Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Apr 28, 2014

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Liking the mix with youth and veterans. Enjoying the playoffs very much but can't help worrying what happens if Gortat leaves and Nene is banged up next year as well. Feel much better if free agency and/or trade could bring in more frontcourt depth and athleticism.....what do you think?

I think it would be very smart to enjoy this Wiz team right NOW since it is entirely healthy, playing brilliantly and has (perhaps) it's best chance to make a run immediately, not insome future year when you may or may not have both Gortat and Nene playing together and also playing off eachother so well.

Right now, this is the most enjoyable Wiz team -- to me --since the late-'70's teams. Far more willing to play defense, share the ball, pick and roll, get out on the break, do it all. It's rare to see this combo on one team. 1) Two 6-foot-11 big-bodies who can bang underneath but ALSO can hit the mid-range jumper over Noah (the NBA defensive player of the year) and pass very well, too. And a player off the bench in Booker who fits the same mold well enough that the team's style of play doesn't have to change too much when he's in for Nene or Gortat (like Sunday) 2) Three over-.400 three-point shooters who can't wait to put it up. And when they get hot just keep on shooting, like Ariza on Sunday. But it could be Beal going for 26 or Webster kicking in 15 off the bench. 3) And those six aren't even the best player on your team. That's Wall who has the skill that the others lack -- explosion to the basket in halfcourt or the break. Also, 14 months, before he started playing/shooting better late in the '12-'13 season, who'd have thought he'd now be a .351 three-point shooter. When all these guys also commit to play defense and rebound, which they are now, that's a potent seven players. And Andre Miller and even Gooden can give you some useful vet minutes or, in Miller's case, even a hot quarter. 

One of the biggest mistakes by sports fan is not to realize that THIS is the moment for a particular team. The Caps weren't ready in their President's Cup year. The Wiz, as long as they stay healthy, are really special right now. 

Is there any Commissioner of a professional sports league under more pressure right now than Adam Silver of the NBA? Given the fact that the other owners and/or the league knew in some ways about Sterling's opinions for years and yet allowed him to continue until things got to this point, it would seem that they are all sitting on the hot seat right now. I'm not sure anything short of Sterling selling the team will placate the fans, players and those involved.

This is Marge Schott all over again. MLB owners tolerasted her intolerance for years, then got bruned when she praised Hitler. But MLB had its anti-trust exemption to give its commissioner much more power to act unilaterally. Not total power, but plenty. And that led to the owners acting behind the scenes to push her out of the sport.

The NBA has no choice. As soon as it's verified to everyone's satisfaction that the comments are accurate, this creep has to go. Yes, it'll take as while to find a buyers for the Clippers. The NBA may face law suits. But you can't let this slide. As Sally pointed out this a.m., it's the owners -- who allowed him to stay in their club for years -- who have to step up now. If they don't...well, they will because the damage to their product will be too great if they refuse.

Sterling will be gone. It's just a matter of how soon and by what method. The NBA owners have no choice. This will not "go away."

Zimmerman and Harper are on the DL because vertical walls of hard rubber anchored in cement were required to instantly stop their momentum. What happened to the three canvas bags called for in the Official Baseball Rules?

They disappeared before I ever played in high school. I've been told that, long ago, the old bags were even more dangerous because players rounding bases couldn't get any traction with their cleats and slipped, leading to injuries. I'd be curious if "three canvas bags" is still on the books. I'd doubt it.

But the hard "bags" are an excellent reason not to dive head-first if you can avoid it. Zimmerman couldn't on a pick off play. Harper had a choice. He hurt the same thumb originally in high school the same way. I'd say it might be time for a rethink. Would you rather run full speed into a hand planted object, and a defender, with a shoe and the bigger bones/ligaments in yourt foot, ankle, knee or with your unprotected fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder. I've never understood why elite hitters would risk injury going head-first. If you weigh 230 and go headfirst that's a lot of momentum on your hand, especially if you slide over the bag -- and over your own hand.

How much longer before Williams moves him down in the lineup?

