2012: A Season of Catharsis for a Lifelong Nationals Fan

Posted February 19, 2013

In its current form, the Washington Nationals franchise has been in existence since the 2005 season. That was the year we were introduced to Ryan Zimmerman, who played his way into the starting lineup the same season in which he was drafted, and the season the Nats went 81-81 and made people believe something might be brewing in the nation’s capital.

By 2008, of course, the Nats were starting to put together historically poor seasons, slapping together only 59 wins in both that season and 2009, and only winning 69 games in 2010. For fans in the DC area, this might have been a sign that a bad precedent was being set by this new team. But for lifelong fans of the franchise that, yes, did exist before 2005, those dismal seasons were a horrible reminder that no matter what, this was a franchise doomed to fail.

Just like poor Teddy Roosevelt in the Presidents Race.

Just like poor Teddy Roosevelt in the Presidents Race.

And then the Nats got the top picks in back to back years, and lucked into two of the most sure-thing phenoms the baseball world has seen in decades in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. These weren’t your normal top draft picks, either. Strasburg was one of the best pitching prospects to come along in years, a flamethrower with a tremendous breaking ball and superb accuracy.

Harper, on the other hand, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16. He dropped out of high school and got his GED to accelerate his ascent to the Major League level, where he finally made his debut with the Big Club in 2012 and made an impact faster than you can say Roy Hobbs.

But no pressure.

But no pressure.

But let’s back up a bit, because as the title of this piece suggests, this is about lifelong fandom. Believe it or not, I am not eight years old, so no, my life did not begin in 2005 when the Nationals arrived in Washington. Instead, I’ve been a fan of the Nationals my entire life, since they were known as the Montreal Expos. I was forced to endure a franchise that, year after year, boasted some of the most talented young ballplayers in the game, only to see them bolt the poor baseball town in favor of the bigger markets and bigger contracts at the first opportunity.

I was born about 10 miles from the Canadian border in Vermont, and while the vast majority of people around me worshiped at the altar of the Boston Red Sox, I decided to go the other way and become a fan of that scrappy team to the north. Montreal, after all, was a closer drive than Boston, and while I only went to one Sox game as a kid, I was a relatively frequent visitor to Olympic Stadium.

There she is.

There she is.

During my sophomore year of college, which coincided with the 2001 season, I regularly walked down the hall of my dorm wearing my Vladimir Guerrero Expos jersey, and more than once was met with a derisive comment that more or less compared the existence of Expos fans to the Loch Ness Monster. Or, to stick closer to the geographical area, Lake Champlain’s own Champ (who, by the way, served as the mascot for the Expos’ class A affiliate in Burlington, Vermont).

The one constant through a life of rooting for the Expos and Nationals has been disappointment, primarily with the lack of funds available to either retain talent or build a facility worthy of a ballclub in Montreal. Olympic Stadium, while once a state of the art stadium, quickly became an outdated and, frankly, horrendous ballpark. It had no business hosting a professional baseball team, and was an embarrassment to the franchise. In 2000, former owner Jeffrey Loria presented plans for a proposed stadium called Labatt Ballpark, which would have been a beautiful 36,000 seat stadium in downtown Montreal, but the plan quickly fell apart. Not long after, the Expos came to the forefront of contraction talks in Major League Baseball.

What might have been...

What might have been…

Imagine that, for a moment. Being a lifelong fan of a franchise that was in very serious danger of being, quite simply, deleted. The MLB eventually stepped in and took control of the franchise, but of course everyone knew that was a horrendous idea if for no other reason that no big signings or trades could really ever be accomplished due to the simple fact that the controlling interest in the Montreal franchise was in the hands of people whose primary concern was not really about making the Expos competitive.

It was around this time that things began looking extremely bleak for the Expos, despite frequently trotting out some extremely talented players night in and night out. In 1994, the Expos had the best record in baseball before the strike shortened the season. The lineup was one even the Yankees would have yearned for, featuring the likes of Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, as well as guys like Mike Lansing, Wil Cordero, Cliff Floyd, and Rondell White. Yet no one showed up to the games, and that tremendous talent consistently left town for greener pastures.

Et tu, Canuck baseball great Larry Walker?

Et tu, Canuck baseball great Larry Walker?

In the late 90’s and early 00’s, the Expos continued to put together extremely young and talented teams with guys like Vlad, Javier Vazquez, Orlando Cabrera, and Jose Vidro leading the way. But as became all too common, they were never able to hold onto their exceptional talents, with the very last straw being Guerrero signing with the Anaheim Angels, where he would eventually be named the American League MVP. Cabrera was one of the keys to the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series.

