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SI:AM | One Play That Sums Up How Awful the Nationals Are

Plus, a wild (unscripted!) situation in the wacky world of pro wrestling.

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. Thank you to the Nationals for giving me something to write about after a slow night in sports.

In today’s SI:AM:

What’s going on in D.C.?

Phil’s PGA Championship absence

🦌 Getting more help for Giannis

The Nats’ fall has been steep

The Nationals’ World Series win feels like an eternity ago.

After winning the championship in 2019, Washington finished last in the NL East in each of the next two seasons—and is well on its way to another last-place finish this year. The Nats are 12–25 so far. Only the Reds—the terrible, awful, pathetic Reds—have a worse record.

Washington got beaten up by the Marlins last night, losing 8–2. The game was never really close (Nats starter Aaron Sanchez was chased after allowing four runs on eight hits in 3⅔ innings), but it was really blown open after this disaster of a play in the seventh.

Marlins slugger Jorge Soler came to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out, facing Victor Arano. He hit a scorcher of a ground ball right at shortstop Dee Strange-Gordon, who was unable to field it. Left fielder Lane Thomas’s throw home was wide, and catcher Keibert Ruiz couldn’t corral it, allowing two runs to score. The ball squirted away from him, allowing Soler to advance to second. Arano (backing up Ruiz at the plate) threw to second to try to nab Soler, but it was wide as well and a third run scored as the ball went into center field. Soler ended up at third as the Marlins pushed their lead to 7–1.

That play tells you just about everything you need to know about how this Nationals season is going. First of all, the dreadful Washington bullpen loaded the bases by allowing three straight singles. And on the fourth consecutive hit, you had that mess.

My first instinct was to blame Strange-Gordon for failing to field the ball, but then I looked up the exit velocity on Soler’s grounder: 113.2 mph. It’s tough to field a ball hit that hard, even when (or maybe, especially if) it’s hit right at you. But the fact that Strange-Gordon was playing shortstop at all is an indictment of this Nationals team. He’s 34 and hasn’t played double-digit games at short in the majors since 2013. The Nats’ only other option at short is 35-year-old Alcides Escobar, who hit well last year but was below average on defense (-3 defensive runs saved in 61 games at short). Do you think Trea Turner would have been able to field that ball?

Shortstop is the least of the Nationals’ problems, though. The offense is fine—middle-of-the-pack in most key categories, buoyed by surprisingly strong starts from Josh Bell and Yadiel Hernandez. It’s the pitching that’s truly horrendous. Their team ERA is 4.98 (only the Reds are worse), and they’re allowing a .264 batting average to their opponents (only the Reds and Rockies are worse). Their team ERA+ (which is adjusted to account for a team’s ballpark) is 77. League-average is 100. (Just to pile on the Reds some more, only their 76 team ERA+ is worse than the Nats’.)

It isn’t a coincidence that the Nationals’ last good season was the last time Stephen Strasburg was healthy. The championship year was also Patrick Corbin’s first season in Washington. He signed a six-year, $140 million contract before the 2019 season, and after a solid debut it’s been downhill ever since. He had a 5.82 ERA in 31 starts last year, and this season his ERA has swollen to 6.28. It’s tough to win games when one of your highest-paid players is below replacement level.

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“After she learned she was dying, Esther Lee had to make some calls. She spoke with Venus and Serena Williams, her brother and her sister, her friends and some other clients. One of the last and most difficult was Shaun White. Esther was standing in a field in the heat somewhere in Los Angeles in late July 2020. He answered quickly, excited to hear from her, but then she told him her news, and he started crying.”

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SIQ

On this day in 1983, the Islanders defeated the Oilers in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals to finish off a sweep and clinch their fourth consecutive championship. Who did they lose to in the final in ’84, denying their quest for an unprecedented five-peat?

Yesterday’s SIQ: Which player did the Yankees trade after he was involved in a fight at the Copacabana nightclub?

Answer: Billy Martin. He and a few teammates had gone out that night to celebrate his 29th birthday. The Copacabana was their third stop of the evening and they “were already well on their way to sloshed,” The New York Times reported in 2020.

