The Washington Nationals need to beat the Houston Astros in the World Series.
Not just for 94-year-old Ted Lerner and the ownership group he formed to bring baseball back to D.C. Not just for their fans near and far, including many who rooted for two incarnations of the Washington Senators decades ago. And not just for the Nationals’ former players and employees who suffered throughout the RFK Era into early seasons on South Capitol Street.
Yes, those stakeholders would be absolutely thrilled if the Nationals prevail against the American League champions.
But other onlookers, less obvious, will secretly pull for Washington, too, based on their self-interests and problems on the job. They include MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and counterparts Roger Goodell (NFL) and Adam Silver (NBA).
Houston already has caused inestimable damage by tanking its way to the top, a route that imitators in baseball and other sports have eagerly followed. Beating Washington would give the Astros a second World Series title in a three-year span that featured 100-plus wins each season.
A team hasn’t accomplished that feat since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals.
QUIZ: Can you pass this World Series trivia test?
Not too long ago, Houston experienced a different kind of three-year span: 100-plus losses from 2011-13. The organization willfully, intentionally, and deliberately fielded the sorriest team it could muster, a blatant attempt to stockpile high draft picks. For the trouble of losing so many games, the Astros came away with George Springer (No. 11 in 2011), Carlos Correa (No. 1 in 2012) and Alex Bregman (No. 2 in 2015), one-third of their potent lineup.
It’s too late to make the Astros pay for violating the spirit of honest competition.
But we certainly don’t need them to claim another championship and further encourage wannabe losers like the Miami Marlins, Miami Dolphins, and Phoenix Suns.
The Suns lost to the New Orleans Pelicans last season in the NBA’s “Tank for Zion” sweepstakes. The Dolphins are trying to hold off the Cincinnati Bengals in “Tanking for Tua” this season, where the most dreadful NFL team wins the right to draft Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
In baseball, we thought the Marlins would run away with the worst record, but they were overtaken by the Detroit Tigers. I’m uncertain which college or prep player the Marlins were eyeing, but it wound up being tanks for nothing. Ditto for the 108-loss Baltimore Orioles and 103-loss Kansas City Royals, picking second and fourth, respectively.
The Astros might be poster boys for the strategy, but they have co-conspirators in the Chicago Cubs, who averaged 94 losses (on purpose) from 2011-14 before winning it all in 2016.
The antithesis of that approach will be in the visitors’ dugout at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday for Game 1 of the World Series.
Don’t get it twisted; the Nats took a fair share of lumps en route to their first pennant, including the 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 that led to drafting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But they lost the old-fashioned way, due to the team’s lack of talent, as opposed to management’s lack of effort.
That was back in the day when you could post a .382 winning percentage and still hold your head high. Clubs could rebuild with honor, dignity, and integrity, instead of enacting shady teardown schemes that reek of deceitfulness.
Unless a tanking franchise lets its prices (tickets, concessions, parking, etc.) drop and scrape the bottom along with its win totals, the process constitutes fraud. In fact, Manfred should go after the tactic by accusing front offices of violating Major League Baseball Rule 21(a):
“Any person connected with a Club who shall fail to give his best efforts toward the winning of any baseball game with which he is or may be in any concerned, or who shall intentionally lose or attempt to lose, … shall be declared permanently ineligible.”
This wouldn’t apply to teams making buy or sell decisions at the trading deadline, based on the standings and odds of a playoff berth. But when an organization consistently treats its roster like a stolen vehicle, stripping it for parts in exchange for draft picks, commissioners face an ethical concern.
“When there’s too many teams not trying to win, that poisons the game,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer told reporters in February. “It poisons the fan experience and creates bandwagon fans … and that’s not the type of fans you want to create.”
The Astros weren’t trying to win before, but they’re trying to win now. Again. Washington should punish them for past offenses while sending a vital message to would-be copycats in every sport:
Tanking is not encouraged; proceed at your own risk.
Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays.