Mike Rizzo has worked in professional baseball for 36 seasons, and until this current campaign he had worked for a team that reached the World Series only once. That was in 2001 with the Diamondbacks, for whom Rizzo served as scouting director.
It’s Rizzo’s favorite team, from a professional standpoint, and for good reason. It provided him his lone World Series ring, which he wears in public only one day a year: Draft day, to remind him what the whole point of this crazy endeavor is.
That ‘01 Diamondbacks team was something to behold. It had two aces atop its rotation in Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson who took on extra work in the postseason to make up for a shaky bullpen. It had a roster full of veterans, each having enjoyed standout careers but each still seeking a championship.
That Arizona club went 92-70 during the regular season, then needed the full five games to beat the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, then dominated the Braves in the NL Championship Series, then emerged victorious over the Yankees in one of the greatest World Series ever staged.
Is it any wonder, then, that Rizzo has spent the last 18 years trying to build a comparable champion?
And is it any wonder that the first Nationals team to finally break through and win a pennant bears a striking resemblance to those 2001 Diamondbacks?
“It’s always been a part of my DNA as an executive,” Rizzo said. “I was lucky enough in 2001 to win a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks; we had the same formula over there with Joe Garagiola as the GM. We went after Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and we really loaded up on really good starting pitching. We had a good, long, deep lineup that put the bat on the ball more often than not. We could manufacture some runs, and we could do some quick-strike home runs.
“So I think that was kind of my foundation on how to build a championship-caliber club, and it kind of stayed with me since then.”
It certainly has shaped Rizzo’s philosophy of roster construction since he became general manager of the Nationals in 2009. Every contender they’ve fielded since has been built first and foremost on an elite rotation.
It hasn’t always worked - remember the 2015 “Where’s my ring?” rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez? - but it has been a hallmark of this organization throughout its sustained run of success.
Even at a time when the rest of the baseball world began to deemphasize starting pitching in favor of deep (and usually cheaper) bullpens.
“Good starting pitching, to me, is the key to any long-term kind of success that you’re going to have,” Rizzo said. “When you have the opportunity to have guys that dominate a game for six, seven, seven-plus innings, I think that’s the more proficient way to construct a way to win a baseball game. I think that there’s certainly different ways to skin a cat. There’s ways to win championships. But my philosophy has always been that, and it’s served us well here.”
And so the Nationals will go into their first World Series with a 1-2 pitching punch (Scherzer and Strasburg) that draws obvious comparisons to Schilling and Johnson.
But the comparisons don’t stop there.
The 2001 Diamondbacks boasted a lineup with a bunch of 30-something veterans. Good, solid players with track records such as Luis Gonzalez, Mark Grace, Matt Williams, Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders. The bench was deep with experience as well, from Danny Bautista to Greg Colbrunn to Jay Bell.
The rotation, behind the big two, featured a left-hander (Brian Anderson) and a quirky, veteran right-hander who pitched with deception more than power (Miguel Batista). The bullpen had a young closer who would blow back-to-back saves in the World Series at Yankee Stadium (Byung-Hyun Kim) but several other long-in-the-tooth arms who were willing to do whatever was asked of them (such as 41-year-old journeyman Mike Morgan).
What they all had in common, though, was a fierce desire to win their first World Series ring, and they knew this might be their last, best chance to do it.
Kind of rings a bell, doesn’t it?
Consider this Nationals roster. Though seven players (Fernando Rodney in 2006, Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez in 2012, Matt Adams in 2013, Hunter Strickland in 2014, Yan Gomes in 2016, Brian Dozier in 2018) have been to the World Series before, only Strickland owns a championship ring.
The clubhouse is littered with accomplished veterans who have enjoyed plenty of personal success but now aspire to enjoy the ultimate team success.
“I think everybody’s goal, obviously, is to win, no matter how old you are,” said Dozier, who was part of the Dodgers team that lost last year’s Series to the Red Sox. “But I just think there’s so much emphasis on staying here when you’re young. And the other aspect of it kind of gets lost, because you’re just fighting for a job.
“But once you’ve solidified yourself, the conversation becomes: ‘Let’s just win now.’ It’s not like it’s never there. It’s just more of an emphasis. You’ve been around for a while, and all of a sudden you’re 10 years in and haven’t had the chance to play for one. So it’s even more special.”
This group has acknowledged that for more than six months. On opening day a few veterans, including Scherzer, Sánchez and catcher Kurt Suzuki, addressed the team and offered a simple message.
“All of those guys said, basically: ‘I’m getting old. We want to win. And we have the guys in this room to win,’” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “And I truly think that. These guys have put their dues in. Now it’s time to win. Some guys who are younger have more time, but I think those guys see that the end is near and they want to cap it. And rightly so. And the younger guys want to cap it for them.”
There are no guarantees in baseball. You can assemble the highest-payroll, most-talented roster possible and still be left watching the World Series from your couch.
And if you doubt that, just ask the Yankees how they feel this morning. They’ve won more games than anybody the last 16 years, and they’ve reached the postseason 12 times. But they’ve been to the World Series only once, a full decade ago now.
Or how about the Dodgers? They’ve won seven consecutive division titles. They won 106 games this season. And they haven’t won a championship since 1988.
“I think there’s a misconception,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “People think it’s easy to win in the playoffs. First of all, it’s really hard to get to the playoffs. And second of all, you’re playing against the elite teams of the elite league. You’ve got to catch some breaks. I think in the years past, maybe we didn’t catch those breaks. I think we caught some breaks this year. But I think more importantly, we took advantage of those breaks. So, kind of made our own luck, I guess, if that’s how you want to put it.”
Zimmerman, of course, is the perfect example of all this. The only person to play for the Nationals in each of their 15 seasons of existence in this town, he’s only now making his first trip to the World Series.
“I think he’s the big focal point for us,” Eaton said. “Not that we’re wanting to win it for Zim. But deep inside, you’re like: ‘Man, this guy deserves it.’ Out of anybody in here, I think he deserves it more than anybody.”
Zimmerman may get the most attention because of his longevity with the franchise, but he’s hardly alone in hoping to make the most of his first career World Series appearance. Howie Kendrick in his 14th big league season, is finally in the World Series. Suzuki is in his 13th season in the majors. Same for Asdrúbal Cabrera.
And then there’s Rodney, who pitched in four games in the 2006 Fall Classic as a 29-year-old setup man for the Tigers and now returns as a 42-year-old member of a patched-together bullpen desperate to win a title before he runs out of time altogether.
“For us older guys that have been around for a while, this might be it,” Suzuki said. “You never know.”
Nope, you never know. With a bunch of pending free agents, the 2020 Nationals will probably be quite different from the 2019 Nationals. They’ll still believe they can assemble a roster capable of winning it all, but there’s no guarantee they’ll wind up in this position again next October.
That’s why Rizzo wants everyone to appreciate this. And it’s why he wants this particular group of players to find a way to win four more games and reach the career pinnacle he enjoyed a long time ago but had to spend the last 18 years trying to recreate.
“There’s no question about it: It’s a blessing to be here,” he said. “And you better take it all in and breathe it all in, and really take time to understand what we’re going to be facing in the next week or so. Because you’re right, it’s fleeting. It goes by fast. And it doesn’t happen very often. It’s something that each player should step back and reflect and realize where they’re at and what they’re about to get into.”