They lifted him onto their shoulders, spilled beer and champagne over his head and hugged him fiercely, with an unspoken gratitude. In the middle of the Washington Nationals' celebration Monday night stood general manager Mike Rizzo.
Fifty-one years old and the architect of the team tied for the best record in the majors, Rizzo soaked it in. In the midst of a TV interview, several of his players showered him with alcohol. Rizzo didn't flinch.
"Keep pouring it," he said. "I love it."
He looked around at the men he had brought to the major leagues this season and the work that had gone into building this team.
The cornerstone he had signed to a $100 million contract extension this spring. The $126 million right fielder he had made his boldest free agent statement as a general manager with. The young middle infielders he had never wavered on through their growing pains, only to watch them both flourish. The talented 19-year-old spark plug. The loquacious left-hander he surrendered four of his best prospects for last offseason.
Rizzo had been here before, as the scouting director for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series. This was better.
"Ten times better," Rizzo said.
As pandemonium swept across the Nationals' clubhouse and dugout Monday night, each reflected on the moment in his own way. They were a team built to succeed for years, a team with an average age of 27 and everyone under contract for 2013 outside of one upcoming free agent among its every-day players and starting rotation, and another with an option to return.
Seventeen members of the active, expanded roster know no organization other than this one. Eight arrived in trades, often overlooked transactions such as Michael Morse for Ryan Langerhans in an exchange of minor leaguers in 2009. Six came as free agents.
Drenched in champagne, Stephen Strasburg called it a dream come true. Bryce Harper thought of the moment he was drafted as a 17-year-old, only to be one of the Nationals' most integral players two years later. "I want to do this every single year," he said. "I want 20 more of these."
"This was the goal in spring training," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who signed a two-year deal before the 2011 season with a mutual option for 2013. He missed almost all of last year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and has been so good this year he'll appear on MVP ballots.
"This was the goal last year when they started to put this team together and I think at some point during the year, I don't know when it was, guys started to think that we were really good," he said. "That started to float through the clubhouse that we are the team to beat, and we've proven it here in the second half. To keep up with what we did in the first half, it means a lot to me but it means a lot more, I know, to these guys that have been here for a long time and had to put up with some pretty rough seasons."
Before he descended the dugout steps for the final time Monday night, Ryan Zimmerman raised his arms triumphantly to the legions of fans who had stuck around to share in the celebration. Long a franchise cornerstone, he finally was able to celebrate its highest moment.
"This was the vision of my father, who wanted to do it the right way and build it the right way and stayed tough about it," said principal owner Mark Lerner of his father, owner Ted Lerner. "And Mike Rizzo and his staff, we've come the full circle. We couldn't be happier. And the most important thing is, we're built for the long term, not for one-year wonder.
"They could go all the way. If they don't, I think we've grown so much this year as a ballclub. Most of these guys are young guys who haven't reached their prime yet or anywhere close to their prime. I think this team will be locked together for many years, and they will win a World Series title. If not this year, it will be one of these years."
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