Homecoming: a simple pleasure that has been denied the Washington Nationals, baseball's most vagabond franchise, since 2002.
They hit St. Louis in the midst of a six game road trip that embarked immediately after a specially-scheduled season-opening game in their brand new ballpark, a charmed team traveling a few inches above the ground. They arrive with a 3-1 record built against NL East contenders, and it could have been 4-0 but for a six-run implosion in middle relief Thursday afternoon. It's a different road trip than the one they've been on for the past six years, one that took them to the gates of hell and back again.
In the early days of science, brilliant men of their times would sequester themselves in a chamber in the name of learning and watch as one would perform experimental surgery on a living animal – a stray dog or similarly helpless and unwanted creature. This was called "vivisection," and it perfectly describes the macabre theater that baseball's commissioner put this franchise through.
Once Montreal refused to fund a new ballpark to replace the dismal Stade Olympique, Bud Selig paraded the franchise as the poster child of the game's economic disparity. While threatening the ultimate penalty of contraction, Selig chaperoned the bloody disassembling of this proud and competitive team.
First, the Expos were severed from their owner and put into the collective custody of the other 29 franchises. Secondly, all of their desirable players – from A-list stars like Vladimir Guerrero to burgeoning farm talent like Chris Young (the pitcher), Grady Sizemore and Jason Bay – were cut away in increasingly lopsided deals. Thirdly, the ragged carcass of the team was cast out from its home, bouncing between a deserted indoor cell in Montreal and a polite circus crowd in a Puerto Rican bandbox.
And when the team refused to die, refused under manager Frank Robinson to stop competing even after two years of torture, Selig finally drew the curtain on this morbid show and found a buyer in Washington.
From his brutal experiment, Selig learned just how deeply he could desiccate a team in the name of "the good of the game." The other franchises learned just how ruthless their commissioner could be in pursuit of taxpayer money to fund new stadiums. New ballparks – including ours – have since sprouted across the National League, even in the hard soil of Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. The Mets and Yankees are following suit, and the Florida Marlins (led by Jeffery Loria, the commissioner's hatchet man who sold the Expos to the MLB) are holding their tax-paying fans hostage while bargaining for one of their own.
Surviving this trial, the Washington Nationals were christened. This ragtag roster of castoffs and unwanteds earned a new name and an honest-to-goodness home town in 2005. Playing their games in a hand-me-down park formerly used by the Redskins, the Nats surprised all of baseball by taking the pole position in the NL East and holding it through late July of that year. The positive vibes even flowed over into the perpetually cash-strapped city government, who approved the hundreds of millions of dollars of public financing required to open the gleaming new ballpark that inaugurated the 2008 season this past Sunday evening.
General Manager Jim Bowden, however, did not succumb to the optimism of 2005 by deluding himself into thinking he had an instant contender. Even with a new owner and a more-reasonable payroll, the rebuilding process has been focused primarily on restocking the minor leagues with blue-chip prospects. While waiting for the kids to ripen, the Nationals still field a patchwork major league roster filled with players that other teams gave up on or simply didn't want.
Opening day starter Odalis Perez was unsigned as of March 19th, shortstop Christian Guzman was dumped by the Twins, first baseman Dmitri Young was exiled from the Tigers, promising young outfielders Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge tried the patience of the Rays and Mets respectively and were traded away, and second baseman Ronnie Belliard never found a home here in St. Louis even after helping us win a World Series. To lead these orphans, the Nationals have added an artful former Dodger in catcher Paul Lo Duca, signed to a one-year contract.
However, one of the blue-chippers just couldn't be held back. 23-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (inset), who won the team's opening-day game with a walk-off home run, is a star in the making.
The highly-regarded Zimmerman was a first-round draft pick in 2005, and ran unimpeded through the ghost town of Washington's farm system to land with the major league squad in that same year. More skilled defensively than Mets star David Wright, but not as precocious with the bat, Zimmerman has immediately become the face of this foundling franchise.
(The 2005 draft was featured as perhaps one of the best ever in SI's baseball preview this season. Writer Tom Verducci, citing Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki, the Cardinals' Colby Rasmus and others, describes it as being "chock-full of made-to-order franchise players.")
It would be a surprise once again if the Nationals were to take and hold a division lead at any time in this season's second half, as they are still very early in their rebuilding and renourishing process. Their pitching staff just jettisoned its former #1 starter, John Patterson, and may be about to lose closer Chad Cordero to the training room. Their young players will doubtless face growing pains. And none of their itinerant veterans are in or even near their primes.
In spite of this, no team in baseball has carried the optimism of Spring so blissfully into the regular season as this Nationals squad. The ball is leaping off their hitters' bats, and exploding from their pitchers' hands, as a brand new stadium in DC awaits its first three-game home series.
At long last, they have a home to return to. No one will fault them for celebrating.
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