Manager Dave Martinez got a kick out of seeing World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and other Washington Nationals finally open their championship rings a couple of weeks ago in the clubhouse — even if it was months later than originally planned and with no one around but other members of the organization.
“It’s definitely sad that we couldn’t have the fans here with us,” Martinez said, then relayed his players’ reaction while checking out the bling: “They all said, ‘Hey, let’s try to go get another one.’”
Easier said than done, of course, especially lately. Beginning with Thursday night’s opener of the pandemic-delayed season against the New York Yankees, the Nationals will attempt to do something no major league club has done in quite some time: win back-to-back World Series.
It’s been two decades since the 2000 New York Yankees capped a run of three titles in a row, making the current stretch the longest drought without anyone winning consecutive championships in baseball’s century-plus history.
Used to be a pretty regular occurrence: There even were three straight multiple-title clubs in the 1970s, when the 1972-74 Oakland Athletics of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter were followed by the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds of Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench, who were followed by the 1977-78 Yankees of Jackson and Ron Guidry.
“You have 30 teams now, so it’s harder to win. In the older days, you didn’t have free agency, so you could keep groups together,” said Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner scheduled to start Game 1 for Washington against New York’s Gerrit Cole. “You start looking at systematic changes. How are those at play?”
When the Yankees claimed banners in bunches — 1936-39, say, or 1949-53 — there was no such thing as free agency that makes it harder to keep a group together. Wild-card berths and play-in games, Division Series and Championship Series didn’t exist, either.
The path is much longer nowadays. There’s more parity, too.
Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter was the Yankees’ shortstop during the sport’s most recent multiyear run. Asked why it hasn’t happened since, he offered a simple reply: “It’s hard to win one, let alone to repeat.”
So how did his teams do it?
“We were pretty good at forgetting about the past — good or bad, whether we won or lost. We forgot about it and moved on. We never walked around wearing championship rings. It was, ‘How are we going to get another one?’” Jeter, said. “We never took it for granted. We understood a lot of hard work and a lot of luck have to come into play.”
Paul O’Neill, Jeter’s teammate on clubs that won four titles in five years from 1996 to 2000, praised the off-field folks who built and molded that group, including front-office executive Gene Michael, manager Joe Torre, bench coach Don Zimmer and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
Talent is important, of course — and not just the core; extra pieces, too.
“When you add a player, someone who’s supposed to hold a certain role, it can work out or it might not work out. It just seemed like everything the Yankees did throughout that run was to get the perfect person,” said O’Neill, now an announcer for the team’s YES Network. “You brought in Scott Brosius. You brought in David Cone. David Justice. Cecil Fielder. Darryl Strawberry. The list goes on. Everybody they added was the perfect fit. That’s doing your homework.”
O’Neill and his teammates nearly made it four in a row. The final time he played in the majors, the Yankees blew a ninth-inning lead and lost Game 7 of the 2001 World Series at Arizona.
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that a rotation led by Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin does help the Nationals win it all again, even though Anthony Rendon is gone and Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross opted out because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Does the fact that this is such an unusual season in so many ways — 60 games instead of 162, rule changes such as the universal DH and a runner on second to start each half-inning in extras — diminish the accomplishment?
“What does 60 games prove? I don’t know. Can you really figure out who was the best baseball team in the league from 60 games? Probably not,” said Nationals reliever Daniel Hudson, who closed out Game 7 against the Houston Astros last October.
“I can’t tell you how whoever’s there at the end is going to feel about it. If they’re going to think it’s legit, I don’t know,” Hudson said. “But if we’re standing at the end, then I’ll probably be just as happy as I was last year when we were the last standing.”
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