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4/05/2007 10:15:00 AM

NL East: A Wicked Googly

Much like their new stadium, the Nationals are a team under construction.
By Ben Reiter

Hello from London, where last night the streets near Leicester Square were lined with fans peering through pub windows to catch the latest bats n' balls action -– of the cricket variety, of course. Despite losing a nail-biter to Sri Lanka in Antigua yesterday, England, behind captain Michael Vaughan, slugger Kevin Pietersen and fan favorite Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, remains barely alive in the Cricket World Cup, which is very unfortunately more than can be said for Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer and this young India fan.

When I was a youngster living in England in the mid-80s, the only way for an American boy to follow the exploits of the Mattinglys and Strawberrys closer to his heart was to scurry downstairs as the sun rose each morning and pray that the kind editors of the many British dailies had deigned to publish tiny 8-point box scores in the back pages of their sports sections.

These days, thanks to the magic of the Internets, the task is far easier; and ironically, it's easiest of all for fans of the Washington Nationals. Although the team fielded an Opening Day lineup that many think might rank among the worst in decades, the Nationals' blogosphere ranks as baseball's best, which can be attributed to two primary factors. First, D.C.'s a blog-mad town, the most famous examples being Wonkette and the salacious and now-defunct Washingtonienne. Second, the art of blogging thrives more on the ridiculous than the sublime -– and there's been a healthy dose of the former in the Nats' short history, and promises to be a good deal more in 2007.

The Nats' brass views its fans' chatter -– even the incessant (and deserved) "whinging," to use a favorite British-ism -– as nothing but a positive. "We want them to be talking about the Nationals all day, all night, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, after dinner," G.M. Jim Bowden told me in Florida this spring. "We want them to blog, we want them to read the Internet ... We want the fans to be part of us rebuilding this franchise. Stick with us in the tough times, and that way you really enjoy the great times that are coming." Sticking with the scuffling team are committed blogs that number in the dozens; the best include Federal Baseball, The Curly W, Ball-Wonk, District of Baseball, Nats 320, and Nationals Farm Authority.

The class of the so-called 'Natosphere,' however, is Capitol Punishment, authored by Capitol Hill worker Chris Needham, a die-hard Nats fan and blogger savant who posts several times a day. More often than not, his posts are of the tough love variety, such as his "StanSpeak" series in which he parses the public pronouncements of Nats president Stan Kasten. Needham was stunned -– and slightly afraid -– when he opened his inbox after he'd written a particularly colorful StanSpeak installment in early February to discover an e-mail from the former overseer of the Atlanta Braves' dynasty himself. All Kasten wanted to do, the Washington Post reports, was to express his love for Capitol Punishment; he later had Needham call him and inquired as to why Needham hadn't renewed his partial season-ticket plan.

Needham's still at it this spring: In an opening day post called "... At Least It's Baseball," he writes, "Screw you to Kasten/Aramark/Whoever for 1) raising beer prices 2) eliminating the one place that had cheap beer in the park." Kasten never had to deal with this in his heady days in Atlanta; one imagines him reaching for the phone and entering "Needham" into his speed-dial.

  • Not to focus too much on the excellent Capitol Punishment, but Needham has composed an NL preview entirely written in haiku. Much appreciated -– although I must question the wisdom of assigning two syllables to the name "Burrell."
  • Braves blog Talking Chop excerpts Chipper Jones' response to Jimmy Rollins' statement -– in January! -– that "I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -– finally ... but that's only on paper." (Chipper's full comments to Murray Chass are buried behind the NY Times' TimesSelect wall, and are thus more untouchable to most than Chass's slowball in the New York Media Softball League). Chipper, who'd never lost a division title until last season, lets Rollins have it.
  • Meanwhile, the Phils predictably lost their first two games -– to the Braves -– and Philly's columnists are already in a tizzy about the bench and bullpen. David Letterman better hope that the team manages a win by Tuesday, or else Ryan Howard's not going to be in any mood for banter when he appears on the Late Show that night.
  • The Palm Beach Post (via the Fish Stripes blog) details the Marlins' efforts to woo Hispanic fans. Or any fans.
  • Amazin' Avenue introduces us to the "win probability graphs" -– updated in real time -– available at Fan Graphs. These track the probability that either team will win a given game at any particular point in the contest, and look like they'll be pretty entertaining. The Mets' thorough demolition of the Cards means that they have so far spent the majority of the season on the right side of things, while the Nationals, it should be noted, barely broke the 50/50 line until the ninth inning of the season's third game. Onward, Natosphere!

    Until next week, when I'm back on American soil ...


    posted by SI.com | View comments |  
  • Comments:

    Posted: April 5, 2007 9:10 PM   by Anonymous
    People, Jimmy Rollin's comments were that they were the "team to beat", meaning he has confidence in the team (oooh, so sorry). He NEVER said they would win the division, just that he felt they were the favorites going in. Rollins is a likeable guy and people are just hunting for reasons to dislike him. The Mets said the same thing last year in the off-season (ala Billy Wagner), but no one hung him....so RELAX everyone.
    Posted: April 6, 2007 6:56 PM   by Anonymous
    Chipper had a point though. And he is the man.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 11:07 PM   by Shea Faithful
    in reference to that last comment, the mets deserve to be the "team to beat' as they tore up the N.L. last season. The Phils on the other hand missed out on the playoffs in a very weak wild card race and therefore has no grounds to make that statement on. In conclusion, the phils are a dreadfull bottom feeder and the mets will run away with the division.
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