Trouble comes when there is no good solution, when being backed into a self-constructed corner only allows a way to run into another wall.
The Nationals have imposed such a conundrum on themselves. Fire manager Davey Martinez and they further solidify their foundation as a problematic workplace. Maintain and continue to receive scorn until a far away and low-probability turnaround occurs, if it ever does. There’s no perfect choice.
For everything the organization has done right since arriving in the District, finding a long-term manager has been example No. 1 of how they get things wrong. Lack of investment, lack of trust, lack of emphasis. All those thoughts have gone into the hiring -- and firing -- of multiple managers. If Martinez is dismissed before his contract ends, the Nationals will be on to full-time manager number six of the last 11 years. Only Davey Johnson lasted more than two years in that span.
And, Martinez’s situation could become the biggest botch in this arduous journey. Not because of him, but more so because of who he replaced and what was said then. The Lerner family was dissatisfied with Dusty Baker’s performance. Back-to-back division titles, never playing sub-.500 baseball, winning 96 games on average, not advancing out of the first round in consecutive seasons. Not enough. On to the next.
They tasked Martinez with hopping over the mountaintop. If he replicated Baker, that meant he lost since he was hired for progress, not repeats. So anything short of Baker’s two-year run would leave him easily vilified. The current level of losing would have been enough to stir any fan base, let alone one following a $190 million payroll, watching Bryce Harper play in Philadelphia and wondering why the organization can’t get this one spot right.
Baseball industry people wonder the same. Questions about why things work this way in Washington preceded Baker’s departure. Had he returned, the narrative could have been reset. Even the fulfillment of a second two-year deal would have made him the longest-tenured manager in Nationals history.
Instead, he was out -- against Mike Rizzo’s preference. Which meant Baker leaving only served to amplify prior thoughts.
Sitting on the visitor’s bench in 2017 was a man who carried an insider’s view of what happens to managers in Washington. Jim Riggleman rested his hands on the knob of a bat when talking about why he left as Nationals manager in the middle of a season, and why he would do it again. He also thought what seemed to be a simple move would alter the negative perceptions associated with working as the Nationals’ manager.
“I think that’s there right now,” Riggleman told me then. “The day Dusty signs his next contract, that all goes away. That’s looming. If something totally unexpected happened and [Dusty] wasn’t here, then that talk would continue through next year. The day that he signs his contract, I think it’s going be, ‘OK, we all knew this was going to happen. It’s all good. Let’s go to work.’”
Baker, of course, did not sign a next contract.
Which brings us back to now. If Martinez can’t make it halfway through his three-year deal, what does that do for perception? Does the organization care? Does the PR situation of grand underachievement usurp the complications of tossing aside managers with little regard?
Neither move is clean. Changing managers -- again -- can be seen as a deck-chair shuffle and prompt more industry grumbling. Not making a change will carry its own torment. It could be temporary, vanquished by a soon-to-be healthy team and possible rebound, or drag from loss to loss.
For now, behind door No. 1 is the same thing as door No. 2: more pain and no assured fix.
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