He'll stay at leadoff unless McLouth gets red hot, I'd assume. But McLouth batted leadoff all year for the O's last season and did well. So, while Harper is out, you'd give Span plenty of time to get sorted out at leadsoff and let McLouth get comofrtable playing every day. Doubt you'd hit them 1-2 since both are LH hitters and it pushes your power too far down the lineup. If Harper's out two weeks, not much of a problem. If he's out 6-to-8 weeks, then you'll really be glad you got McLouth over the winter, but it won't be easy to figure out a Best Lineup vs rightthanders.

Dear Tom, As 2012 drew to a close, the Nats had won a division title, the Caps had upset the defending champ Bruins, RG3 had led the Skins on a dramatic run to the playoffs, and the Wizards stunk like always. At that time, what odds could you have gotten that in two years, the Wizards would be DC's only playoff team?

It's a delightful shock! Sports: where you absolutely positively have no idea what will happen next and, even a year in the future, encounter things you couldn't even have imagined. That's one reason it's such a pleasure to write about. It's ironic that everybody loves all the stupid preseason predictions so much -- and keeps making them. We love this stuff because we can't predict it and very often we can't even IMAGINE IT until it happens.

I suspect that some national NBA analysts, like Sir Charles, see the Wiz more accurately from a disatnce than some (certainly not most) Wiz fans. He keeps saying, "They are REALLY good." On Sunday, if the Wiz hadn't missed so many bunnies in the fourth quarter they'd have won by 20 or 25. Yes, some nerves. But their board-crashing, hustle and defense -- loved Wall's chase-from-behind play to avoid a Bulls breakaway -- negated their poor shooting from point-blank range.

Closing out an NBA series is tough, especially when you haven't done it before. But the Wiz clearly look like the better team in this series. The Bulls can battle all they want; they'll have a brutal time just getting to a Game 6. Fortunate for Wiz they have so many vets as ballast for Wall and Beal. I don't think their nerves will get them. That team has some very smart veterans  guys. Nene (despite the rope-a-dope sucker mistake), Ariza, Webster and Gortat. Wittman, a very fundamentals-oriented coach, really needed a room with those kinds of guys to impliment his kind of play. Last year, Nene, Webster and Ariza asserted themselves and helped Wittman change the tone, the old bad Wiz culture. But it's amazing to watch it change so fast and so totally. And Wall grew up. Beal was apparently born grown up. 

The amazing unexpected is always all around us in sports. Sometimes it's happening 3,000 miles away, so we miss it. But look at the Braves as an example. They lose Medlen, Beachy and (thus far) Minor -- yet they have a spectacular 17-7 April based on amazing starting pitching, including cast-off Aaron Harang. (But, my two cents, I think D.C. will have at least one more playoff team in '14 -- the Nats. IF they ever get healthy it will be tough for them NOT top be one of the five best NL teams. And the Braves current lead won't look too tough to catch. IF they get reasonably healthy. At one point Sunday they didn't have Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper -- three of their four heart of the order hitters on Opening Day -- then lost Espinosa, too. Look for both Ramos and Fister to return at 1 p.m. on May 7th as the battery against the Dodgers. Ramos maybe gets back a little before that. 

This question is for Dr. Boswell, sports psychologist. I've watched baseball about as long as you, though I'm not the student of the game you are. I cannot recall a team, with such talent, that makes so many errors, has such a terrible RISP rate, and whose starting pitchers give up runs so early. So many solo HRs. Etc. So, my technical question is, what gives? This is too large a sample size to be coincidence. They should be maturing by now, able to handle the pressure. No? How much of this do you think is in their heads?

Every long-time baseball fans has noticed this. One of the best analysts of the Nationals (and other sports) that I know is a former Post sports editor who's been as consumed and insightful a sports fan as you'll find, ever since the days in the '50's when he got to listen to and learn from Shirley Povich . (I believe Don's held other positions at the Post, too.) I asked him at the Nats game yesterday EXACTLY what you just asked me: Why do you think these guys are often fundamentally unsound, rattled, error-prone AGAIN this year? He agreed but looked at me like "don't YOU know?" I'm still working on it.

Maybe I have to switch from Freudian to Jungian and look for an issue in their collectived unconscious. Or maybe they just need a swift kick. Actually, I'm pretty sure they've already gotten a couple of those.

