FIRST IN WAR, FIRST IN PEACE…; THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW

July 5, 2010

Thomas Boswell writes for the DC Post and his columns recently have reflected an attitude change in Nats’ rooters.

At the midpoint of their season Friday, the Nationals pondered two intertwined questions. Are they close to being a winning team, as they seemed in April and May (record: 26-26), or are they as bad as they looked in June (8-19)? If they’re not as good as they had hoped, should they react to their recent fold by trading sluggers Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham for prospects before the July 31 deadline?
The answers are clear. The Nats are much better than last year. They’ll come out of their recent funk. And they’ll be better still in 2011. Once team brass
understands this, they’ll get their second answer, too: The Nats would be nuts to trade Dunn or Willingham.
However, it’s far from clear that the Nats grasp the situation. On Sunday, General Manager Mike Rizzo described the team as “underachieving,” “playing bad baseball” and “not a team that should be 10 games under .500.” Then, Thursday, Manager Jim Riggleman said “time is running out” for the current group of players to prove that it should be kept together beyond this month. Then, after his walk-off RBI on Thursday night, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman told me how worried he is that the Nats won’t keep together their Zimmerman-Dunn-Hammer power trio.
“The last month wasn’t good. But there is plenty of time. We haven’t gotten hot even one time this year. But we will. It’s going to happen,” said Zimmerman,
after the Nats beat the Mets, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth. “We shouldn’t overreact to a bad month.
“To me, the hardest thing to get in baseball is strong 3-4-5 hitters. We have it. Why break it up and then just have to rebuild it?” said Zimmerman, who has
teamed with Dunn and Willingham to give the Nats arguably the second-best heart of the order in the National League this season, behind the Cardinals.
“I’m signed for the next three years. It’s not my decision or my money to spend, but it seems like you’d want to extend [the contracts of] Dunn and Willingham to keep us together and see what we can accomplish,” Zimmerman said. “People are talking about breaking it up. Man, we’re way too close right now to do that.
The front office “knows how we feel. The three of us get along together, but what’s important is that we think we’re pretty good together,” he added. “I’m
staying [in D.C.]. But it’d sure be nice to lock those two guys up so I’d have some partners in crime.”
Dunn, Willingham and Zimmerman rank 7th, 11th and 17th in the National League, respectively, in on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) and are on track for a
season like 2009, when they combined for 95 homers. Their RBI totals, and the Nats’ run-scoring (24th in MLB), have been disappointing for several
reasons. The Nats’ top two hitters in the order have low on-base percentages, which reduces RBI chances. The rest of the lineup is bereft of home run
power. And the three sluggers have unusually high solo-homer totals, probably a temporary fluke.
The idea that you improve this situation by subtracting a power hitter or even two of them — rather than work to add an on-base artist and another bat with punch for 2011 — is bizarre at best, penny-wise at worst. Remember ’08, when Lastings Milledge often batted cleanup and the Nats’ team leader in home runs had 14? Those Nats were unwatchable.
These Nats have, within the past month, dashed up from 25th in attendance to 20th as Stephen Strasburg arrived and larger crowds came with him. In a year when MLB attendance is declining, the Nats are one of the few teams gaining both fans and buzz. Is this the time to deal off a top-20-in-the-league hitter for prospects?
Yet Nats execs have confirmed that they are listening to offers; that means Dunn and/or Willingham, because no other veteran would fetch much more than a bag of balls.
Are the Nats simply dreaming that a steal deal will fall in their laps? Fine. That’s wise. But that’s not the only explanation. Do they doubt that they’ll be given the payroll to re-sign Dunn, probably for three more years, and also be able to afford Willingham when arbitration will jump his salary in 2011 (his last year under team control)?
When money is involved, almost any negative argument seems to scare the Nats. The idea that Dunn, 30, and Willingham, 31, will somehow get old in a hurry is a concern, but not a deal-breaker. In these bad economic times, teams are in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to do contracts that take these guys to their 35th birthday, often a drop-off point for large sluggers.
Is there risk? Yes. Is it worth taking? Absolutely.
Even Riggleman has indicated that, if the Nats don’t shape up soon, that July 31 date may bring out the old argument: We’re losing with you; we can lose
without you.
“You can’t make that strong suggestion to keep this group together when you’re not winning enough ballgames to justify it,” Riggleman said this week. “We have time, but time is running out. We need to get it going and make it clear that we don’t need to overhaul it, because we can do better with this group right here.”
When the manager talks about “time running out” on a team on pace for a dozen-game improvement, with sensible prospects for another such jump in 2011, something is amiss in the reality vs. expectations equation. This is a team that’s overcome a combined 2-8 record from John Lannan and Jason Marquis, its Game 1 and 2 starters in April.
If the Nats show confidence in their roster, and demonstrate a willingness to make commitments to players such as Dunn and Willingham who have earned it, then they may reduce some of the tension in the locker room and see better play.
The Nats are much improved. But, especially on defense, they’re not a winning team yet. They must wait for Jordan Zimmermann and other injured
pitchers to return. Their true rotation may not jell until next March. They don’t need trade-deadline subtraction. They need offseason additions. Let
second-half production tell you what positions need help. And, at an appropriate time, they need to lock up Zimmerman’s “partners in crime.”
But, for heaven sake, don’t blow up what’s already built. The Nats have a young ace, a potentially solid rotation by 2011 and a fine Clip-Store-and-Save bullpen. They have gifted but raw everyday rookies in Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina, plus good team leaders who’ve kept morale intact. And they’ve got core 3-4-5 hitters who are the envy of more than 20 teams. Compared to just one year ago, when the Nats were a national joke, that is real progress.
Build on it. Don’t tear it down.

