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Erasing the league

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When we were thirteen, my closest friend, Shawn, and I did what thirteen year-olds the nation over did in 1989: we played lots and lots of Baseball Stars. We did other stuff, of course, such as playing basketball every day after school at the club just across the railroad tracks. And we occasionally did our homework. But, truth be told, we played a lot of Baseball Stars, especially late on weekend nights.

That was when we were thirteen, mind you. When we got older, our focus did not remain so singularly on Baseball Stars. But our passion for the game never ceased, and after awhile a certain sense of nostalgia developed. About a year-and-a-half ago, when we were . . . well, not thirteen; you do the math . . . I flew up to Boston to visit Shawn, who is married and has three kids. It was a straight-up nostalgia trip. Because his brother-in-law had absconded to another state with our blessed copy of Baseball Stars, we had to search around for another copy. And search we did; two towns over, we purchased one for $8 at a Gamestop. We proceeded to run that game into the ground, maybe not like we when we were thirteen---one day both of us became too "ill" to attend school, only to play the game for fourteen consecutive hours---but it was a single-minded effort that harkened back to those days. For three straight nights, we would set up shop in Shawn's basement and play Baseball Stars, lots and lots of Baseball Stars. He has a very understanding wife.

Seeing as how you, gentle reader, are likely of my generation and experienced first-hand the greatness of Baseball Stars, I will cut to the chase. If you'll recall, there were two primary ways a "league" could be erased: a) manually, by toggling over to "Erase League," and 2) via the vagaries of the CPU. Unless you were doing the erasing, you could never be certain whether a league would or would not be erased. It didn't happen all of the time or anywhere near most of the time, but it happened enough to create some intrigue and apprehension as to whether the league would reach its completion after ten or fifteen or twenty-five games (however many you selected).

When we were young, Shawn and I usually played twenty-five game seasons, one team apiece, head-to-head, like an almost interminable World Series. This one time, his speed-and-defense-oriented team was killing my power-oriented team (see, I was even into sabermetrics back then!); he won a lot of the early games and kept on getting to "power up" guys. Ugh, there was this one guy---I'll never forget his name: "Yeah"---and he was incredible: first he was speedy, and then he was powerful and even more speedy. My team was hopeless.

I stayed over at Shawn's house that night. When he turned on the game early the next morning, . . . well, guess what? The season was gone, poof, like it never existed. Shawn was distraught, then he assumed the worst, then he was incensed. "You erased the league."

His accusations could not alter the fact that something---I won't say what; maybe I don't even know---reset everything to zero, like it was before, before the league.

* * * *

Today, Washington Nationals' general manager Jim Bowden erased the league, so to speak, optioning outfielder Brandon Watson and catcher Wiki Gonzalez to New Orleans, replacing them with outfielder Ryan Church and infielder Brendan Harris.

Sixteen days ago, Bowden instituted a sea change in the Nats' lineup and roster composition. In about 300 big league plate appearances last season, Church hit .287/.353/.466. He was red hot in May and June, got hurt, struggled, got hurt again, and finished strong in a final few garbage games. There was plenty of talk about Church's lack of toughness and July/August slump and apparent inability to hit off the bench as the season wore on. But don't forget that he hit .287/.353/.466. Compare that performance to the rest of the team---not just the scrubs, but the more notable players. He out-slugged his temp-hire in outfield, Preston Wilson. He even out-OPS'ed Jose Guillen. Is 300 plate appearances a huge sample? No. Does Church have an injury history? Yes. But there's a reason why any reasonable baseball observer who doesn't read the Washington headlines on a daily basis would have been shocked when Church was sent down: this team doesn't have very many talented mainline offensive players, and Church is one of them.

Yet, those sixteen days ago, Watson was the centerfielder and leadoff man, and Church was bound for New Orleans.

