I was a big Detroit Pistons fans back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Like, a really, really big fan. And I didn’t just come to them when they got good and started wining championships. I began following them during the 1980-81 season, which was the year before Isiah Thomas was drafted and before they acquired Bill Laimbeer. The leading scorer was John Long. Bob McAdoo was prominently involved. They went 21-61 and, though I didn’t know any better because I had just started following basketball, they were not exciting at all.
Over the next few years the were built into a mini-dynasty, of course. Thomas, Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson joined the team for the 1981-82 season and they’d be around for the championships. They also drafted Kelly Tripuka who, along with Thomas, was the Pistons’ big breakout star. Those Thomas-Laimbeer-Tripuka teams were fun. They scored a ton but could not play defense, leading to a bunch of 143-136 games. They were the exact opposite of what the “Bad Boys” Pistons would become later in the decade. They were, to put it mildly, incomplete.
The Pistons traded Tripuka to Utah before the 1986-87 season for Jazz star Adrian Dantley. I instantly became a big fan of Dantley’s. I liked to play basketball but was nowhere near a good enough athlete to play competitively, so it’s not like I could emulate a huge star like Thomas. I could, however, shoot free throws pretty well, and at least tried to ape Dantley’s style, complete with his weird back-hand turn of the ball before he set up to shoot. I sunk 1,000 free throws and even did bad versions of his mid-range jumpers in my driveway over and over again. By that season the Pistons were loaded with stars like Thomas and Laimbeer and future stars like the young Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, but Dantley was the guy I personally thought of as a big deal.
The Pistons had bowed out in the first round of the playoffs in their last year with Tripuka but made it to the Eastern Conference finals their first year with Dantley. They lost, but the team was definitely a different beast by then. The next year they won the Eastern Conference, but lost to the Lakers in the Finals. One step closer. The next year would be the year for sure.
Midway through the 1988-89 season, however, the Pistons were failing to hit on all cylinders and Dantley was traded to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre. I didn’t read a bunch of basketball magazines or get nearly as deeply into the inside of the game as I did baseball so I didn’t have a super strong idea about the reasons for the trade at the time. I didn’t realize that there were big chemistry problems between Dantley and Thomas and that Thomas and Aguirre were a much better fit. The trade, of course, ended up being totally the right move. With Aguirre they got over the hump and won the next two NBA titles.
I was ecstatic at the result, but I must admit that I thought a lot about Dantley even as I celebrated the championships. The Pistons ended up giving him a ring for his contributions to that 88-89 team, but I felt sorry for him that he was left out of the greater glory. He’d retire within a couple of years and would, eventually, make the Hall of Fame, but he’ll forever be a footnote to those Pistons teams because he wasn’t there by the time they hit championship pay dirt.
Which makes me think, the morning after the Nationals won the World Series, about Bryce Harper.
To be clear: no, I don’t feel sorry for Bryce Harper. Not one iota. We’ve talked for a year about how and why he left Washington and the time for either (a) blaming him for taking the money and running to a division rival; or (b) blaming the Nats for not matching or beating the offer the Phillies gave him should be well behind us. I’m largely uninterested in revisiting any of that stuff or wondering if the Nationals could’ve or would’ve done as well this year with him as they did without him. The past is the past and, in the present, Bryce Harper plays for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals are World Champions. Adam Eaton is their right fielder and he was there to spray the champagne last night.
Nats fans, I presume, are largely past it too thanks to last night’s win. To be sure, if they’re still wanting to have some fun with Harper — and based on social media, there is a segment that still does — hey, they’re entitled to. I think — and would hope – that that impulse will soon pass, but fans of the World Series winners can celebrate however they wanna, even if it involves dunking on Bryce Harper. Go crazy, folks.
But I am still thinking about Adrian Dantley this morning and I am wondering if, on some level, it should be a bit harder to separate the Bryce Harper years and the World Series Champion 2019 Washington Nationals than everyone wants to make it out to be.
Baseball is a team game, of course, and Bryce Harper’s presence alone didn’t transform the Nationals into a winner, but Washington played for seven seasons without once breaking .500 before he showed up in 2012. From that point on until last night’s Game 7 almost virtually all of the important decisions they’ve made have been about winning now. Do they trade for Gio Gonzalez before the 2012 season if they don’t feel like Harper’s imminent arrival was preparing them to move to the next level? If they don’t win in 2012, does Anthony Rendon stay down in the minors longer in 2013, delaying his breakout 2014 season some and, for that matter, delaying his free agency? Do they get Trea Turner in 2015? Do they make, basically, every other move they make over the years if Harper wasn’t there?
No, I’m not suggesting that Harper gets credit for any of those moves. He was presumably not consulted and, for several years before he left, Mike Rizzo and the Nats’ front office had at least an eye on 2019 being the year they had to move on without him, for better or for worse. But it’s also the case that for every year until 2019, the team was clearly built with the idea of Harper being the centerpiece of the Nats’ first championship team, meaning that most of the parts of those pre-2019 teams were acquired with him at least partially in mind. Heck, even in his departure he inadvertently affected the moves the 2019 club made. “What do we do without Bryce Harper” was not a dire existential question for the Nats — they let him walk last winter and ended up being just fine — but it was a question that informed their 2019 roster building.
So, no, Harper gets no credit for the 2019 Nationals. Indeed, he gets less credit than Adrian Dantley got for the 1988-89 Pistons. No one is sending Big Bryce a ring, that’s for sure.
But I think of baseball as a never-ending story. As an ongoing narrative where one move is connected to the next and all moves can be traced back through various teams, personalities, transactions and events to almost the beginning of time. Shlabotnik isn’t on the Mudville Nine if he wasn’t traded for McGillicuddy five years ago who wasn’t a big star if Pipp didn’t get hurt four years before that who doesn’t even play for the team if, ten years earlier, he wasn’t purchased from the Class D Sheboygan Gray Sox after a scout’s Model-T broke down one day preventing him from catching that prospect he had planned to see over in Fond du Lac and seeing Pipp instead. History has a long tail and nothing ever ends. It’s all connected somehow and you can’t tell a story without a beginning.
Before I started writing this, a Nats fan mockingly retweeted that video of Bryce Harper’s introductory press conference with the Phillies from last spring. You know the one. The one in which he accidentally said he wanted to “bring a title back to D.C?”
It’s funny that that’s making the rounds again. But, in a sense, he was part of it, wasn’t he? At least if we think of his time in Washington as part of a larger story as opposed to one in which all that is considered is the objective credit and the objective blame for what came during and after his tenure? I like to think so. I like to think cosmically about baseball whenever I can.
But for now I wanna think more about Adiran Dantley. If you need me, I’ll be in the driveway practicing my free throws.