There IS a different view. I talked to one vet Nat on Saturday who said he thought things were, in the odd way of baseball, working out very well so far -- CONSIDERING. Meaning considering all the injuries. "It's like '12," he said, then went through the early-season injuries then that got extensive playing time for Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and others who had exceptional seasons and made the Nats so deep. Then he noted that the injuries to Fister (Tanner Roark), Ramos (Jose Lobaton) and Zimmerman (Espinosa) had let players identify themselves this year and build the groundwork for good seasons that would help the Nats long after the front-line players were back. Also, Barrett, who was wild yesterday, has added a tool to the bullpen and, with Zimmerman hurt, Rendon has been able to show was a fine third baseman he is (and will probably get even better).

"When we get healthy...," he said. Sure, it's the happy talk you hear from all teams that are trying to get through a tough patch and look on 14-12 -- against adversity -- as good resilient professional work. Could be right. They have had SEVEN come-from-behind wins.

They had to have known that Sterling was a racist, David Stern and at least some of the other owners. Now they're going to do something about it? Tells us all we need to know about this billionares club.

"Behind every great fortune there is a great crime." -Balzac

I'm not aware of any Billionaires Club -- anywhere -- that has "character" as a qualification for membership. I think it has more to do And the relationship between making an ENORMOUS amount of money and "good behavior" is vague at best.


My sense is that there's going to be a pretty big gap between what most people would LIKE the NBA to do against the Clippers' owner and what the NBA can legally do, such as forcing him to sell the team. My understanding is that, while the NBA can fine or even suspend an owner, it can only force a sale of the franchise when the current owner cannot meet his financial responsibilities. Correct?

If every other owner in a league decides that one especially rotten owner is damaging their business, I suspect that the especially bad apple will, by one means or another, get chucked out of the barrel within a year. 

Thoughts on the Caps' moves? What do you think they should be looking for now?

A team that wants to trade for Ovechkin?

They finally buried the Mortician. (The nickname for George McPhee who often wore black or dark suits.) The Caps will have a hard time finding a better or smart man than GMGM to run things. That doesn't mean they won't find a more effective GM. I think, over the years, he began to wear the Caps Curse on his face in the spring. Intellectually, he didn't believe in it. But emotionally, "it's happening again!" became part of his life. He was so committed to the franchise that whatever happened to the team really got to him. That speaks well for him in some ways. But there has really been a black cloud of negative expectation over that team for years -- as if they were the Cubs with talent. So, you change the faces, change the words the players hear (even if the message is actually similar).

I said after last season that I thought things were going to get tougher for the Caps with a tougher schedule. I don't see any quick turnaround no matter who they get. The problem at this point is total team talent -- they're middle of the pack. The Young Guns are gone or not even close to young. Varlamov was the goalie of the future -- out of the whole bunch -- and he's the one who got away. McPhee, in perhaps his biggest mistake, hated to have players dictate to him or use I'll-leave-the-NHL leverage on him, so Varlamov ended up a star in Colorado. (Yesterday was his birthday -- still only 26). 

Also, Ovechkin has so much mileage on his body after being a three-time MVP target of foes for all these years that he just can't lead the league in goals -- which is HIS JOB -- and still have enough gas in the tank to pay much attention to defense. He still has big hits. But anybody who coaches Ovechkin now has a big problem. He can still do one thing well -- score, especially on the power play. But that's all he can do. How do you build a team around that. A couple of years ago, when Ovi's stock was low, McPhee was considering trading Ovechkin, if he could get fair value. But Ovi was DE-valued then. By the time he won his third MVP, how could you trade him? "The Great Eight is back!" Fans would have lynched you. Now, his value is low again, so you can't get what he's worth. Yes, it's a paradox.

Oates is as smart about the details of his sport as any coach/manager you'll find in any sport. But it looks like he drove some of his players nuts micromanaging their games (and the curvature of their sticks). He "only" threw two of his players under the bus toward the end -- but just look at which two they were! Ovechkin ("quit on the play") and Halak ("won't play"), the goalie that his GM got for him. That's a coach who knows he's going, going...and wants to say a couple of things on his way out the door.

If Ted can make two hires that quickly correct things with the Caps I will coinsider it a brilliant accomplishment. I don't expect it. The man whose hockey judgment he trusted most is the man he just fired.

Mike Wise said that the Wizards-Bulls series isn't going to Game 7. It's going to Game 7, isn't it? And the Wizards are going to lose, aren't they?

