You would be hard-pressed to find two more sorrowful franchises in sports in the same city than the Washington Redskins and the Washington Nationals.
One franchise - the Redskins - has spent a fortune to be mediocre in the best times, woeful in the worst times, like now.
That puts the Nationals - the other excuse for a professional sports team in this town - at least one up on the Redskins. They haven’t spent a fortune on being the worst team in baseball, with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball since the Lerner family took over the team in mid-2006. So Nationals fans can feel good about that (though after spending $27 million on Austin Kearns and Dmitri Young, the Nationals have proved they can waste money, just not as much of it).
Nationals fans also may take heart in believing that they already have been where the Redskins need to be to change the culture of the franchise - rock bottom.
It took a federal investigation to do it, but Jim Bowden’s resignation last spring over the Dominican baseball signings scandal and the embarrassment of the Esmailyn Gonzalez $1.6 million signing fraud was rock bottom for the Nationals. And out of that has spawned the hope, under new general manager Mike Rizzo, that at the very least, the decision-making of the baseball team is not in the hands of someone who destroys everything he touches.
Should Redskins fans hope that executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato starts scouting football prospects in the Dominican Republic?
The Nationals already may have turned the corner the Redskins still need to reach, but we still don’t know whether the untested Rizzo is up to the task. But the fact that he is not Jim Bowden at least has sent a message of hope to baseball fans in the District and to the industry at large.
Redskins fans will get that same feeling if Cerrato is given his walking papers. There will be a sense of relief that likely will become - if owner Dan Snyder ever hands over the football operation to someone with a high-profile resume and track record - euphoria.
But even if the Redskins put someone like Mike Holmgren in charge, don’t expect a quick turnaround. This is a team that is closer to the bottom than to the top, and it will take at least a few years for the franchise to dig itself out of this abyss. The bloated contracts and poor draft choices will take years to overcome.
When you put your business - especially a business that operates in the public eye like a sports team - in the hands of someone who doesn’t just fail at his job but inspires repulsion and ridicule both inside and outside of the industry, it results in damage that needs time to repair. You basically have to prove to your customers and your colleagues that you can operate a professional sports franchise again.
Whoever takes over for Cerrato is going to be faced with this challenge - the same challenge facing Rizzo.
If you don’t think the Washington Nationals have to prove to the rest of baseball that they can indeed operate like a legitimate sports franchise, then look at Cleveland’s hiring of former Washington manager Manny Acta.
Acta went 26-61 this year with the Nationals before he was fired July 12. And in the two and a half years he managed the Nationals, Acta had a record of 158-252.
Yet he was hired by the Indians - a franchise that was in the American League Championship Series two years ago - and, not only that, Acta had his choice of jobs. The Houston Astros - a franchise that played in the World Series just four years ago - also wanted to hire Acta. The Indians were willing to commit to Acta for three years - a better deal than he had in Washington.
What does that tell you? What does it tell you when one of the greatest managers of his time, Atlanta’s Bobby Cox, who managed against Acta’s team for close to 50 games, calls the Indians to recommend they hire Acta?