Thursday, March 17, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There were two press conferences Thursday to introduce two new stars to local sports fans — the Washington Commanders trotted out Carson Wentz in Ashburn and the Washington Nationals showcased Nelson Cruz in West Palm Beach, Florida. And though the two events were more than a thousand miles apart, a common theme ran through both: The question of character, from the perspective of both strength and weakness.  

For the Nationals, the discussion about Cruz, their new designated hitter, a seven-time All-Star, was about how he is respected throughout baseball and how he has been a revered leader at every place he has played.

For the Commanders, the questions (not enough of them) were about whether Wentz, their new quarterback, can put behind him the reports that have dogged his steps in recent years that he lacks the respect of teammates and has been unable or unwilling to provide the kind of leadership routinely expected of NFL quarterbacks.  

“Reports are reports and there’s truth in some things … all those things,” Wentz told reporters. “If we were in this business trying to combat and argue every report, we’d run out of things to say, you know?”

Yes, he would, considering the depth of the Philly Voice expose that his Eagles teammates thought the former No. 2 overall pick was selfish, uncompromising, egotistical and failed to take accountability, followed by his shocking one-year stay in Indianapolis there, according to a report in The Athletic, “the issues with Wentz stretched back to before the season began, one source said, and over the course of the year, some grew frustrated at what they deemed a lack of leadership, a resistance to hard coaching and a reckless style of play, which had a role in several close losses this year.”

It certainly would take a lot of time to combat and argue every report.

“I just try and be myself, be myself, get to know the guys, build the relationships,” Wentz continued. “I strongly feel I had amazing relationships with people in Philly and people in Indy. Loved my time there. To your first part of the question, I mean, knowing that you’re wanted and feeling that support from everybody in the organization means a lot. It allows you to go play confidently freely, which I think ultimately will allow me to play my best ball and try and elevate everybody around me to the full extent that I can. And I look forward to doing that.”

Boy, check that accountability box.

I would have read these reports to Wentz verbatim if I was asking the questions, but that’s just me. I’m strange like that. I guess there were other important issues to address — like his faith in God and “how he has learned through tough times.”

Wentz responded, “I appreciate the question.”

It was a different challenge in West Palm Beach for Cruz. He was asked repeatedly about the legacy of respect that has followed him across 17 seasons and six different teams.

“I don’t try to come up and be a leader,” Cruz said. “It just happened. I try to be myself. I think you should lead by example. I come early, work hard and let other things take care of itself.”

Cruz took live batting practice off Nationals pitcher Erick Fedde for the first time here Thursday morning. At the end, he walked out to Fedde and explained how the pitcher had tipped the last pitch he threw — that Cruz knew what was coming.

“I like to help,” Cruz said when he was asked about his reputation as a team leader. “Anyone way that I can reach a guy, on or off the field, “I like to help.”

He helps on and off the field. His humanitarian efforts were recognized last year when he was named the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award. The honor is given annually to a player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” It was the third time he was nominated for the award.

The year before, Cruz was presented by the Players’ Association with the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, given to a player whose “on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to achieve to higher levels of achievement.”

The admiration for Cruz is so pervasive that it has in some ways erased the memory that he indeed was suspended for 50 games in 2013 for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Even then, when he explained that he had lost 40 pounds because of a severe gastrointestinal infection, Cruz accepted the suspension and said in a statement, “I made an error in judgment that I deeply regret and accept full responsibility for that error,” Cruz said. “I should have handled the situation differently and my illness was no excuse.”

Now that checks the accountability box.

The Nationals didn’t sign Cruz to a one-year $15 million contract to become their first designated hitter, as the National League has now adopted the rule, just because he is a stand-up guy. They got him for protection in the lineup for Juan Soto, and even at age 41, coming off a year where he hit 32 home runs and drove in 86 runs in 140 games with Minnesota and Tampa Bay, his presence with Soto and Washington’s slugging first baseman Josh Bell should mean the Nationals lineup will score some runs this year. Cruz is a four-time Silver Slugger Award winner who has hit 449 career home runs and driven in 1,238 runs.

Soto’s reaction?

“I feel happy about it,” he said. “I told him we had a good group that sticks together. We go through everything together, good and bad. We try to not to be selfish. He is the same way.”

The distance between the introduction of Washington’s two newest stars was exactly 1,002 miles. But it might as well have been a million.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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