- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

Although D.C. area baseball fans may not have been aware at the time, five years ago Wednesday was of one of the worst days in the history of the Nationals franchise.

This weekend, they are getting a reminder of that dark day — June 27, 2002 — when the future of this franchise was mortgaged to rent a pitcher for half a season.

Grady Sizemore was roaming center field last night in the first game of a three-game interleague series against the Cleveland Indians; he could have been doing it for the past three seasons in a Nationals uniform. Unfortunately for the District’s fans, the plan for the Montreal Expos franchise then didn’t go much beyond the rest of the 2002 season.

In fact, when then-general manager Omar Minaya traded three Expos prospects — Sizemore, pitcher Cliff Lee and infielder Brandon Philllips — along with first baseman Lee Stevens as part of a deal to acquire Cleveland ace Bartolo Colon, the Expos didn’t know whether they would even exist beyond 2002, let alone be in Washington three years later.

“We were ecstatic about it,” said catcher Brian Schneider, the only Nationals player who was on the Expos roster at the time. “We were facing contraction. We didn’t know what was going on. Omar went for a big name guy, and he helped us a lot that year. We had a good run.

“But that is what happens when you trade prospects. You just don’t know how they will develop. It turned out to be a great trade for Cleveland. It stinks when you lose them, but at the time we loved the trade. But it would be great to have those guys now.”

It turned out to be one of the all-time bad trades, reminiscent and on par with the Baltimore Orioles sending three young players — pitchers Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch and outfielder Steve Finley — for Glenn Davis in 1991.

Davis never matched his power in Houston and was plagued with injuries, but at least he was in an Orioles uniform for three years and 185 games. Colon pitched well for the Expos, going 10-4, but he was an Expo for just half a season, appearing in 17 games. He was traded by Minaya on Jan. 15, 2003 with Jorge Nunez to the White Sox for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez, Jeff Liefer and cash.

That means Sizemore, Lee and Phillips were traded for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez, Jeff Liefer and cash.

To make that deal equal, the cash would have to be whatever is on hand at the Treasury Department.

Lee has gone on to be a quality lefthanders in the American League, posting a record of 53-32 since 2002, and would be the ace on this Nationals squad.

Phillips was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2006, where he hit 17 home runs, drove in 75 runs and hit .276 last year. This season he has 11 home runs, 34 RBI and is batting .271.

Sizemore, though, is the crown jewel of the trio. He has become a premier center fielder — a position the Nationals have been unable to fill in the three years — and came into last night’s game batting leadoff, hitting .291 with 11 home runs, 33 RBI, 61 runs scored and 22 stolen bases. Last season, in 162 games, Sizemore batted .290 with 53 doubles, 11 triples, 28 home runs, 76 RBI, 134 runs scored and 22 stolen bases.

Coming to RFK held no special meaning for Sizemore and he has very little personal connections left on this roster (the only two Nationals who played with Sizemore are pitcher Shawn Hill and outfielder Brandon Watson). But like your first girlfriend, the team that signs you and where you start your professional career is often a fond memory.

“I had a good time playing in the organization,” Sizemore said. “It’s where I got my start.

“But I don’t look back too much at the past. I’ve been here a lot longer than I was there, and this is my home now. I was thankful for the opportunity they gave me. I was a young kid, and didn’t really know how to react to the trade. But it was a chance for a new start, with a new team, and you just have to move on. I am happy here. … I’m glad things worked out the way they did.”

Yeah, they worked out pretty well for him. Not so good for Washington baseball fans.

Watson, who started for the Nationals in center field last night, said Sizemore was his roommate when the two played in Clinton, Iowa, in 2001.

“He was a great guy, a hard-nosed player,” Watson said. “When he was traded, he didn’t know what was going on. He wasn’t playing for a couple of days and wondered if he did anything wrong.”

No, he didn’t do anything wrong. You might want to argue that Minaya did, but those were crazy times — a team in a wild card race owned by the 29 other major league owners that was supposedly targeted for contraction.

How crazy? Watson pointed out that the other outfielder he and Sizemore played with on that Expos Class A affiliate was none other than Jason Bay — the Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star who has hit 108 home runs and driven in 352 runs since entering the league in 2003.

Bay had been traded on March 24, 2002, along with Jimmy Serrano to the New York Mets for Lou Collier — in case you want to mark that date down along with June 27 as days of mourning for Washington baseball fans for what could have been.

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