Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 29, 2010

D.C. Fans Deserve Better Than This

I don’t know what sports fans in the area of our nation’s capital did, but it must have been really, really bad. Consider the past twelve months in Washington, D.C. professional sports.

One year ago at this time, the Washington Nationals were mired in last place, unable to see .500 with a telescope as they made their way to a second consecutive 100 plus loss season. D.C. fans were no doubt looking forward to the arrival of the fall and winter sports.

But the first of those was the NFL, which was in preseason mode then as now. Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins were preparing for their most dysfunctional season ever. In the second year of Jim Zorn’s brief reign as head coach, the ‘Skins could only start 2-3 against five previously winless opponents. That led to Snyder’s emasculation of Zorn, as he brought Sherm Lewis out of retirement to call the offensive plays. As was widely noted at the time, Lewis’ most recent signal-calling had been of bingo numbers at his retirement community.

Things only got worse as the Redskins effectively disintegrated. Star running back Clinton Portis made little effort to conceal his disdain for the coaching staff before his season ended early with a concussion suffered in a lopsided loss to the Atlanta Falcons. But Portis was a virtual cheerleader compared to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who stopped at nothing to prove his belief that there is no “T-E-A-M” in I.

In the end the Redskins played out the string of an execrable 4-12 season, with Zorn being dismissed within hours of the season ending loss to San Diego.

But at least the football squad made it through their sad season without gunplay in the locker room. The same could not be said for Washington’s NBA affiliate, the Wizards. Last Christmas Eve point guard Gilbert Arenas admitted to storing unloaded handguns in his locker at the Verizon Center in violation of both NBA rules and Washington city ordinances. It took another week for the full story to come out.  Arenas had been waving the unloaded weapon during an argument with a teammate over alleged gambling debts. A few days later, Arenas and indeed the entire team seemed to mock the whole affair when during pregame warm-ups he aimed his finger and “shot” several of them as they fell to the court. Almost immediately thereafter the Wizards’ star was suspended indefinitely by NBA Commissioner David Stern. Washington went on to finish 26-56, making them the only team in their division to fail to make the post-season.

But if D.C.’s National League representative was a joke, its NFL franchise dysfunctional, and its NBA squad apparently too immature to recognize when something isn’t funny, surely the city’s NHL team would come to the rescue. Through the NHL’s regular season that certainly seemed to be the case. Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals were a dominant force in hockey. One year earlier they had won 50 games and set a team record with 108 points. In the 2009-2010 season the Caps skated past that mark like they were on a breakaway. They won 54 games and 121 points, winning the Eastern Conference by a remarkable 18 points. They were certain favorites for the Stanley Cup. Until they met the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, that is. After dropping the first game in overtime, the Caps surged to three straight wins while outscoring Montreal 17-9. Washington seemed ready to move on to round two; and the region’s sports fans had at last found their one true love.

Then the Canadien’s goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, awakened the ghosts of Plante and Dryden. The powerhouse Washington offense scored just four more goals over the final three games of the series. In the end, instead of stories about the Caps’ triumphant march into round two of the playoffs, the headlines were about the shocking upset of the number one seed and a long offseason to ponder what went wrong.

Of course the calendar always turns a new page, and each sport moves on to a new season. And there is nothing hardier, no tender bulb more able to withstand the harsh winter of defeat and push fresh new tendrils up through the first warming soil than the hope of the sports fan.

The Capitals made a fairly quick decision to part company with the veteran, but maddeningly inconsistent goalie Jose Theodore. They will make their next run for the Stanley Cup in front of either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Valomov, a pair of 22-year olds. Hockey fans hope that one of the two youngsters will emerge as the long-term answer to Washington’s net minding needs.

Meanwhile the Wizards beat long odds to win the NBA draft lottery, and selected Kentucky point guard John Wall. The Wizards have made clear that Wall is the cornerstone of their future. Already the 19-year old has been named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 Las Vegas Summer League.

The Redskins have made major changes as well. They prepare to wrap up another training camp with a new general manager in Bruce Allen, a new head coach in two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, and a new quarterback in All-Pro Donovan McNabb.

But it was the lowly Nationals who made the most dramatic moves, and who certainly spent the most money. With the first overall pick in both of the last two amateur drafts, the Nats selected pitcher Stephen Strasburg and teenage slugger Bryce Harper. They signed both picks at the last possible moment, giving Strasburg a record $15.1 million contract and Harper a 5-year deal worth $9.9 million.

Like many fans, I was glued to the television on the night of June 8th, when Strasburg made his major league debut at Nationals Park. He lived up to all the hype that night, overwhelming the Pittsburgh Pirates. In seven innings he fanned 14 batters, including the last 7 men he faced. It was a night when one could readily imagine a grand future for the Great Game at the lovely ballpark within walking distance of the Capitol Building.

Now, less than half a season later, that night seems like a distant memory; a trick of the mind or some cruel joke played on fans too-long starved for the simple unadulterated joy that comes with sporting triumph. For Strasburg is now out indefinitely and just an obligatory second opinion away from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, from which the recovery period is at least 12 and more likely 18 months.

I know the statistics. The ligament replacement surgery named after the well-traveled John has gone from revolutionary in 1974 to almost routine today. Even as Strasburg prepares to go under the knife, the Nats Jordan Zimmermann has rejoined the active roster, prepared to restart his career after recovery from the same procedure. Yes, Tommy John won 164 of his 288 career victories after the surgery, and had a better winning percentage that he did before it. And yes, an extensive 2008 study found that more than 8 in 10 athletes who had the surgery recovered to perform at least as well if not better than they did beforehand.

So perhaps this will just be a pause in the career of Stephen Strasburg. Perhaps when he next toes a major league rubber, most likely in 2012 Spring Training, the heat will be there again and the ball will dance as it did that night in June. And perhaps between now and then, the Redskins or the Wizards or the Capitals will have given Washington, D.C. sports fans reason to cheer their hearts out. I sure hope so. Because otherwise it sure does seem like somewhere along the line, those same fans must have done something really, really bad. Why else would anyone deserve what they’ve had to deal with?

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