For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; it's spring training, after all.
Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Today: The Washington Nationals. Your author is Dan Shanoff.
The Nationals went into the 2007 season with the promise of delivering the worst season in baseball history: 40 wins? We'll take it.
Instead, the Nats won 40 games — at home — and finished with a respectable 73 wins. "Worst. Season. Ever." turned into a better season than the ones had by the Reds, Giants, Marlins, Pirates, Orioles, Royals, Rays and White Sox.
The symbol of the Nats' unlikely success? Dmitri Young.
The burly, bearded first baseman came into the season less likely to deliver lineup punch than punch-line, after a 2006 that included the triple crown of divorce, drug problems and domestic violence. Oh, and depression. (And don't forget the diabetes!) The Tigers dropped him, and the Nats picked him up — only because presumptive 1B Nick Johnson broke his leg.
Then they played the season: Young hit for a career-high .320 BA, with an All-Star appearance. He won NL Comeback Player of the Year. If for no other reason than he became the franchise's most compelling and popular player — the team leader, no less — the Nats re-signed him for another two years, even though Johnson is back.
And so, apparently feeling lucky, the Nats picked themselves up a player who made Young's 2006 look well-adjusted: Elijah Dukes.
You may remember Dukes from his Final Four finish in the Deadspin 2007 Sports Human of the Year tournament. His bonafides: The "You dead, dawg" voice mail (to his wife)... the 17-year-old girl in foster care with Dukes' relatives, carrying his baby... the radio call-in ranting... the divorce proceedings... the various arrests.
At 23, Dukes has already put together a first-ballot "Fuck-Up Hall of Fame" resume. He also had 10 HR in 220 MLB at-bats, making him tantalizing enough as a prospect for the Nats to take a flier on him.
If anyone can relate to Dukes, it is Young. The second act of Young's comeback story must involve saving a kid loaded with equal parts talent and self-destruction. If Dmitri can get Elijah to channel his obvious... energies into something more productive than menacingly texting pictures of guns to his spouse, Dukes could go from SHOTY to a shot at success.
The team (and Dukes' new teammates) seem committed to helping him have his own comeback year. (Then they can move on to working with Nats newcomers Lastings Milledge, whose potential seems only eclipsed by his remarkable lack of self-awareness, and Paul Lo Duca, who has his own ongoing problems — take your pick: steroids, gambling, philandering. Perhaps they can record a rap song together.)
The Nats don't need Dukes to have a breakout year to improve on last season. The team's blueprint to build through young talent seems to be working: They have a ton of good young pitching arms; their 2007 draft was graded as best in MLB; their farm system has climbed into the Top 10.
But despite last season's overachievement, the only reason anyone outside of Nats fandom will be paying attention to them this season is for the spectacle of Elijah Dukes — and the promise that he will inevitably do something insane.
If Young's unexpected productivity and clean living in 2007 are any indication, maybe Dukes can avoid that fate as impressively as the Nats avoided being the "worst team ever" a year ago.