The Washington Nationals still have a long way to go before they take root and become a force in the NL East. They are getting there, and if the Nationals' current series with the Pittsburgh Pirates tells us anything, it is they still have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas. However, I've spent the past two weeks on SB Nation D.C. talking about what the Nats have been doing wrong. This week I want to talk about what they are doing right. Not necessarily just on the field, but in the D.C. community and beyond.
It has been a long, bumpy road for the Nationals and their image since baseball returned in 2005. The cowboy antics of a former GM, a particularly dirty scandal in the Dominican Republic, a couple bad personnel choices over the years and back-to-back 100-game losing seasons have set the franchise back from its goal of rising from the ashes. On top of that, the Nationals' owners, the Lerner Family, has mostly stayed out of the spotlight, and have been anything but transparent. This has given a sort of phantasmal quality to them. Though they have been declared the richest owners in the game, they are generally viewed by the fan base as shrewd business people who hold tight to their purse strings. At the same time, many feel they don't have a general understanding of how things work in Major League baseball.
This has all worked against the Nationals the past few seasons, but suddenly in 2011, it seems there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. Certain events have happened or are transpiring that offer hints that perhaps the tide is turning on the Nationals ill-fortunes, and much of that is because they have suddenly started to act like a Major League baseball team should.
On April 18, New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick shocked baseball fans up and down the East Coast by printing a glowing review of how the Nationals handled the April 16 rain out at Nationals Park. Mushnick praised the team for cancelling the game early with fan safety in mind rather than focus on the possible revenue that could be made by dragging wet and miserable fans into the stadium for a spin. As Mushnick puts it, "Washington led with a sense of common sense and common decency." You almost want to frame that story up on the wall considering the usually brash Post hardly revels in sports teams outside the Big Apple.
Right around the same time, tragedy struck the Washington organization, as Dominican shortstop prospect Yewri Guillen died of bacterial meningitis at the Nationals newly-started baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. The 18-year old signed with the team in February, and was being groomed to join one of the Nationals minor league affiliates in the United States this year. His tragic death got more than enough press, as fans offered their condolences and players donated money to Gullien's family. What is not mentioned as much in the press was the contribution the phantom Nationals owners made. The Lerners paid for Guillen's funeral.
These examples are relatively small when considering the impact on the team and the D.C. community itself, but they show a very important aspect that has been missing from the Nationals experience: a general showing that they are beginning to understand the fan base and community. This will be put to the test event more when the Nationals begin to break ground on their inner-city youth baseball academy in June. A nearly $15 million dollar project, five years in the making, the Nationals hope to offer various programs and youth escapes on three fully-functional ball fields and an administrative building with computer labs and class rooms. Already, the Nationals are beginning to promote the academy by printing a Nationals Dream Foundation and Youth Baseball Academy logo on the left field wall of Nationals Park. The first field of the academy is scheduled to open up this summer.
The Nationals are out there. They are beginning to understand the fan base. They are beginning to understand that a baseball family is more than gate prices and big money contracts. They are finally getting it right and they will need to continue to get it right because there is still so much more they can do. If they continue down this path of mixing smart on-field baseball decisions with off-field community excitement and a touch of humanity and humility, D.C. will have its baseball team sooner than later. They won't just be contending for a pennant, but the hearts of all baseball fans everywhere.