Your franchise is in bad shape when fans are hoping you avoid the spotlight to retain your talent.

Your franchise is in bad shape when fans are hoping you avoid the spotlight to retain your talent.

Vazquez went to the Yankees in 2004, and in his career has racked up more than 2,500 strikeouts. Vidro was the only one of that core of players who stayed with the club in their move to Washington, along with Brad Wilkerson, but Vidro left for Seattle after the 2006 season and Wilkerson was dealt away in a deal for Alfonso Soriano, who quickly bolted for the Cubs.

However, even in that atrocious season of 2008 a change in the air was apparent. It began with the opening of Nationals Park, with Ryan Zimmerman delivering a walk-off home run on national television in the season opener. The homegrown Zimmerman, who last season was named as the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award recipient for his charity work, has remained at the center of the emergence of the Nationals. He’s the consummate team leader and the heart and soul of the team, playing spectacular defense at third base while remaining one of the classiest men in professional sports.

Plus, unlike some other Zimmerman's, he only needs one N.

Plus, unlike some other Zimmerman’s, he only needs one N.

Then came the back to back No. 1 overall picks, which were never shoo-ins for the Nats to even sign. Strasburg in particular only signed after an 11th hour deal, literally only 77 seconds before the signing deadline. Harper came next, and suddenly the Nats had an extremely talented young nucleus. Zimmerman, the elder statesman of the group, is still only 28. The Nats made a statement signing of Jayson Werth, giving the late blooming outfielder way too much money but in the process showing the baseball world that this was not the same franchise that was afraid to open its pocket book.

Homegrown talent like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann emerged, not to mention other young, talented players like Ross Detwiler and Wilson Ramos, who is expected to be back and healthy this season. Suddenly, the Nats were a team to be reckoned with. In 2011, the squad went 80-81 despite losing Strasburg to an arm injury and Tommy John surgery.

And then came the 2012 season. Some Nats fans are probably cursing the way the season unfolded, thinking long and hard about what might have been. After all, that was a season ripe for the taking, except for one thing: the Strasburg Shutdown. You can’t really blame the executives for deciding to limit Strasburg’s innings, either.

Well, maybe you can...

Well, maybe you can…

Sure, you can question the decision-making along the way, as I know I certainly have (for instance, why not skip a start here and there or move to a six man rotation with either Chien Ming-Wang or John Lannan getting a spot start here and there, or place Stras on the DL with an “injury” midway through the season to save him for the playoffs?), but overall it is probably for the best.

The Nats, as it stands, have arguably the best rotation in baseball, though some of that depends on what happens with Gio Gonzalez and the new bombshell that he may have taken PEDs. Still, the off-season signing of Dan Haren only solidifies what was already an outstanding rotation, which could also be bolstered by top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, who projects as a number one or number two starter at the Major League level by Baseball America.

Another top pitching prospect with injury concerns? Sure, why not?

Another top pitching prospect with injury concerns? Sure, why not?

Still, it cannot be argued that the 2012 season was anything other than bliss for even a casual Nationals fans. The ballpark was electric on most nights, and the team, against all predictions, actually won 98 regular season games and the National League East Division title. They got off to a hot start, and I won’t lie to you, I thought it may have been an aberration and that the team would fizzle out, much like they did back in 2005 when they started out 50-31 only to collapse in the second half.


“The Times They Are a-Changin”

Only now, things are different. This is a team full of young stars. This is a team with a beautiful ballpark and an owner willing to pursue big pieces of the roster puzzle both on the free agent market and through trades. The 2012 season was a cathartic season for lifelong fans of the franchise, about that there can be no question. Finally, at long last, here was a team willing to pay top dollar to not only pursue talent, but to retain talent. Here was a team winning games, and pushing for the playoffs, despite nagging injuries to key players throughout the season, which speaks tremendously to the depth on both the Big League roster as well as in the farm system.

And in 2013, here is a team ready to take the next step. Here is a team poised to make a run at the World Series.

"But seriously Mike, try that again and I'll kill you with my old man strength."

“But seriously Mike, try that again and I’ll kill you with my old man strength.”

Granted, it should be a second straight World Series, but we’ll try not to leave too many  flaming bags of dog poop on Mike Rizzo’s doorstep for the Strasburg Shutdown.

Jeff Kelly
Mild mannered writer by day, mild mannered but somewhat more intoxicated writer by night.
Jeff Kelly
Jeff Kelly

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