Church had a bad spring---not really any worse than several other prominent Nats, but nevertheless bad---and once he was optioned to Triple-A, the truth (or the pretext or the subtext, you make the call) came out: Church was "worn out" and was oblivious to his competition against Watson and had exhibited bad body language, whatever that is. Watson, by comparison, was a spring sensation. He is an upbeat player who exudes a positive disposition, and the team desperately wanted a "prototypical leadoff hitter"---which is to say, a guy who can run and won't strike out a lot. Watson's strong performance, combined with Church's poor performance, gave the team at least an articulable rationale for making the change.

Notice I say an articulable rationale; this doesn't mean it was an especially prudent one.

Come to think of it, I've never really understood the wisdom behind "punishing" a player by sending him back to the minors. If you consider the player talented and potentially valuable, it seems an awful risk. There's the possibility the player will sulk away from the team's attention, or he'll otherwise fall into a slump and the punishment will continue even after the player subjectively "gets it." Was sending Church to New Orleans a wake-up call? That was a stated rationale, obviously, but it strikes me as just as likely the player will respond with confusion rather than motivation. At best, the move represents outsourcing a problem; at worst, it potentially creates one.

Imagine you are Ryan Church. In your only previous experience in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, at Edmonton in 2004, you came to the plate about 400 times and hit .345/.428/.620. You are now twenty-seven years old. What on earth are you doing in New Orleans?

It doesn't make any sense, does it? So, the team sends you down and starts talking about your physical and/or mental conditioning, your effort, your body language. They might be valid observations, or they might be pretext; but, whatever they are, it's clear they're part of a cover story, because there's no reason otherwise that you'd be sent to the minors. The last time you were there, you ripped up the league---you became a major leaguer, and you posted the second-best OPS among the team's regulars. You belong in the majors, especially being attached to this crappy team. If you're such a problem, the least they can do is kick you in the butt personally; it's a sign they care. Instead, they ship you off to be someone else's problem.

* * * *

Has Church "proven himself" at New Orleans? Anything but. As Nats Farm Authority notes, Church was hitting .130 (in twenty-three at-bats) in Triple-A, with all three of his hits occurring in the same game. Otherwise, he did not register a single hit. He showed signs of effort---in his last game, he reached base on an error, stole second, and scored the winning run. Still, Church wasn't producing.

Now, you and I both know that twenty-three at-bats is a ridiculously small sample, but Church was sent down based on a spring sample not tremendously greater than that. According to MLB.com, Bowden commented:

"He is hitting the ball hard and had some tough luck," Bowden said. "He has had a good attitude in New Orleans."

In other words, Bowden erased the league.

On the surface, Bowden's handling of Watson is illogical yet consistent. Watson lived by a small sample (spring training) and died by a small sample (nine regular season games, 5-for-28). It's decidedly unfair---if Watson proved his worth by competing so hard, how can that worth be debunked on the basis of his nine games---but it sounds like Bowden's applied the same standard. (Of course, Watson was also rough on the bases and, according to those who can actually watch the games, not an asset in center.) However, I don't think Watson's treatment is so simply defined. Instead, I have to believe Frank Robinson, a more introspective man, captures a kernel of truth:

"It's more of a reaction," manager Frank Robinson said of the moves. "We need to do something here to get this club going. Are these two moves going to do it? I don't know. But we had to do something. I think it makes us a little better ball club."

You see what has happened? This club, ten games into the season, has no clue. It is directionless. Bowden in essence confirms this belief:

The Nationals are not finished making moves. Bowden acknowledged that he is already in trade discussions for offense and pitching.

"I'm very concerned about the ERAs our pitchers have," Bowden said. "I have concern about the low batting averages our hitters are having. We can't afford to have this night in and night out."

We're not even two weeks into the season, and there's talk of reshaping the roster. Bowden, of course, spent the entire offseason reshaping the roster. And he's looking to erase that league.

Ultimately, what the Watson/Church situation boils down to isn't Watson's hot spring training or Church's alleged lack of work ethic, not really; I'd venture it's not even an issue specific to Watson and Church. Take a look at the 1996 Cincinnati Reds, for instance. Bodes was the general manager of this team. His starting centerfielder to open the season? Mike Kelly. Now, that was an odd choice. Kelly, twenty-five, had been a perennial prospect in the Braves' system and became an exemplar of Bowden's love for the "toolsy outfielder." In 1995, Kelly had 137 at-bats for Atlanta, hitting .190/.258/.314. He must've had one hell of a Grapefruit League for the Reds the next spring, huh?

