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Is this the year the Nationals finally win a playoff series?

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We couldn’t go five minutes last postseason without hearing about the 108 years it had been since the Cubs won a World Series. They won, of course and here they are back again. Only this time they’ll be looking to perpetuate someone else’s playoff drought.

You can look at the Nationals’ October struggles in the short term or the long term. The long term is more historically interesting than truly relevant, of course: no Washington baseball team has won a World Series since 1924, when the Washington Senators took the title. Obviously the Nationals have no direct connection to either of the two franchises which carried the Senators name from 1901 through 1971, but championships are just as much if not more about fan experience than team experience, and there is virtually no one with living memory of any baseball team that called Washington home winning the Fall Classic.

Far more relevant for Washington are the Nationals’ recent playoff struggles. The Nationals came into existence in 2005 after the Expos moved from Montreal. They made it to the playoffs three times between 2012 and 2016 and they’ve yet to win a series, losing in the division series each time.  This year, however, they seem better positioned to advance than in years past, even with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in their path.

The star power is obvious here, with Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy giving them more players capable of going on dominant, team-carrying stretches than anyone else in the playoffs. There are injury concerns — Bryce Harper is back, but was rusty upon his return from the disabled list in late September, and Max Scherzer poised to pitch but dealing with a tender hamstring — but Dusty Baker has all manner of weapons at his disposal.

The biggest difference between this year and years past, however, comes in the bullpen. It was a liability in the first part of the season but Mike Rizzo completely transformed the unit over the course of the season, adding relievers Ryan MadsonBrandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle to solidify matters. As a result of these improvements, this may be the most well-rounded Nationals club we’ve seen since the ascended to contender status five years ago.

Chicago, of course, poises a huge challenge. They’re a patient team and a powerful team, coming in second in the NL in walks and finishing one dinger off the league lead in homers. While the Nationals got more press in 2017 about their offensive prowess, much of that came early when Washington was healthier and dominating early season foes and the Cubs were struggling. By the end of the year, the Cubs scored 822 runs, the Nats 819. They’re very evenly matched on offense.

In the regular season the Nationals took edged their series 4-3, with the clubs splitting a four-game matchup in Washington in late June and the Nats taking two of three at Wrigley Field in early August. That was before Harper’s injury, of course, and before the Cubs put the hammer down to take control of the NL Central as the month wore on.  They’re evenly matched in almost all respects, really. To the point where it’s a little sad that they’re meeting in a best-of-five series rather than a best-of-seven.

But a best-of-five it is and, as the saying goes, something’s got to give. Will the Nats’ playoff futility, historic or recent, end? And with it, will the Cubs’ quest to repeat? Your guess is as good as ours because, on paper, there isn’t a better matchup in the playoffs this year than the Cubs and Nats.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

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There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.