For many years, the details of what happened next remained murky. What was clear was this: A man named Edwin Jones was punched in the face. The identity of the person who threw the punch was less clear, as was the severity of what the newspapers called a “brawl.” Jones, a Yankees fan who was at the club with his bowling team, blamed right fielder Hank Bauer. Bauer denied it.

It wasn’t until the Times spoke to Joey Silvestri, the Copa’s doorman, two years ago that the real story came out.

“There were no Yankees involved in the fight,” Silvestri, then 88, told the Times. “Nobody threw a punch but me.”

The dispute began, according to the Times, after members of Jones’s group “taunted Sammy Davis Jr. with epithets.” Martin and Bauer confronted the bowlers about their racism and Silvestri stepped in when things began to escalate. Silvestri said he threw two punches and that was it.

Still, the incident was all over the papers the next morning and the Yankees weren’t happy. Manager Casey Stengel pulled Whitey Ford from his scheduled start that day against the Tigers. Yogi Berra was also benched, while Bauer was dropped from his usual leadoff spot to eighth in the order. Mickey Mantle batted third as usual, despite being present for the fight.

“I won’t pitch Ford because the whole world knows he was out until 2 in the morning,” Stengel said, according to the New York Daily News. “He knew days in advance that he was supposed to pitch this game. He had no right to be out after hours. If I pitched him and he was hit hard, people would wonder what I was doing.”

Yankees general manager George Weiss was already growing tired of Martin before the incident, believing that his penchant for partying was a bad influence on Mantle and Ford, according to ESPN. The controversy gave Weiss an excuse to ship Martin out of town, though, and he was traded to the Royals a month later.

From the Vault: May 17, 1999

Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1999

Rather than focus on the star of this cover, Ken Griffey Jr., I want to zoom in on the tiny insert in the upper righthand corner of the page: “Golf in Greenland.”

When Greenland’s tourism board and a Scottish liqueur company came together to put on the inaugural World Ice Golf Championships, SI sent Steve Rushin to write about it—and compete. Rushin flew from Copenhagen to Greenland and took two more flights to a town called Ilulissat, where he awaited a Vietnam-era helicopter to take him to Uummannaq, an island in a fjord on Greenland’s west coast. That’s where he and 19 others would compete in the stunt tournament.

The course was constructed on the frozen surface of the ocean water surrounding Uummannaq:

“My own legs buckled at the beauty of the layout. The course was constructed entirely of ice and snow, nine holes laid out like a bracelet of cubic zirconiums on the frozen fjord waters surrounding Uummannaq. Fairways doglegged around icebergs 10 stories tall. This is what Krypton Country Club must look like. My disbelieving eyes popped cartoonishly, and I had half a mind to pluck them from my face, plop them in a ball washer and screw them back into their sockets to see if the scene was real.

“The fairways were snow-packed and groomed and set off by stakes from the icy rough. The greens, called whites, were smooth ice, like the surface of a skating rink. No amount of Tour Sauce could get a ball to bite on these whites; bump-and-run, I could see, was the only way to play.

“The hole itself was twice the diameter of a standard golf hole, and players were allowed to sweep their putting lines clean with a broom. Other winter rules were in effect: All balls in the fairway could be played off a rubber tee, while balls in the rough could be lifted and placed within four inches of where they landed, on a line no closer to the hole.”

And it was cold—brutally cold. When Rushin teed off the temperature was 15 below, but he still managed to break 100 with a first-round 99 that put him in 18th place. Rushin didn’t tee off for the final round of the two-day event, though. He had spent all night partying with locals and didn’t get back to his hotel room until two hours before he was supposed to tee off:

“I neglected to answer my wake-up call. I neglected to request a wake-up call. And I certainly neglected to ‘spring ahead’ one hour in observance of daylight saving time. So I missed my tee time. Which is why in the final WIG results, listed in several international newspapers the next day—from the New York Post to The Times of London—my name would be followed by the ignominious notation WD. Which stands, I gather, for Was Drinking.”

The story is an enjoyable look at an obscure, bizarre sporting event. And it’s Rushin at his best—full of lines that, depending on your sense of humor, will make you chuckle or groan.

Check out more of SI’s archives and historic images at vault.si.com.

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