Sorry, Mike doesn't have that kind of whammy power yet.

(But I do. After Roark got out the first 15 men on Saturday I mentioned to Kilgore that I had never seen a no-hitter in person, as a fan or reporter. That's 40 years of covering baseball and 15 years as a fan going to games from childhood before that. It was barely out of my mouth... I HAVE covered two pennant winners and a World Series winner. So I know that one ISN'T on me.)

Hi Boz, Justified or not, a few of our current DC sports stars are put in high profile rivalries (e.g. Ovechkin-Crosby, Harper-Trout, Griffin-Luck). Being fully aware that we are very lucky to have even one Ovi, Bryce, or RG3 to root for, it sure would be nice to be on the better end of one of these comparisons, wouldn't it?

Very interesting. Also, Strasburg is compared to Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez. It's hard to be the target.

Bradley Beal doesn't have that. Maybe that's part of why he seems to be having so much fun. Anthony Rendon is free-spirited by nature. But it's probably easier to play the game smiling when you know Harper is going to get far more scrutiny. Remember, before his senior-year injuries at Rice, Rendon was considered a once-a-decade college hitter and probable a No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick. Doesn't mean he WAS the college hitter of any decade. But he's certainly under minimal pressure now -- picked sixth, under the radar -- and it may be one factor in his nice development so far.

But, lets get real, if you aspire to be an enormous star in your sport -- one of the greats -- and if it's widely believed by sensible evaluators that you have the talent to do it (maybe), then you are going to have to accept that Super Hot kitchen as the room where you will always live. And when somebody else shows up in that same room -- as somebody always does, whether it's Luck, Crosby, Trout -- you have to compete and LOVE it, like Ali-Frazier, DiMaggio-Williams or any of the best rivalries.

I will say that Harper, as talented as he is, doesn't have Trout's all-around tools or feel for the game. And it's not just that Trout is one year older. Trout is off the charts running the bases or chasing a flyball and every at bat is torture for almost every pitcher. So it's unfair to put Harper in the same frame. He came up as a catcher, not an outfielder. 

Trout projects as one of the greatest players ever -- top 20, maybe top 10. I tried, before the season, to look at where Harper's first two years might logically project him for an entire (healthy) career. Looked like somewhere around the 100th best offensive career -- with a chance at HOF. That assumes 20 years of HEALTH and normal improvement (not much though). So that's a huge high ceiling if it turned out to be true.

But it's like comparing Albert Pujols to Matt Holliday. That doesn't mean you wouldn't LOVE to have Holliday/Harper.

Reading through the comments on Sally Jenkins article about Donald Sterling, it's depressing how many people believe Donald Sterling shouldn't be punished and even more depressing how many people agree with his racist beliefs. If Sterling doesn't want to sell the team, is there any way the rest of the NBA owners can force him to do so?

Comments of stories on politics-race-sex always attract a bad crowd. Yes, plus plenty of normal folks, too. But never take to heart, or get down because of "comments" on public forums on those subjects. They're Nut Magnets.

No Not Adam Silver--, the time off for Zimmerman and Harper . Ryan rests his shoulder and Bryce gets time to get his head straight. And the team gets playing time for some strong back ups to get extended experience. Nice idea, but won't know till the end of the season?

There's truth in that, but only if Nats get healthy, then play better. Also catchers tire over long seasons. If Ramos could stay in one piece, he'd probably still think it was June when it was actually September. Yes, MLB managers and GMs talk about that. All games are equal -- but it IS "how you finish" that usually determines how you perform in post-season. Teams evolve, discover themselves over a season -- and we've seen the Wiz do it over the last couple of months and right now.  

Remember the old joke about you could take any bum and put him in Yankee pinstripes and they are suddenly transformed into a great player. Well how is it the Braves pick up garbage like Aaron Harang and he morphs into Cy Young while we pick up Haren and he's a flame out? I'm not necessarily blaming Rizzo, but it seems like there's something psychological going on here?

Top organizations, like the Braves, bring out the best in many players and often have people with sharp eyes who spot flaws, then correct them, once you put on thier uniform.

