By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Duke Radbourne, mythical oracle of dude-knowledge and occasional character in this column, veered into my pattern last week. It was a fitting meeting, as it turned out, because we had both spent the week trolling the MLB winter meetings at National Harbor and doing regular heat checks on baseball’s annual hot stove, figuratively anyway (like all things with Duke).
We never actually set foot on Harbor grounds or had a single conversation with a baseball executive. In fact, the external optic indicated another conventional week tending our fabulously normal and pulse-flattening routines. But mentally we were on the Maryland side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge pondering how the balance of power for the 2017 MLB season could pivot at any second.
Specifically, Nationals General Manager and trade savant Mike Rizzo was on stage. After the Nats lost again in the first round of the playoffs, and with a farm system stuffed with prospects, Rizzo was expected to make big splashes and exit the meetings with a World Series favorite.
Dreamers, we admittedly were, but since sports curses are dying – the Cavaliers ended Cleveland’s suffering and the Chicago Cubs overcame billy goats and Steve Bartman to win the World Series – why shouldn’t D.C. and its 24-years-and-counting-without-a-professional-title be the next exorcism? And given Bryce Harper’s pending 2018 free agency, the Nats’ time is now, as John Cena might surmise.
Rizzo immediately fed the fervor. The Nats were rumored to be after former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and were major players in the sweepstakes for Chicago White Sox lefthander Chris Sale, a five-time All-Star. Acquiring either would be great. Nabbing both would set off World Series mania - and the Nats had the young talent to do it.
McCutchen remains in Pittsburgh; the Nats’ pursuit has gone cold. Sale was dealt to Boston for a package of prospects that the Nats didn’t match. After Rizzo went 0-2 on his primary targets (0-3 counting free agent closer Mark Melancon’s signing with the Giants), Duke and I no longer wanted to be at the winter meetings, we wanted to be seated at bar stools on either side of Nats GM, all of us at least three pints deep into the truth serum.
Rizzo eventually cut a deal, but it wreaked of a panicked executive with an itchy trigger finger. After methodically building an elite farm system and nurturing young pitching prospects, Rizzo flipped three hurlers – Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning – to the White Sox for Adam Eaton, a zero-time All-Star. If Kenny Rogers, the bearded crooner, was asked his opinion, he’d declare that Rizzo played the hand like he was “out of aces”. Remember The Gambler?!?!
In college, Duke once asked me to name my dream job. “Working in the front office of a professional sports team”, was my reply. “What…you think you’re the next Roland Hemond (then Orioles General Manager)?”, he asked. Being a Towson student, I dismissed Hemond and named fellow Towson alum and long-time MLB executive (and recent addition to the Hall of Fame) John Schuerholtz as my professional hero. Regardless, I flew with eagles in my youth.
The sports executive career never materialized, a favorable scenario for my sanity. It’s hard to fathom Rizzo’s week at National Harbor: the options, the variables and, ultimately, the excruciating, franchise-altering decisions that the GM owns alone. For every get there’s a painful forfeiture; the hope, counter to the holiday season, is that you receive more than you give.
That’s a much drama as I can muster. I imagined more when I began typing but then dozen of people were killed in Istanbul and rumors of Russian cyberattacks broke – real world invasions and reminders of baseball’s comparatively inconsequential recreational roots. Rizzo’s decisions are tougher than picking a dinner option, but in the end, he’s the puppet master of a game, a reality I’m certain he embraces. In fact, had Duke and I had that moment with him at the bar, the bet is Rizzo would consider himself lucky for the spoils of making of living in that manner, even after netting Adam Eaton for a ransom of talent.
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