Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth: My whole life has always been, you… (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON…)
Around the Washington Nationals, there is a commonly accepted notion about Jayson Werth: He will meet people with skepticism before he trusts them, and he will open up over time, on his terms only. Werth insists this is backward. It takes others time to come to know him, he says, and then they feel comfortable. The perception of him evolves and he remains the same, not the other way around.
“I’ve never been one to make a good first impression,” Werth said Friday morning, leaning on a black baseball bat not far from the batting cage at Space Coast Stadium. “My whole life has always been, you got to kind of get to know me. But usually first impressions are not my strong suit.”
When the Nationals signed Werth in December 2010 to a seven-year, $126 million contract, they trumpeted his ability to change a franchise not only with his play, but with his off-field contributions. Two years later, the vision has come to bear, far beyond the usual buzzwords about “leadership” and “culture.”
One week away from his third opening day in Washington, Werth’s influence has spread through every phase of the Nationals’ operation, from the training room to the front office, from rookies in their first spring training to ownership.
He tells teammates when they need to run their last sprint. He tells security guards when they need an extra body in the bleachers. He tells the general manager when the training room needs new equipment. He can bounce between roles — clubhouse enforcer, protector of teammates, emissary to management.
“He doesn’t just straight accept things,” reliever Drew Storen said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, whatever.’ He gets things done. If something is not right, he’s going to fix it.”
If you think that is an empty cliche, you haven’t met the blood nutritionist or used the isokinetic activation device. Werth pushed the Nationals to improve how they feed, train and maintain the health of their players. They listened, spent more money and made upgrades.
“He’s really a forward-thinking person,” said Mike Rizzo, the general manager. “He’s brought a lot of ideas to the ballclub. And that really was what we were looking for from him.”
‘I’m just kind of being myself’
Werth is not the outward face of the franchise, an unofficial honorific that still clings to Ryan Zimmerman. Nor is he their best player, the title Bryce Harper will soon own if he does not already. But he is the Nationals’ oldest (34 in May), highest-paid ($18 million per year) and most experienced (1,006 career games) player.
“Sometimes it seems like he’s been here 12 seasons,” Zimmerman said. “In a good way.”
The stature serves as currency, but that is not how Werth views his place on the team.
“I don’t really look at it as being a leader,” Werth said. “I’ve never really been a follower. I’m just kind of being myself. In 2011, I think being myself was probably a little too much at times. Guys didn’t know me, didn’t know how to take me. The perception was totally different. People being around me enough to understand how to take me, that’s kind of taken care of itself. I try to just be myself. But sometimes, that’s not easy to do, either.”
Zimmerman, the other Nationals player with the status to take complaints or requests to management, had only known one experience. To him, everything the Nationals did was the way things happened in the major leagues. And, anyway, “that’s really not me,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes, it takes someone like Jayson that’s a little bit more outgoing that says, ‘This has got to be different.’ ”
Werth had played for a World Series winner in Philadelphia and had been around professional baseball for more than a decade. He could recognize what the Nationals lacked; he knew better. And, with a restless fervor, he would not abide shortcomings.
“I came here for a reason,” Werth said. “I was told this place was going to be right. So when you see things that aren’t right, you speak up. If you don’t speak up, you just kind of accept it. I wouldn’t say I’m the most accepting person in the world. I’d rather try to get things right, nip it in the bud right away and take care of it so we can move forward.”
And so Werth started speaking up. “Probably not very tactfully,” he said. “But the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”
During the 2011 season, he pulled Rizzo aside after games or during batting practice. After the season, Werth invited Rizzo to his home in suburban Virginia. Rizzo accepted.
“He comes up to me all the time,” Rizzo said. “He’ll make suggestions. I’ll tell him sometimes he’s full of [it]. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘That’s a good idea. Let me think about it.’ ”
‘Man, he was kind of right’