feelings.
As much negative press as the Nats have gotten there are plenty of reasons for fans to be optimistic towards the future. The Nationals just got the top pitching prospect maybe in the history of the draft. They were also able to grab another top pitcher (Drew Storen), sign him quickly, and get him in their farm system. Kasten stated that their goal this season was to identify three pitchers that were going to be able to bring stability and consistency to the rotation. June has seen the Nats starters produce a 3.02 ERA (2nd best in the the majors). Ryan Zimmerman is a perennial all-star who has committed long term to the franchise. He plays gold glove defense and has a bat to match. He’s 25 but has the poise and approach of a player much more seasoned. I could continue but you get the point. It isn’t obvious to the untrained eye but it’s getting better. Trust me.
Wow, that was alot, but it sounded like an incredible day. I really appreciate the Nats allowing us bloggers to come out. Thanks to Mike Gazda for setting this up, and to everyone from Rizzo and Kasten to Dunn and Zimmerman for participating. And a very big thanks to Brian for taking his role as beat reporter and representative of The Nationals Review seriously. Can’t wait til they do this again and I get to go.
Tomorrow I’ll post pictures from the day, Brian took A TON.