Jerry Crowe reported in his “Crowe’s Nest” column for the LA Times about Archie Roberts, “After playing only one game as a professional in the 1960s,
Roberts focused on a career as a surgeon. He now has partnered with the NFL Players Assn. to screen retired players for heart disease.”

“Archie Roberts knew he faced daunting, almost impossibly long odds, but he was young, ambitious and maybe a little naive.

He wanted to be a surgeon and a professional football player.

So there he was in the mid-1960s, the Columbia graduate and aspiring quarterback endeavoring to make an impression on the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins while also attending medical school, a daunting double few would even attempt.

Roberts, his professional football experience limited to one game, ultimately left a more indelible legacy with a scalpel than a football, performing more than 4,000 open-heart procedures during 2½ decades as a cardiovascular surgeon.

More recently, he founded the Living Heart Foundation, which pioneered advanced mobile methods for cardiovascular screening in an attempt to raise awareness about heart disease.

Concerned about the increasing size of NFL players and the risks associated with the added weight, Roberts has partnered with the NFL Players Assn. to
screen retired players.

“It’s really something wonderful,” Andre Collins, a former NFL linebacker and director of the NFLPA’s retired players division, says of the program. “There
have been life-threatening situations that have been avoided because of these routine screenings.”

Roberts, 67, estimates that about 1,500 former players have been tested so far, with about 10,000 more to go.

“It feels natural and comfortable,” the physician passer says of his return to the NFL universe all these years later. “I can make a contribution where I feel
there has been a real need.”

A three-sport letterman as a prep star in Holyoke, Mass., and again at Columbia, Roberts decided before he ever set foot on the Ivy League campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood that he would pursue a career in medicine.

But his football and baseball success at Columbia, where he set numerous Ivy League records in football and was an All-American shortstop, gave him
opportunities he never anticipated.

The Kansas City Athletics, he says, wanted to make him a high pick in the 1965 amateur baseball draft — but only if the undergraduate would leave school a semester early.

The New York Jets showed interest too, making him the 51st pick in the 1965 AFL draft — after making Joe Namath the first.

“It was tempting,” Roberts says over coffee during a late-morning interview at a midtown Manhattan eatery. “The money in sports back then wasn’t what it is now, but to a kid that had very little money, from a small town in western Massachusetts, any kind of money like they were talking about, whether it was football or baseball, would have been appreciated.

“But it was not meant to be for me because of the way I was brought up and the value systems I had developed.”

Medicine was his mission.

But then the Browns made an offer he couldn’t refuse: In a deal brokered by owner Art Modell, a transplanted New Yorker, they paid for Roberts to study
medicine at Case Western Reserve University while basically working part-time for the Browns.

For two seasons, Roberts joined the Browns at training camp, stayed with them through the exhibition season and then was assigned to the taxi squad as an emergency backup.

“In today’s age, it wouldn’t be possible,” he says of the arrangement, “but even in those days, it was way out.”

Roberts, however, longed to do more than sit and watch.

In 1967, sensing a greater opportunity elsewhere and without objection from the Browns, he signed with the Dolphins, who had joined the AFL as an
expansion team a year earlier.

“But as luck would have it,” Roberts says, laughing, ” Bob Griese was drafted and came in that year.”

During a semester’s leave of absence from medical school, however, Roberts finally got onto the field.

In a 41-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he completed five of 10 passes for 11 yards, with one interception.

And that was that.

He never played again and, after the season, returned to med school to resume his studies. A few years later, Roberts launched a distinguished career as a cardiologist.

Settled in Little Silver, N.J., with wife Nancy, the grandfather of six looked forward to several more years of open-heart procedures when, in 1997, he felt numbness in his right arm and helplessly slurred his words while giving a lecture.

He had suffered a stroke.

“I was a doctor giving advice to my patients but not living healthy myself,” says the 6-foot, 190-pound Roberts, who at the time carried an additional 25
pounds. “There were risk factors that any good doctor would have recognized — I had put on weight and my cholesterol was high — yet I was too busy
doing my thing.

“And that’s pretty stupid.”

The stroke may have prematurely ended Roberts’ surgical career, but it led him back to the NFL through his foundation.

What if, years ago, he’d devoted his full attention to football?

“I’ve often wondered,” Roberts says. “I’ll always wonder. But I can never answer the question.”

Thousands of heart patients, of course, are the better for it.

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