- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

Woody Allen once said, “90 percent of life is just showing up.” Just showing up this season might not result in a 90 percent return for the Washington Nationals. But if most of their players manage to show up most of the time, the Nationals should see nearly a 20 percent improvement over last season’s embarrassing 59-102 record.

Those Nationals were bad, but not 59 wins bad. They finished with such a poor record in large part because of a long line of injured players upon whom they depended.

Most were not very good players - Dmitri Young, Austin Kearns, Paul LoDuca, Johnny Estrada and Wily Mo Pena. But if they’d been able to at least show up and perform as badly as expected, the Nats probably could have added another five or 10 wins.

A healthy Nationals team with a roster full of overrated players still would have been a step back from the 2007 season - the first full year of Lerner family ownership, when an overachieving team won 73 games.

So here we are: in the third year of Lerner ownership, Stan Kasten as team president. And where are the Nationals? Trying to catch up to that first year.

One step forward, two steps back.

That pattern would have continued if not for the Smiley Gonzalez scandal that forced Jim Bowden to resign as general manager.

One step forward, two steps back.

That pattern characterized Bowden’s dysfunctional career as a general manager in 10 years in Cincinnati and four in Washington. For every Ryan Zimmerman, there is a Kearns and LoDuca. For every John Lannan, there is a Pena or a Young.

Young’s presence in the Nationals organization deserves special attention on the list of poor decisions - maybe its own investigation.

His story has been well documented but still defies explanation.

This is a player who in 2006 pled guilty to domestic violence charges and spent 30 days in rehab for alcohol and substance abuse. Later that year, the Detroit Tigers, in the midst of a playoff race, cut Young loose with less than a month to go in the season. Two months later, he was hospitalized after a diabetic attack.

No major league clubs were interested in Young the next spring. But Bowden, who had Young in Cincinnati, offered him an invite with a non-roster minor league deal.

To Young’s credit, he made the most of it - even though he hardly was in great playing shape. Young batted .320 with 74 RBI in 136 games and won the National League Comeback Player of the Year.

Great story. But if ever there was a short-term kind of guy, it was Dmitri Young. Overweight, 35, battling diabetes, a history of substance abuse - a one-year contract is ample award for a player like that.

But Bowden inexplicably gave Young a two-year, $10 million deal, begging the question I have asked before: Who was Bowden bidding against for Young’s services? Vince McMahon?

Young reported to spring training weighing nearly 300 pounds, and he was 324 pounds by the end of the season. He missed 112 games. But he got paid $5 million.

He appeared in better shape this spring - but hardly good enough shape for a major league ballplayer. Young, suffering from a strained back, barely saw any action in Florida. It’s not hard to figure out what strained his back.

Young will not be on the Opening Day roster. He will stay at the team’s extended spring training in Florida, trying to get in playing shape.

For this, he will be paid another $5 million this year - probably more than the combined pay of all the kids he will play alongside in Florida.

The perception is that the Nationals are taking steps forward since Bowden resigned. Kasten moved quickly to turn the baseball reins over to assistant GM Mike Rizzo, if only on an interim basis. The signing of reliever Joe Beimel several weeks ago to a one-year, $2 million contract was another signal that the franchise is heading in the right direction.

The offseason pursuit of Mark Teixiera and the signing of Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract were seen as signs that the Lerners have realized the folly of their conservative - that is, cheap - style of operating a major league franchise.

Those moves would have constituted only temporary advances under Bowden, the self-destructive general manager whose reign set back this franchise.

But Bowden is gone, and the franchise appears to be moving forward. If they manage to stay healthy this season - or just show up - the impact should show in their record by the end of the year.

But until the likes of Dmitri Young are left in the past, the Nationals will be haunted by the Jim Bowden two-step.

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