Washington has something other than the election on its mind this week. If all goes well, the distraction could last through October, becoming more feverish with each passing day. The Nationals, the city’s baseball team, have a legitimate shot at going all the way for the first time since 1924.
With 98 wins to 64 losses, the Nationals posted the best record in Major League Baseball’s regular season. Starting with a come from behind 3-2 win over the St Louis Cardinals on Sunday, they appear sufficiently blessed with esprit de corps, leadership and luck to advance deep into the elimination rounds which culminate in the best-of-seven World Series at the end of the month.
Washington’s professional sports teams have been as inspiring as its politicians in recent years, which is to say not very. Fans of the Washington Redskins gridiron football team have endured futility since the early 90s. The local basketball team changed its name from Bullets to Wizards when violent crime was at its height. Before they shot blanks; since they have been utterly unmagical. The superbly talented Capitals ice hockey team raises hopes only to choke, routinely, at playoff time.
This has never been much of a baseball town, either. The Nationals only arrived in 2005, transferred from Canada where they had played, haplessly, as the Montreal Expos. The team that won the World Series in 1924 was known as the Senators. It fled ignominiously to Minnesota in 1961, as synonymous with failure as the New York Yankees have always been with success. That’s why, in the 1955 Broadway hit Damn Yankees, a frustrated Senators fan sold his soul to the devil for a winning season.
If the Nationals meet the Yankees in the World Series this season, there should be no need for Faustian bargains. One reason is the quality of its 69-year manager Davey Johnson.
We have that on no less authority than Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke who wrote in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “People decry the absence of leadership in Washington these days. My response: look no further than the home-team dug out at Nationals Park.”
Under Johnson, the Nats are productive. Eight of the league’s 30 squads remain in the hunt. Of those, only one , the Oakland Athletics, has a lower payroll. In salary terms, the famously spendthrift Yankees’ cost-per-win this season has been $2.1 million. The Nationals’ victories have been had for well under half that – $875 000.
Seven Yankees have a higher salary — $30 million in one case — than the top-paid National, outfielder Jason Werth, whose take home is $13.6 million (he showed his worth saving Sunday’s win). The average Yankee’s salary is $6.2 million, the Nats’ is $2.6 million, with half the team receiving $800 000 or less.
Bernanke sees in Johnson three important qualities: a rigorous mathematical mind, an eye for hidden talent and a willingness, in nurturing it, to sacrifice short term advantage for longer term gain.
Anyone familiar with “Moneyball”, the Michael Lewis book and Brad Pitt movie based on it, will know that number crunching is an essential part of the game. Johnson, who has a math degree, was an early advocate both as player and manager for what are now known as sabermatics, a set of statistical algorithms to calculate the probabilities of a player’s performance in any given situation.
Sabermatics are the econometrics of baseball. Hence Bernanke’s love of them. They purport to tell you, among other things, which players, in what order, to put in your starting line-up against pitcher A of team B in stadium C. As a player in the 60’s and 70’s, Johnson failed to persuade his managers that his algorithms were superior to their instincts. As manager, subsequently, of many contenders and champions, he has been vindicated but also fired for knowing better and letting his employers know it.
What he knows, on top of maths, is that sabermatics alone will not take you to the promised land. Sometimes you have to ignore the numbers to foster the talent, still raw and developing, that will win you championships in the long run while costing you victories this month or this season. Johnson, said the admiring Fed chairman, had a real eye for promise others miss and the patience to let it blossom.
The result was a team “that not only strong this year, but very probably will be for years to come. Many of us in Washington could learn a thing or two from the National’s approach.”