- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

Some years ago, while the nation’s capital still languished in the horsehide wilderness, a misguided soul writing in this space declared that bad baseball was better than no baseball.

Now I’m not so sure.

Actually, describing the Nationals as bad qualifies as massive understatement. How about abysmal, atrocious or dreadful. And maybe all three.

If you disagree - and I doubt that you do - look at the record: 44-82 entering last night’s ho-hum date in Philly. Compared with other woebegone Washington teams, these Gnats rank right down there. Given another devastating injury or two, they might have taken a run at the 40-120 New York Mets of 1962 who set a modern standard for futility.

And there’s no excuse for it, considering the Lerner family’s deep pockets and presumably earnest vows to make this a model franchise. Which means heads are gonna roll after the season mercifully ends Sept. 28. (If you’re scoring at home, that’s only 38 agonizing days and nights ahead.)

Whose cranium will we see careening down South Capitol Street and over the Frederick Douglass Bridge come autumn?

Maybe manager Manny Acta’s?

Maybe general manager Jim Bowden‘s?

Maybe both?

My guess is Bowden will depart. In his career with the Cincinnati Reds and the Nats, he has made some good deals and some awful ones. Bowden is something of a loose cannon on the trading front, and what the Nats need is a steady hand like John Schuerholz or Pat Gillick.

In Acta’s case, we haven’t heard much this season about how well he relates to young players or what a brilliant strategist he is. If the Lerners and club president Stan Kasten decide on a change, you can bet they’ll hire a tougher-than-nails type. That’s how it works in baseball. Empathy is great, but only if you’re winning with it.

Upon arrival from Montreal in 2005, the Nats delighted and deluded us with that 50-31 first half that landed them atop the National League East. Since then, though, they were 219-312 before last night - a nonwinning percentage of .412 that not even a mother could love.

This season’s .349 pace was the worst for a Washington team since the expansion Senators went 56-106 - a .346 percentage - in 1963. In fact, only seven of 74 previous teams hereabouts have done worse - and only three since 1909.

By now, the Lerners might be wondering why they fought so hard to land the franchise. This has not been a good year for one of Washington’s premier builders. We all know which way the economy has been heading - roughly in the same direction as the ballclub.

Besides, the Nats’ owners are involved in a messy dispute with the District over the payment of $3.5 million in rent for Nationals Park because, the Lerners claim, work on the new facility is incomplete. I don’t know who’s right in this matter, but it doesn’t generate positive publicity.

So far the Nationals, from principal owner Mark Lerner and Kasten on down, have maintained a stolid public front in the face of this year’s on-field calamities. Maybe the Nats ought to borrow Washington Mystics president Sheila Johnson, who tore her equally underachieving troops a new one this week.

One thing for sure: The Nats can’t continue this way if they’re ever to challenge the almighty Redskins for local sporting supremacy. Folks in this town will support a loser only so long, and the ballclub has more than exceeded its honeymoon period.

Earlier this season, teeth were gnashed and garments rent over TV ratings that showed only 9,000 households a game tuned in to the Nats in a metropolitan area of 5.3 million. By now, that number might be down to 900, especially with the Olympics flooding the airwaves. Why watch a team with no chance of playing a meaningful game and little chance of winning?

It’s a shame that our baseball renaissance has come to this. For 33 years, we endured summers without a major league team. Now we seem to be in that sad and sorry position again.

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