Mingling with the Nationals in Florida at spring training


Nationals player Jayson Werth, his son and some groundskeepers stand for the National Anthem before a spring training game in Viera, Fla., on March 16. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist March 18, 2013

I’ve never understood why men give their wives sexy lingerie as gifts. I mean, I get why they do it, it’s just that it strikes me as a self-serving present. Who’s really going to get the most enjoyment out of that teddy and G-string?

You might think the same thing about the combined Christmas/birthday present I gave My Lovely Wife this year: a weekend in Florida to see the Washington Nationals in spring training.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But Ruth is the super fan. She’s the one who reads every newspaper story about the team. She’s the one who organized getting a season-ticket package and put together the little party at our house to divvy up the games with our friends. She’s the one who keeps score in the stands, her eyes on the field, her pencil poised above her program.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy our weekend trip to the Grapefruit League: three games in 72 hours and lots of crisscrossing Florida in a rental car.

The centerpiece was Saturday’s home game against the Astros, preceded by a privilege I’d paid dearly for: A group of us were allowed on the field while the Nats took batting practice.

We stood behind some stanchions, a foul bunt away from our baseball heroes. We marveled at how close we were and tried to take in the seemingly lazy choreography of batting practice.

It was like a three-ring circus. There was the batting, of course, a sweat-soaked Nats coach tossing pitch after pitch from behind his protective screen. Groups of players watched from the outfield, occasionally deigning to catch a fly ball that came their way. There were players along the foul lines throwing to each other.

It was like all the most fun parts of the game — batting, catching, throwing — were concentrated into a single serving. Methodically, like some baseball bucket brigade, the balls would make their way back to that hard-working practice pitcher, dumped like Florida oranges into his basket, just to be knocked into the outfield again.

And we were so close. There was Jayson Werth, all scraggly hair and cool swagger, Sasquatch in a batting glove. There was Stephen Strasburg, who took a few cuts then disappeared into the clubhouse as if in his own protective cocoon. We watched Bryce Harper blast every third pitch or so over the outfield fence. And yet he still seemed to scowl as he came out of the cage, as if quietly fuming that not every ball had done his bidding and burst into flame as it screamed off his bat.

When it was time for the Astros to warm up, some of the Nationals came over to our little clot of fans. My wife had already approached GM Mike Rizzo near the clubhouse and had him sign the bill of her red Nationals baseball cap. Manager Davey Johnson, too. Then she got Werth. Finally, there was Harper. As she’d done with the others, she handed him a Sharpie and lowered her chin.

Is there any transaction more ritualized than getting an autograph? You can’t have me, the player seems to be saying as he moves a well-practiced hand above the proffered baseball, T-shirt or hat, but you can have this symbol of me.

It’s like a benediction. And as Ruth tipped her head she looked like a supplicant receiving a blessing.

We saw one home game, in Viera, and two away games, in Jupiter and Lakeland. It was neat being with opposing fans at a time when we had yet to muster any animosity toward one another and instead felt just curiosity. In Lakeland, we sat between sets of voluble Tigers fans who asked us about our team and told us about theirs.

I felt like Gulliver in a strange land, learning about the customs of these foreigners: their foods (a strawberry shortcake concession in Tiger Town!), their strange religious practices (the designated hitter!), the alien gods they worship (Prince Fielder!).

The score didn’t really matter — isn’t that what they say about spring training? — but when the Nats went up 7-1, the Tigers’ fans were as sad as we were happy. We switched moods when Detroit tied it, then went ahead.

And then the Nationals’ bats came alive again. Our team — our team — was leading as we slipped out, a plane to catch back to cold Washington.

Just under two weeks to Opening Day. . . .

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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