In 1990, Bobby Cox became the manager of the Atlanta Braves for a second time. He'd managed them before, between 1978-1981, a time prior to the arrival of internet message boards. Had such things existed back then, there certainly would have been calls for his ouster by the time the 1980's arrived. Bobby failed to win as many as 70 games in either of his first two seasons as skipper of the Braves.
Cox left to manage the Blue Jays, and over four seasons - with solid personnel - he led Toronto from 78 wins and sixth place in the AL East to 99 wins and the playoffs in 1985. He returned to Atlanta in 1986 as General Manager and returned to the dugout in June of 1990, replacing Russ Nixon, who left with the club 25-40. Cox would go 40-57 for the rest of the season, a .412 winning percentage, and I'm sure many fans wondered what difference the change really made.
They found out soon enough. In '91 the Braves would win 94 games and capture the AL West crown (this was before they switched to the NL East, quite obviously). They beat Pittsburgh in the NLCS and lost a seven-game World Series to the Twins. Under Cox they'd go on to win 14 division titles, 5 NL pennants and a World Championship - not counting the current postseason.
Other than Cox, the other constant with the Braves during those years was Stan Kasten, the outgoing President (but continuing partner) of the Nationals. Stan will be quick to tell you that consistency played a huge role in the Braves' success, and that includes consistency in the dugout.
The Braves had a great pitching staff for most of those seasons; I don't need to remind you of the names. Yet, in 1990, they used 11 different starting pitchers, and John Smoltz led the way at 14-11, 3.85. Lefty Tom Glavine went 10-12, 4.28, and veteran southpaw Charlie Leibrandt was 9-11, 3.16. The team ERA was 4.58. By comparison, the Nats' team ERA this year was 4.13.
Oh, and the 1990 Braves drew 980,000 fans, last in the NL, and about 4,000 fewer than they'd drawn in 1989, when they were also last in attendance. In '91 they drew 2.1 million, and by '93 that number got up to 3.8 million.
I can't predict that the Nationals will have similar success in the next few years. The point is, though, that the Braves' scenario isn't very far-fetched. Having been in this business for 35+ years, I can tell you that the turnaround experienced by the Braves in 1991 was a huge surprise. Did, at least internally, the Atlanta organization expect something like it? Maybe, but it wasn't until halfway through the season that the national baseball media figured out it was legit. Who could blame them after that 65-97 finish in 1990?
Jim Riggleman will likely never be ejected more than 150 times in his managerial career like Bobby Cox, but you'd be surprised at the number of people inside the game who see Cox and Riggleman as cut from the same cloth. A 10-game bump up from 2009's win total shows some improvement, though 69 wins is still about 6 victories short of where the club hoped to be at season's end. Had Stephen Strasburg and Josh Willingham stayed healthy, perhaps they'd have reached 75, but that's neither here nor there.
The 2010 Nationals drew 1.82 million fans to Nationals Park, behind Seattle and Arizona, among teams with fewer than 70 wins. They finished with only 400,000 fans fewer than the 96-win Rays, and only 230,000 less than the NL Central Champion Reds. (Interestingly, the Reds are the franchise that most closely mirrored the old Senators in terms of fan support pre-1972, yet no one ever labels Cincinnati a bad baseball town.) Add the Orioles' 1.73 million to the Nats' numbers and you get 3.56 million fans. With minor league teams in Bowie, Frederick, Delmarva, and Potomac drawing a collective 1.57 million fans, it's impossible to make the argument that the Mid-Atlantic isn't a solid baseball region. When both the Nationals and Orioles are consistently over-.500 ballclubs, those numbers should increase tremendously.
I'm looking forward to what could shape up as a pivotal offseason for the Nationals. March in Viera can't arrive soon enough.