When the Toronto Blue Jays, in the District to play a three-game series against the Nationals starting Friday night, used to play this franchise in its former life as the Montreal Expos, it was touted as a Canadian rivalry. As if the French-speaking province of Quebec, where trying to secede from Canada was a sport of its own, needed a baseball game to fuel bitter feelings.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said the players didn’t view it as a rivalry.
“Maybe for the fans it might have been a rivalry, but I didn’t feel that way when we were playing them,” he said.
Why would it be? A group of primarily American players getting all territorial about two Canadian cities? Heck, the Orioles and Nationals can’t manage to drum up passion for a rivalry that does exist between fans of both cities, so why would the Expos and Blue Jays?
Even fans north of the border never quite bought into it because, again, baseball teams seemed inconsequential compared with the other differences between the cities. So that rivalry never took.
There’s an identity, though, for this weekend’s games at Nationals Park: the “Help Wanted” series.
First, there is Nationals manager Manny Acta, who, according to multiple news reports, shouldn’t have been in his office Friday afternoon at Nationals Park. He should have been searching the want ads.
Acta is still here.
Then there is the assistant general manager for the Blue Jays, Tony LaCava, who, according to several sources, spoke to Nationals officials for the general manager’s job after Jim Bowden resigned in disgrace. But nothing came out of those talks, and the Nationals appointed assistant general Mike Rizzo as the acting GM.
Rizzo is still here.
Then there is the big boss himself, team president Stan Kasten, who was rumored all winter to be a candidate for the Blue Jays’ vacant CEO job, which is held reportedly on a interim basis by former Blue Jays and Major League Baseball president Paul Beeston, one of Kasten’s closest friends in baseball. But the rumors died when Bowden resigned - sort of like the lifting of a cloud over the franchise.
Kasten is still here.
The common thread in all these is Bowden.
Acta has been on the hot seat because of the mess Bowden left behind - a bullpen built with kindling and a roster full of, for the most part, projects and rejects. That he could manage to keep this team together in the clubhouse and on the field in spite of an 19-46 record is perhaps a better managing job than his first season, when he led another team of projects and rejects to 73 wins. There is usually a lot more blood on the clubhouse floor when a team is 19-46. But for three years, Acta has had to manage a Boys Town squad.
Rizzo was handed a mess no one could have fixed any better at the time. You can’t build a bullpen in April or May, but he has managed to get some stabilizing forces in there and has, at the least, handled the job with a professionalism and decency that were missing before.
And Kasten, it is clear, had his hands tied by the Lerner family when it came to many of the decisions that put this franchise in such desperate straits.
That tie was Bowden, who unfortunately had the ear and the trust of the Lerners that ultimately led to a good manager’s job in jeopardy, the Dominican baseball scandal and speculation that the team president was looking for a way out.
You can’t judge any of these three - Acta, Rizzo and Kasten - until most, if not all, of the poison left behind by the Bowden regime is out of the organization’s system. That may be a tough wait for Nationals fans, who rightfully believe many of these so-called growing pains were self-inflicted, and they have waited long enough.
But to make judgments on the people who could lead this franchise out of these tough times, based on the product Jim Bowden left behind, just continues the influence of the former general manager within this franchise.
And who wants that?