Monday, April 17, 2006

Sometimes, more is learned about people during bad times than good ones. If that’s true, there is plenty to learn about the Washington Nationals now.

Stop and think for a moment about this: Honestly, what has gone right for this cursed ballclub so far? OK, maybe Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson appear to be healthy and hitting the ball well. And yes, Ryan Zimmerman’s defense is as good as advertised.

But that’s about it. One would be hard-pressed to find any other significant positives that have developed in the last two weeks — and, if taken further back, over the last two months when the Nationals’ calamitous spring training is included.

These kinds of trying times would test the patience of even the most resolute people, so it’s hard to fault Washington players and management for making their frustrations public. That said, it’s the last thing this team needs now.

Jose Vidro’s rant about RFK Stadium and its gargantuan outfield gaps Wednesday night was probably a long time coming. Even though it came following the Nationals’ second home game of the season, it’s clear this issue has been bugging the veteran second baseman (and others) since last season.

And Vidro’s point is not without some merit: RFK is a hitter’s nightmare. The Nationals hit fewer home runs (46) in their home ballpark last year than any major-league team since the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993.

What Vidro forgot to mention, though, were all the times RFK has helped Washington’s pitching staff in 84 games. Would John Patterson have been as dominant last season without those big outfield gaps? Would the Nationals’ bullpen have been among baseball’s elite? Probably not.

Look, RFK is what it is: a pitcher’s park, maybe the best one in the majors. The sooner Vidro and his offensive teammates come to grips with that, the better this team will be. Washington wasn’t built to win 10-8 games. It was built to win 3-2 games. Skeptics might argue it doesn’t look like it’s built to win any games at the moment.

Vidro’s rant, while seemingly focused on something inconsequential such as the fences at RFK, was really about something far grander: the organization’s lack of ownership.

It’s the players’ belief, right or wrong, that ownership is to blame for all their troubles. Not that a new owner would automatically move the fences in or immediately invest another $50million toward payroll and nicer clubhouse facilities. But at least he would give this downtrodden franchise the one thing it needs the most right now — hope.

That’s what makes this a potentially watershed week for the Nationals. If Major League Baseball holds up its end of the bargain and names the owner, perhaps before Friday’s home game against the Braves, the entire direction of this season can be reversed.

A new owner isn’t going to produce more victories out of thin air and turn this team into a contender overnight. But his presence will make the Nationals’ No.1 excuse for their woes obsolete.

No more complaints about the small budget. No more whining about how the other 29 teams have it so much better. No more built-in excuses for everything that goes wrong.

The Nationals’ focus will have to be entirely on the field. And based on the way this team has looked through the season’s first two weeks, a little extra focus on the field wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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