Not all Washingtonians are Nationals fans, but politicians are natural baseball fans. The games move slowly, they are easy to follow, and there are at least 162 times to win or lose each season (more if your team advances to the playoffs). Another reason baseball is popular in Washington is that people can retain their loyalty to their hometown or childhood team and engage in heated rivalry with people sitting right next to them, who carried their own loyalties to our nation’s capital as well.
This month, while Congress slowly dealt with year-end spending and tax bills, many in Washington had one eye on the “hot-stove league,” baseball’s winter time for off-season trades and free-agent signing.
I have been a St. Louis Cardinals fan for 66 years. I grew up in Fort Worth, Tex., listening to the Cardinals on the radio, like much of my generation in the South. For many years the Cardinals were the southernmost team in Major League Baseball and had a great following throughout the region.
A perennial playoff team, the Cardinals are one of baseball’s most financially successful franchises. They draw 3 million fans a year and have a rich television contract. But their pinch-penny ownership dropped the ball this off-season in ways that might have already conceded the National League Central Division to their arch-rival Chicago Cubs.
Consider: The Cardinals were outbid by the Cubs in the free-agency market for their two most dependable players last season: pitcher John Lackey and right-fielder Jason Heyward. St. Louis did not come up with enough money or contract flexibility to retain these two stars.
The Cardinals made a bid for quality free-agent pitcher David Price but again fell short in the money department.
The loss of Mr. Heyward, a gold glover who hits in the .290s and is an excellent base runner, leaves them short one bat on a team that had a hard time scoring runs last year. St. Louis has holes at first base and right field. One of these two spots will be filled by a fine rookie, Stephen Piscotty, who can play either position. But the default player for the other spot is Brandon Moss, an over-the-hill hitter with only four home runs and a .226 batting average in the last three months of the 2015 season (he was acquired at the end of July).
The Cardinals’ general manager has said that the team will stand pat–at least for now–and not pursue one of several good-hitting free agents still available for first base or right field.
St. Louis has acquired three competent utility players–catcher Brayan Pena, infielder Jedd Gyorko, and Jayson Aquino, a left-handed relief pitcher– and re-signed 305-pound reliever Jonathan Broxton, who was inconsistent after being acquired at the July trading deadline. They also signed journeyman starter Mike Leake.
St. Louis led the majors in wins last season but was eliminated by the Cubs early in the playoffs thanks to lack of depth after some Cardinals pitchers and key position players were sidelined by injuries.
The ownership’s unwillingness to spend in the hot-stove league probably will result in a very unhappy season for millions of Cardinals fans. Not all analytical powers in Washington are directed toward the budget or deficit. It’s hard to understand why a team with lots of money won’t use some of it to win. It’s almost enough to make some of us Cubs fans.
Martin Frost was a U.S. representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005 and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles. He is a senior partner at the law firm Polsinelli PC in Washington.
VIDEO: Adoring fans and dedicated players: Why the St. Louis Cardinals have become a modern-day machine.
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