As for Rizzo, I tried to make a list of his mistakes last week. It was a surprisingly short list: Haren. I don't mean close calls like "was Werth worth THAT much" or "Soriano saved 43, but he wasn't THAT good." I mean major busts. Hard to find. Ramos-Capps. Cristian Guzman for...Tanner Roark when he was invisible in Class Z for Texas. Lotta others.

British soccer has this thing called the "fit and proper person" test that is supposed to be applied to anyone with a 30 percent stake in any club. But that is mainly directed to financial wrongdoing, not being a repugnant person. Maybe American sports should look into a similar sort of mechanism.

Interesting. MLB has a long history of tougher screening for the "background" of owners. You could call it a "club" mentality or you could call it smart. Or both. (They still got Schott.) 

I still remember watching the Bullets slug it out with the Celtics those last two OT games in '82 and thinking "they'll be at least a very tough out for a while." What a lost 30 years! Can't tell you happy I was to see them jump on the Bulls like a real pro team. They may not win it, but they'll be a very tough out.

Don't think many will be missing Wizard games the rest of this season. This is how you create fans.

See you next week. Thanks again.

It seems to me Nene's actions on Friday were about as knuckle-headed as anything we've seen from the Wizards in a long time. And they could have been far more costly. But it seems like he's been given a pass. Does this seem odd to you?

Nene got knocked a lot, I thought. And he deserved it. I tweeted that Jimmy Butler had rope-a-doped him.

Mediocre players goading, provoking and even starting fights with stars is as old as team games. It's part of pro sports and you have to anticiapte it and cope.

A classic example, to me, was former-U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. In college, at Princeton, he was fabulous and had every dirty trick known to man pulled on him to hold him down. When he went to the NBA and the Knicks -- where he needed every trick to be a useful starting player -- he turned the tables and drove star players (like John Havlicek) crazy with every borderline infuriating tactic in the book. If a Rhodes Scholar becomes an instigator and agitator to help his (pro) team, then who won't do it? Nene was provoiked, suckered and fell for it. The Wiz saved him on Sunday -- SAVED him.

Harper is at fault for not knowing the game situation. His at bat put the Nats up 5-0, it was no need to slide head first. I could see if the Nats were down or tied with one out and we needed him at third.

The Nats were ahead 7-0, I believe, when he ran into the wall in Los Angeles last year.

Players need to know game situations. Some are subtle and require experience. But the FIRST element of any game situation is: What is the score of the game?

I'll write more about this. Some fans are confusing two different issues. Everybody can and should always run 90 feet to first. That isn't actually "hustle." It's just professional effort. The issue with Harper and hustle is the same one that every young player faces: How hell-bent can I go -- and how often and in what situations -- without paying an unacceptable price in injuries? The answer is different for every player. And the Game Teaches You. You don't teach the game. Pete Rose never had a disabled list injury from age 22 to-42. Baseball told him, "Maybe you can't run fast, jump high or hit home runs, but you're built like a truck and nothing in this game is going to hurt you. So give 'em hell on every play." In my life, I have seen ONE Rose. Every other player -- every one -- gets a tougher answer from the game: "Yes, you can hustle. But pick your spots." Or "tone it down. You're a Hitter, not a total player." Or whatever.

This happens in every sport. RGIII is going through it now and will again next year. He and the NFL are learning what his physical limits are. Or rather the NFL is teaching him. You can't eliminate injury. That's not even a goal. But what is the right balances IN YOUR CASE. It's a learning curve. But your "learning curve" better not be a flat line response of: I'm-me-and-I-play-my-way. 

Just because you'd love to be Pete Rose (or Joe Montana) doesn't mean that the sport will LET you be Pete Rose.

I live in L.A. When I read the Sunday L.A. Times it is full of ads from Sterling polishing his image on the great things he's doing in the community and with his properties. I mean many half-page ads every week. Probably helped him get his lifetime award from the NAACP. Just shows that you can purchase your image and it just might work.

Until it doesn't work any more.

Companies are pulling their sponsorship of the Clippers.

What's the mood like in the Nationals' locker room these days?

Good. They're pros. Some fans panic. That's okay. But it's not rational.

The Nats are 14-12. Before the season, some thought that St. Louis and Los Angeles might be the two best teams in the National League, slightly ahead of the Nats and Braves. Both the Cards and Dodgers are also 14-12. 

So far, neither of them has canceled the rest of their season.

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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