Here is Kelly's game log; note he was shipped back to Triple-A on April 19. In short, he was Brandon Watson before there was Brandon Watson. Bodes erased the league and reset everything after two-and-a-half pointless weeks.

Heck, Brandon Watson was Brandon Watson before there was Brandon Watson. Remember, this isn't Bowden's first flirtation with Watson. (It is on this basis---as well as Robinson's rather unsettled comments in the media now---that makes me believe this leg of the Watson/Church exchange was Bowden's doing, if not the first leg as well.) Last August 11, Bowden published a column in the DC Examiner (as excerpted here), in which he remarked:

And what a sparkplug [Watson] was in his first game Tuesday, a critical game we won largely because of Brandon. He not only doubled and homered, but he almost beat out a routine grounder to second at the end of the game. That speed and energy adds a spark. It appeared the dugout had more energy than in the last 10 games. And you could see the excitement when he homered. Maybe what our club has needed is a true leadoff hitter. . . .

If Brandon Watson turns our offense around, then he has to play every day, which means someone has to sit and someone will be unhappy. But it's not about the name on the back of the jersey; it's only about the name on the front.

Watson, you might recall, was headed back to New Orleans about 100 hours later.

* * * *

It's not really about Watson or Church here; it's about Bowden. He falls prey to whatever chimera (third definition) passes by his roster noodlings. He was intrigued by something in Watson's play---the speed, no doubt---and Watson's hot spring gave him cover to try him out. Someone had to be expendable, and Church had an option year remaining. (As tonight's Post article points out, the team has precious few players with options flexibility.) Church had a tough spring, maybe loped and/or moped around a bit, and that gave the club cover to option him out with some rational basis.

I'm just spitfiring here, of course, but it seems pretty simple to me. It didn't work out, and Bodes erased the league.

* * * *

In his autobiography, The Rise and Fall of the Press Box, the late, great sportswriter Leonard Koppett passed on some advice a mentor had once conveyed to him: "Not very much matters, and nothing matters very much." It seems a fatalistic piece of perspective for us as fans of the Nationals, but as Distinguished Senators contends, Church isn't a panacea to what most ails the team: utterly craptastic pitching. Neither is the other call-up, Harris, who no doubt deserves more of a mention from me. (At the very least, he's useful as a primary third base---and secondary utility infield---backup.) Some of that can't be pinned on Bowden---who would have guessed Livan Hernandez would be so bad at this point?---but much of it rightly is at this early juncture. And, of course, it's not just the pitching:

"We're boxed in," Bowden said. "But when you're boxed in, the way you improve is by releasing guys or making trades." One candidate for either fate could be left-hander Joey Eischen, who gave up five runs in just one inning of work yesterday and now has an ERA of 19.29 in five appearances. Other slow-starting players to whom the club isn't committed over the long term include shortstop Royce Clayton (.200 average in 35 at-bats), outfielder Marlon Byrd (.182 in 22 at-bats) and right-hander Ramon Ortiz (0-2, 8.18 ERA).

"We have some veteran guys who, when they look in the mirror, they're not going to like what they see with their batting averages, with their on-base percentages, with the pitches they're throwing -- with any of it," Bowden said. "We've got to open ourselves up to the possibility of making moves."

Keep in mind that this team is ten games into the season, and Bowden's already forming plans to blow it up. Bill James once wrote that a team that fires its manager in-season is a team that doesn't have direction. I'm not sure I agree, but what is this? Well, that's simple---it's a Jim Bowden team:

Bowden has long been famous for such impulsive overhauls during bad times. Last season, after a sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds, he made nine changes to the Nationals' roster in a single day. In 2003, when he was the general manager of the Reds, he made seven moves between games of a doubleheader.

Always erasing that league. So to speak.