- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Nationals were born in a nowhere place called Viera, Fla. – a manufactured town created by a family of fruit and vegetable peddlers, a name that means “faith” in Slovak.

It took a lot of faith to be a Nationals fans in those early days of spring training at Space Coast Stadium in the 321 area code – which, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is final countdown for a rocket launch.

Players showed out of nowhere. One day Dmitri Young was hanging out near the minor league complex, looking like one of the local homeless, and then suddenly he was on the roster. Bret Boone comes to camp, declaring he was making a comeback, but the brother tandem of Aaron and Bret Boone in Nationals uniforms ended quickly, as did the comeback.

And then there was the song “We Are the Washington Nationals.”

Ten years of memories, many of which seem comedic now when the team was a three-ring circus, and Jim Bowden was the ringleader.

Matt Williams would have been on the first rocket out of town if he had to manage his way through those early Nationals spring training camps.

The first spring training game the Nationals ever played will forever be known for the debut of the team song, “We are the Washington Nationals” – commissioned by the carnival barker Bowden and written by a friend name Jeff Pence of the group Blessid Union of Souls. It was a head banging tune that Bowden declared should be the official team song.

The problem was, though, Bowden hadn’t told his boss, team president Tony Tavares, about the song. The press box went nuts over it, but Tavares wasn’t a fan. That was the last time we heard, “We are the Washington Nationals.”

The game? Highly touted leadoff prospect Endy Chavez made two outs on eight pitches, and the song he heard when the regular season opened was “We are the New Orleans Zephyrs.”

The following spring was the Alfonso Soriano circus – the $10 million second baseman the Nationals traded for and then told him to pick up an outfielder’s glove. Soriano thought he was the second coming of Bobby Richardson, and was missing in action for a time at spring training, refusing to make the move. There were various reports of Soriano being spotted in all the hot spots in Viera, like Cracker Barrel. He finally showed up, they held a press conference, and when Soriano was asked if he would play left field if manager Frank Robinson told him to, Soriano replied, “Who knows?”

Spring training 2006 was pretty tense, despite the joy following Washington’s surprising 81-81 inaugural season the year before. Tavares hated Robinson, who hated Bowden, and it spilled out that spring. Robinson went off on Bowden because he couldn’t even pick his own backup catcher, so I wrote a column about the tension in Viera.

The morning it appeared in The Times, I walked in Space Coast Stadium for work, and signed in, as always, at the security desk, where the guard – a nice retired fellow – said to me, “How do you guys come up with something different to write every day?” I told him, “Sometimes we just make it up,” because that’s what people believe anyway.

A half hour later, I was leaving the building to head over to the practice field when Bowden came outside chasing after me. He screamed at me for 10 minutes, veins bulging out of his neck, claiming I fabricated some quotes in the column. After he was done, I went back in the building to call my editors in case they heard about it first from someone else. The security guard looked at me with his jaw dropped, stunned by what he had seen. I said, “See, that’s what happens when you make it up.”

By the end of the day, when Bowden discovered that what I had written was the truth, he called me and apologized.

Spring training 2007 was the year of 120 – when sports writers across the country, myself included, declared that you could burn 120 losses in your lawn for the Nationals. They were expected to be the worst team in the history of baseball, as they held tryouts in Viera for anyone willing to show up – 37 pitchers in camp. The regular season was a surprising one, as rookie manager Manny Acta led this band of misfits to respectable 73-89 record. So like following the 2005 season, everyone felt good after 2007, heading into Viera for spring of 2008.

How good? I wrote a column praising Bowden the survivor, four years on the job, a miracle of sorts. “Jim Bowden, who used to fly like a satellite the government might want to shoot down, is now flying below the radar,” I wrote. It was a column where I simply praised Bowden for managing not to be self destructive enough to get fired.

Bowden was in his glory, riding around on his Nationals Segway, basking in the glow of the praise. He thanked me for writing the column. His girl friend Joyce thanked me for writing the column. One front office executive told me Bowden had sent the column to his mother.

What was I thinking?

Bowden turned that band of misfits from 2007 into a motorcycle gang. He traded for Elijah Dukes, and had to hire a babysitter to keep him out of trouble. He signed steroid cheater and gambling degenerate Paul LoDuca. He traded for Lastings Milledge, guilty of perhaps having the worst attitude you’ve ever seen in a ballplayer. Our source of amusement that spring was seeing how many times Dukes would show up late for workouts.

And then came the spring of Smiley Gonzalez.

The news that the Nationals were scammed out of $1.4 million by a Dominican prospect named Smiley Gonzalez who turned out to be somebody else, somebody much older, and somebody not nearly as good as the legend of Smiley Gonzalez, signaled the last days of Bowden. He watched pitchers from behind the batting cage during workouts the morning after the news broke, but he was a dead man walking.

So was my cigar-smoking pal, special assistant and Bowden confidant Jose Rijo, who had a major role in the Gonzalez signing. He was not in camp that day,taking a leave of absence. But he was at the local cigar bar that night, and after a few bottles of wine and smokes, there I was outside on the deck supposedly talking on Rijo’s cell phone to the “buscone” who has helped signed Gonzalez, taking notes on cocktail napkins.

God, I miss those spring training days.

After Bowden resigned that spring, team president Stan Kasten put assistant general manager Mike Rizzo in charge, and the circus left town. It’s been pretty much about baseball ever since – this spring about how Williams, the new manager, will handle himself.

That’s who the Washington Nationals are these days.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,”noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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