- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Word was out, so Tony Tavares called Bob DuPuy to find out what the heck was happening.

“Is something going on I should know about?” Tavares asked.

“Oh, Jesus,” DuPuy said. “How did they get it already? We just made that decision.”

“I don’t how they got it, but they got it. We better be in position to react to it.”
“Yeah, let me tell you what went on. Somebody leaked it out of Major League Baseball to the media.”

And so, Tavares said, they went into crisis mode.

In many ways, that conversation in the fall of 2004 made the rebirth of the Washington Nationals official. Tavares, league-appointed president of the Montreal Expos, knew the move was inevitable. DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, had been working on Montreal’s relocation for years after contraction was eliminated as an option. Tavares would pack up and move to the “Hinckley” Hilton in downtown D.C. in a full scramble. He had to find new staff, pat the mayor on the shoulder, summon old friends to help him, and, most paramount, grapple with a decaying RFK Stadium.

Patches and hires were made as Opening Day approached with jet speed. If RFK wasn’t quite presentable, it was at least functional. President George W. Bush loosened up in the batting cages beneath the stands while asking catcher Brian Schneider about his kids. The team played nine road games before Bush threw a right-handed pitch from the mound at RFK. Baseball had returned to D.C., with the curiosity and hope that can only be attached to newness. Ten years later, the Nationals are the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, complete with the best rotation in baseball and a steel-hearted roster construction that demands the championship or be dismissed as a failure.

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The decade-long evolution for the Nationals from happy-to-be-in-D.C. to title-chase angst almost never began. Major League Baseball was set to contract the Expos, an organization that could not stabilize attendance and had stadium issues. Under the impression they were not going to be around much longer, Tavares and general manager Omar Minaya decided to pursue pennants with rash decisions. There was no reason to build a roster for the future when the organization’s last breath seemed so near.

“Omar Minaya really gets a rash and a crap about this that he doesn’t deserve,” Tavares said. “‘You made a bunch of trades to get veteran players, what’s wrong with you guys? Why didn’t you just stick with your picks and get some young kids and build it up for the new owner coming in?’ And the answer to that was, because we were told when we first came on board in Montreal that the club was going to be picked up in a contraction movement and the team wasn’t going to be around.

“So, both Omar and I said, ‘What the hell, might as well go for it. What do we care?’ We made those trades and then we found out, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to move. You’re going to relocate as opposed to getting picked up in contraction.’ Everybody now criticizes Omar and says, ‘Can you believe this trade? What a terrible trade this was.’

“At the time, Omar would be the first one to tell you, the trades that he made he would have never made if he knew … if he thought we were going to be in existence long-term.”

The news of the move didn’t only launch a scramble to ship the franchise to D.C., but also caused a more immediate tumult in Montreal. Tavares said he learned of the relocation approximately 24 hours before the Expos’ final home game. The move was announced hours before first pitch. Police officers were positioned in access ways during the game. Players had to leave the field at one point when golf balls were thrown toward the stadium turf. The Expos lost, 9-1.

“Next morning, early in the morning, I met with Major League Baseball’s attorneys and Bob DuPuy and just kind of went through how things were going to be in the move to Washington,” Tavares said. “We had agreed that Claude Delorme [Montreal’s vice president of business operations] would stay back and handle the transition out of Montreal and I would go to Washington and handle the transition down there.”

Giddiness about the relocation was pervasive for District baseball fans who were without a team for 33 years. In the Expos’ offices, there was sadness. Administrative workers would be left behind because of the relocation to another country. Tavares, Schneider and Brad Wilkerson, the latter two who knew Montreal as their only professional baseball home, went around to the offices in Olympic Stadium following the final home game.

“We said goodbye and thank you to people,” Schneider said. “People were crying; the passion they had for the club. People were losing their jobs. It was much more than just leaving a city. That was a really, really hard day because I enjoyed my time in Montreal and that’s an unbelievable city.”

Schneider was the team’s union representative. He heard suggestions of relocation to Monterrey, Mexico or Puerto Rico, where the team played 22 games in each of its final two seasons, among other destinations. The final two years in Montreal, when the Expos were in an oddball ownership relationship after being purchased by the league, made players wonder about the organization’s pursuits. They were unsure who had final say on roster moves. Who was making decisions. If they were in contention, would reinforcements be sought? The same questions would hover during the first all-star break in D.C.

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Schneider lived in Florida during the offseason, so the relocation destination did not concern him much. He was excited about D.C. Though the league still owned the team, he figured Washington would be a more stable long-term environment for the franchise. He moved to 8th and B, putting the National Archives and J. Edgar Hoover building a quick walk away. A welcome-to-town banquet provided him with a sense of how fans felt.

