When I arrived at the Washington Nationals’ spring training earlier this year in West Palm Beach, I wrote about how the clubhouse had the feel of the 2008 season — extra lockers, unrecognizable players and last-gasp veterans looking to extend their careers.
There were differences, of course — this wasn’t the motorcycle gang that Jim Bowden had assembled in 2008. And Juan Soto was in the room (for how long now, who knows?).
But even then, back in March, there was a sense that — unless everything went right (and nearly nothing has) — this year was shaping up like another lost season. Like 2008.
How much like 2008? How about the 2022 Nationals calling up reliever Tyler Clippard from the minors — just like they did in the middle of 2008.
As the great mlb.com writer Rocket Bill Ladson would say, “Whoa!”
The 2022 Nationals begin the post-All-Star Game portion of the season with a record of 31-63. At this same time in 2008, their record was 38-61.
They would go on to lose 102 games in 2008. As the season plays out and the trade deadline comes and goes with the expected movement of players who help them win the few games they do, like Josh Bell (and maybe Soto), this Nationals squad may surpass the 102 losses of 2008.
It’s never a good idea to lose 100 games in a season, despite the foolish idea that was the plan by the Lerner family to secure a high draft pick, which they did the following year by drafting Stephen Strasburg No. 1 and Bryce Harper after their 103-loss 2009 season.
They nearly lost the Strasburg pick, finishing with just two more losses than the Seattle Mariners, who wound up with the No. 2 pick, selecting infielder Dustin Ackley, a bust who was out of baseball by 2017.
The 2008 season was the opening year of Nationals Park, and as one longtime high-ranking baseball official told me, “Nobody opens a new ballpark trying to lose 100 games.”
This was the failure of the Lerners to build a strong early foundation with a fan base that had waited for the game to return to the District for 33 years, the lack of vision to make a connection in those early ownership years.
The Lerners’ early days were so troublesome to Major League Baseball that in 2007, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was influential in the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington, called a District official and asked if it was possible to get the some of the other bidders together again.
Some sort of coup? Who knows? But in 2008, it got so bad that I called then-Commissioner Bud Selig and asked him if he regretted selecting the Lerners as the winning bidders for the MLB-owned franchise in 2006.
“If I was picking an owner again today in the retrospect of history, I would pick Ted Lerner again,” Selig aid. “I have a lot of faith in Ted. I have a lot of faith in the family. I like Ted a lot. I have a lot of respect for him. On balance, given the time they have owned the franchise, I would pick them today. I feel very strongly about it.”
That wasn’t the prevailing sentiment among fellow owners. But the Lerners proved themselves fortunate, if nothing else, by having Bowden shame his way out of the general manager’s job with the Smiley Gonzalez scandal and then having Mike Rizzo, the assistant general manager hired by Stan Kasten, in place to take over. Rizzo validated the Lerners’ ownership by running the best franchise in baseball from 2012 to 2019, topping it off with the World Series championship.
Now it is 2022, and the Lerners are leaving on their own. They’ve put the team up for sale.
This certainly is something new. When the Lerners were picked by baseball in 2006, the price of the franchise was set by Major League Baseball at $450 million, and the bidders had to win the heart of Selig. The Lerners did.
This time the team will likely be sold to the highest bidder — which means the bidders will have to win the wallets of the Lerners.
• Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.