- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 3, 2016

Being new also means not knowing who is who or quite what is what. First names can escape memories, as can the spelling of last names.

Sheets hung on the wall with pitching groups during the Washington Nationals’ spring training had names wrong. Sammy Solis’ last name contained a Z at the end instead of an S. Top prospect Lucas Giolito was shorted an S, making him Luca. When asked if another prospect, Wilmer Difo, was having any visa problems that prevented him from arriving at camp, new manager Dusty Baker said he didn’t know Difo and would appreciate if the media could point him out should he show. There were also the instances of calling Bryce Harper, the National League MVP, Royce. Word about that trickled into the clubhouse. Baker turned it into a joke within the team. He is nothing if not still-lake smooth.

Baker spent the spring sitting in a seat occupied by a friend a year earlier, one who, on Feb. 21, 2015, had his contract extension picked up by the team. “We are happy to pick up Matt’s option for the 2016 season,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement at the time. “It shows the great confidence we have in Matt to continue to lead this team on the field.” Instead, the rigid Williams was fired, Baker — eventually — was hired, and the learning by him and his staff would need to be rapid.

Baker’s arrival has produced short-term change. More music was played, more laughs were heard, and press conferences with the manager became filled with unpredictable turns. The only thing assured in conversations with Baker was him pausing to think at some point, then referencing an anecdote to serve as a backstop to the just-delivered philosophy.

More complicated will be sustained change. No one has departed spring training saddled by a soul filled with doom. Those are happy days, ones to say that statistics don’t matter — instead, it’s feel — countering the most numerically parsed pro sport in existence. It’s a time to be joyful, almost purposely naive. The first opportunity for a tangible discard of last season, which is remembered like a big-box birthday present that had a used toothbrush inside, begins Monday afternoon in Atlanta.

“You have to be just self-motivated to win, regardless of what’s happened,” pitcher Max Scherzer said. “If you need a scenario of last year to motivate you to win, you need to check your motivations. You just need to be motivated to go out there and play to win because that’s you want to do. As disappointing as it was last year for us, your single motivation can only be about yourself and what you want to do as a team.”

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There is growing stigma for Baker to wash off the Nationals. They are viewed as a talented team that cannot get it done. If they get into the playoffs, they rapidly depart. Worse was last year, when 83 wins placed an injury-filled team at home when the regular season ended. As the odds-on favorite from Las Vegas to the moon, Washington had flopped.

That is why Baker is in Washington to run the team with his preferred method of light-hearted efficiency. He tells jokes at team meetings. “Probably not that I’m going to say to you,” Danny Espinosa said when asked if he had a favorite. Baker wears black sweatbands on his forearms with caricatures of himself. The mint toothpick remains a standard, as does a slimming of his eyelids when he just took a good-natured verbal jab at someone.

“They’re comfortable around me,” Baker said of the players. “I feel comfortable saying whatever I got to say to them. They feel comfortable coming in my office. They’ll just walk in. And, they’ve made me feel like we’ve been together for a period of time. More than just six weeks. Still a work in progress. Winning really helps whatever might be not going smoothly. Culturally, I’m very pleased what we have accomplished in a short period of time.”

There is also the knowledge from 50 years in professional baseball. They’re trying to pitch around you? Expand your hitting zone by shuffling toward the plate a bit more. The pitch that used to be out there, out of the zone, is now in your new zone. Coming off the bench to pinch-hit? Find a fastball. Swing at it. Most of all, be on time. This is a basic tenet.

“He’s easygoing, but at the same time, he expects your work to get done,” Espinosa said. “If you’re not doing your work, he’s going to say something. But, the mood is light. He lets you get ready, he lets you prepare, he trusts everybody. He’s going to give you the benefit of the doubt to get your stuff done. If you don’t get it done, he’s going to let you know you didn’t get stuff done. But as far as an everyday feeling in the clubhouse, it’s a light, fun clubhouse. We had good meetings all the time as a team. Players respond to him.”

Before a game is played, Baker’s stylings are easy to embrace. He said Saturday morning, prior to the final spring training game, that cutting players the night before hurt. He didn’t sleep much Friday after doing so. Having been a young player trying to make it, an all-star and someone finishing his twilight playing years, Baker can relate to the end-of-spring ax. Williams went through all those stages, too, but pouring that understanding from the manager’s office into the clubhouse is a separate skill unto itself.

“He’s definitely going to be closer to a player than any manager you’ve ever played for,” said Bronson Arroyo, who played for Baker with the Cincinnati Reds, then was in camp with the Nationals. “He walks and talks and treats himself still as if he’s in uniform. It doesn’t feel like you’re going to the principal’s office when you go to his office. He’s in here. He’s in the locker room. He likes music being played. He still has a very young mind.”

Baker sauntering into the manager’s office is not the lone change. The team has been altered so much, with eight new players on the 25-man roster since the end of last season, that Jonathan Papelbon, a man who threw 23 2/3 innings for the Nationals last season and choked his MVP teammate in front of everyone, has been able to spread his wings. His first day at spring training, he wore a sleeveless shirt that read “Obama can’t ban these guns,” with arrows toward each of his healthy biceps. He hooked his phone into the stereo system, turning a staid spring training morning into a swinging country music party. A Sunday morning quiet was shattered by AC/DC. More than once in the spring, Baker called Papelbon a leader.

Papelbon found an unexpected friendship with Gio Gonzalez while in Viera, Florida. To mock Gonzalez’s curled tresses, he taped a picture of Aladdin between their lockers. They worked in the same pitching groups. Once back in Washington, Papelbon’s locker had been moved from the bullpen cluster to the opposite facing side of the clubhouse — next to Gonzalez. Perhaps the only member of the Nationals who can out-swashbuckle Baker is Papelbon. His flowing presence in the clubhouse alone is indicative of the overhaul that occurred.

“It’s just looser in here,” Scherzer said. “We’re having a lot more fun. Dusty’s set a good tone here of what kind of atmosphere he wants around the clubhouse and what he expects out of us.”

It is a guarantee of nothing more than a congenial six weeks in Florida. Significant expectations again follow the Nationals north from their spring training home. Baker’s arrival has changed the mood. The question is if it can change the results.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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