“The fans were going nuts,” Schneider said. “Walking around the city and seeing everyone with Nationals hats and shirts and jackets; we hadn’t even played a game yet. Fans were excited, people were excited and as a player, to walk into a city where you’ve never played a game yet and people are already walking around with your hats and jackets and shirts on. … That’s probably when I was like, wow, this is going to be a special place.”

Tavares holed up in the Hilton with new executive vice president Kevin Uhlich. The two had worked together previously with the Anaheim Angels. Once the transition was official, Tavares called Uhlich to see if he was available.

“Feel like working?” Tavares remembers asking.

“Sure, what do you got?” Uhlich answered.

“I got a job in Washington, but it’s a quick turnaround.”

“How quick?”

“Can you be here tomorrow?” Tavares asked.

They began filling the administrative positions. Interviews were swift, and, well, interesting.

“There wasn’t any anger or anything like that about how things came together so fast,” Tavares said. “We had a lot of laughs during that period of time. Different people you interviewed … I would say, ‘What do you think of that guy?’ And Kevin would say, ‘A little bit of a wingnut, what do you think?’ ‘That’s what I got out of it.’ We interviewed a lot of different people over a very fast period of time. We had a lot of fun doing it. It still brings a smile to my face when I think about some of the stuff that we did.”

Fixing up RFK Stadium was a must. Tavares said they were “extremely concerned” they were not going to have the stadium ready for Opening Day. They kept on the construction crews and were able to “get through with a few paper clips, Band-Aids and Scotch tape in some areas,” Tavares said.

Tony Siegle, the assistant general manager, said there were nights security would walk organization employees to their cars outside of RFK. Cars were vandalized, he said, and a pair of binoculars that were dear to him were stolen. Everyone felt a new park was paramount if baseball was not going to fail for a third time in D.C.

The front office felt it had a decent club to put on the dilapidated field. Fan expectations in a new place seemed to only involve showing up in order to provide satisfaction. Prior to the season, the mood was more reception than honeymoon. While Tavares and Uhlich grappled with the administrative, public relations and RFK resurrection duties, the front office was trying to maintain as if little had changed.

Jim Bowden, who declined to comment for this article, was hired to replaced the departed Minaya. Siegle was his assistant.

“We almost hit the ground running. In fact, we did,” Siegle said. “We didn’t have time to think. We had to know where to live, buy our food, where we’re going to eat.”

Schneider had spent his pro career pulling all-blue uniforms over his head and tying blue cleats, making the flood of red on his jersey an adjustment. The team had moved, his uniform had changed and he had seen the buildup around the city. Chatting with the president on Opening Day, however, slammed through the idea he was about to start the season in the nation’s capital.

President Bush entered the clubhouse in a suit, shaking hands and exchanging laughs. Schneider, the opening-night catcher, would leave his teammates and go with Bush to the batting cages. Bush asked Schneider about his family as they warmed up, causing the surreal sense that would drape over any citizen playing catch with the president.

“How it all came together was really awesome,” Schneider said.

The Nationals won, 5-3, producing their third consecutive victory. After reaching an 8-4 record, things leveled. They lost five consecutive games to fall to 24-25 in St. Louis. Livan Hernandez threw seven innings for a Sunday afternoon salvation and an even record. A massive homestand awaited. It became a 13-game stretch that altered the feeling, and, all this time later, the assessment of the season.

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The Nationals were 27-26 on June 1. They won the next night by scoring five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning after allowing four in the top of it. Ryan Church’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 11th inning beat the Florida Marlins a day later. The snowball had been pushed downhill.

The Nationals closed the homestand with 10 consecutive wins. They moved into first place during the run and were 1.5 games up by June 12, the end of the homestand, after returning to RFK 2.5 games out of first. There were numerous tight wins. A sense grew that Washington rallies were inevitable. By July 3, the Nationals were 50-31 and 5.5 games up after Schneider’s 12th-inning, two-out home run in Chicago against the Cubs.

“A lot of things were going right for us,” Schneider said. “It didn’t matter what the score was. We knew [in] the seventh, eighth and ninth, we were going to come back and win it.”

“Everything went right the first half of the season,” then-manager Frank Robinson said. “Whatever it took, we won ballgames. Our pitching was good, starting pitching was good. Bullpen was excellent. Timely hitting, clutch hitting, was outstanding. Whatever it took, we overcame obstacles and won ballgames, and people didn’t get down because we were down in ballgames. They expected us to come back. And we did the first half.”

