Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Watch as the Nats start laying this year’s disaster at Davey Johnson’s feet

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A call for Davey Johnson’s head, some Heyman speculation that Matt Williams could be his replacement and now Amanda Comak of the Washington Times goes full-blown with the successor speculation:

Through discussions with industry and team sources, four possible names emerged as possibilities for when the Nationals begin their managerial search in earnest: Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams, Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, Nationals third base coach Trent Jewett and Houston Astros manager Bo Porter.

Porter is the odd name there. Though he just came from Washington, it seems like a long shot in the extreme that the Astros would let him go after anointing him the steward of their rebuild so recently. Indeed, just this past March his general manager said this about him:

“People know Bo is going to be here for a long time,” Luhnow says. “He could be one of those guys who is an Astros manager for decades, not just years. The players knowing that this is the group that’s going to be here — it begins to lay the foundation for stability, which is really what we’re looking for.”

Not that they wouldn’t give him up for, I dunno, Bryce Harper or something. OK, maybe not anything that grand, but it would take Porter telling the Astros he really, really wanted the Nats job followed by the Nats giving up an awful lot to the Astros to let him out of his contract. And that really doesn’t make sense for anyone here. Teams shouldn’t be giving up real talent for a manager. Neither Porter nor the Astros would do well by being seen as abandoning a plan this quickly. Indeed, one of the biggest selling points to long-frustrated Astros fans right now is “hey, we may not have the talent yet, but boy howdy to we have a plan!” That’s actually appealing to people and Houston doesn’t want to mess with that.

But the biggest takeaway from all of this: I have this strong feeling that the next two months of the season will be filled with Nationals sources talking about new managers and a change in direction and philosophy, the likes of which there is plenty in Comak’s story. The reason: by doing so, team sources basically lay this season’s disaster at Johnson’s feet, absolving everyone who is still around for next year.

Not surprising. And not necessarily bogus. I mean, Johnson is a great manager, but he has messed up a good deal this season and isn’t blameless in what has gone on. I don’t think he can be blamed as much as the front office, but it’s not like he’s been an innocent bystander.  Still, laying the blame on Davey Johnson has happened many times in the past. The Mets, Reds, Dodgers and Orioles all felt a strong need to “change direction” following Johnson’s tenure, all either tacitly or plainly blaming Davey for what went wrong in the end.

Funny thing, though: teams have a habit of cratering even worse after Johnson leaves. And when that happens, everyone stops playing the blame-Davey game.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.