What had been a happy-to-have-you theme turned into an unexpected possibility. Was the team going to make the playoffs the first season in town?
The Nationals’ lead shrunk to 2.5 games by the all-star break. The questions that hung over them in Montreal because of the awkward ownership scenario hit. Was there money to spend to make a second-half push? Tavares said he had check and pen in hand despite blowback from other owners.

“It was funny because we were thinking again of making some moves,” Tavares said. “We were getting some of the other owners upset because they were saying, ‘Wait a minute, we own a piece of you and you’re competing for free agents against us.’ I said, ‘Look, when I took this job, Bud Selig told me to run this club as independently as I possibly could and the only people I had to talk to about moves like that were Bud himself or Bob DuPuy. And, bottom line, you don’t own a piece of me. You own a piece of Major League Baseball, OK? I don’t report to you. I check the left-hand side of my check every day and your name’s not on it. Bud’s is. Call him if you have a problem.’

“So … other than that, we were just excited about what we were doing. Then things started falling apart in the second half of the season.”

The Nationals traded for Junior Spivey and Preston Wilson. Reliever Mike Stanton was signed. But, those moderate boosts were undone by injuries and underperformance.

Wilkerson hit .271 in the first half of the season. His average in the second half was a dismal .219. Jose Guillen hit 18 home runs in the first half. He hit six in the second. Hernandez’s ERA increased by more than a run, from 3.48 to 4.58. Closer Chad Cordero rode dominance through the first half. His ERA was a minuscule 1.13 before the break. It was 3.04 after.

By the end of July, the Nationals were in second place and just seven games over .500. The fade continued through August. On Sept. 25, the New York Mets scored two runs in the eighth off Travis Hughes. The rallies that belonged to the Nationals in the first half were loaned to opponents in the second. The Nationals were a stunning 30-51 to close the season, a precise and sigh-inducing opposite of the first 81 games.

“It truly was inexplicable,” Tavares said. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We really thought we had a shot. I’m not talking about necessarily winning the World Series, but we thought we could win the division.”

“Very disappointing year because we were in the lead at the all-star break by five games or whatever it was, and this is an unbelievable year,” Schneider said. “We’re going to come here for the first year, no one expects us to do anything and we’re going to make the playoffs. We had all the right intentions, it’s just a shame how it ended.”

“In the second half, when we came back from the break, it looked like someone … and I told my coaching staff, I said, ‘Is this the same team that we had the first half?’” Robinson said. “I know it’s the same guys we had before. But, I said, we’re not playing the same way and we didn’t. It was like … it was surreal. It was like you were walking in a fog. No, this can’t be happening. Maybe this is a dream. Maybe we’re still on break, you know? We couldn’t do nothing right. Just couldn’t do anything the way we did it the first half.”
Robinson wasn’t done.

“I can’t point to anything significant. I guess we played to the level of the talent we had. That’s about it. That’s the only thing I can think of. Maybe we overachieved the first half and we underachieved the second half.

“Believe it or not, [we had] the same record the opposite way. That’s what that season was about. Now, explain that. Explain how you can play and win a certain amount of ballgames the first half and lose a certain amount, and play the second half and lose the amount you won and win the amount you lost in the first half? Explain that.

“I can’t. Like somebody just flipped the page … and … I don’t know. I don’t know. It took me a while to get over that.”

Schneider is the manager of the Jupiter Hammerheads, a Single-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. If it works out, he’d love to have a second career as a manager. For now, four kids, ages 7, 5, 4 and 2, are locking up most of his time. Some play in the same Tee Ball league as Wilkerson’s children. The two, and their wives, go out to dinner together on a regular basis.

Siegle rejoined the San Francisco Giants as a senior advisor in 2007. He has two World Series rings to show for it. He said he still has friends in Washington, including general manager Mike Rizzo, vice president of player personnel Bob Boone and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was drafted in 2005 and whom Siegle calls “one of the finest kids I’ve ever been in contact with.”

Robinson managed his final game for the Nationals on Oct. 1, 2006. He joined Major League Baseball’s administration in 2007. He’s currently its executive vice president of baseball development.

Tavares bounces between Reno, Lake Tahoe and Florida. He cherry-picks consulting opportunities. He “absolutely” would do it again, the zany interviews, scrambling, and patching of RFK Stadium.

The 10th anniversary of baseball returning to D.C. reminds of its lurching start, and how expectations are influenced by time. A decade and two division titles later, tension will be associated with Opening Day. The weight of projected October greatness will hang in the air the way jovial indifference did at the start 10 years ago. Major League Baseball ceded team control to the Lerner family. Nationals Park replaced crumbling RFK. A firestorm of a start has given way to an establishment where nothing short of the World Series will suffice. What a difference a decade makes.

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