VIERA, Fla. — Ryan Zimmerman sat Sunday morning in his corner of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, not far from the space he occupied seven years ago at the same moment of the baseball calendar. There were no lockers there in 2006, Zimmerman’s first spring training. Back then the makeshift kitchen resided in the corner — a few feet away from the toilets. “Seems good,” Zimmerman said, laughing.
His teammates pulled on gray pants, red socks over white sanitary stockings, hooded sweatshirts and beanie caps, bundling against the sudden cold snap that besieged their first full-squad workout. They scarfed egg-white omelets slathered in hot sauce or ketchup. Down the hall inside Space Coast Stadium, in a lobby converted for Sunday chapel, a smattering of players sat in folding chairs and listened to a preacher. Across the room, minor leaguers and first-timers had already dressed, too anxious to do anything but plop down in their chairs. It was quiet.
“In the years past, it’s been way quieter,” Zimmerman said. “We actually have a team now that’s been together. We kind of know each other.”
The Nationals trudged to back fields for their maiden practice as something they have never been before so soon — already a fully formed unit. Zimmerman remembered the spine of metal-wire lockers that once populated the middle of the spring clubhouse, to house the cattle-call competition. “There was 23 position battles going on, I think, for the 25-man roster,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a little different now.”
Sunday served as a fulcrum of sorts, the point midway between last October and the next World Series. So much happened last year and the Nationals hope so much more will come this season, and in the middle was this tiny milestone: everyone left from last year back together again, on the same field for the first time since Game 5, joined by the sprinkling of other players acquired over the winter meant to lift them a step higher.
“The beginning of the journey,” reliever Craig Stammen said. “It’s a long, long season. Probably the worst part about the way last year ended is, you’re like, ‘We got this far, but now we start back at square one with everybody else.’ It’s kind of neat to start that whole process all over again and see if we can get better from last year. It’s like a new challenge.”
Manager Davey Johnson, 70, strode into the locker room a hair before the 9 a.m. team meeting. Johnson prefers one-on-one conversations to speeches. He gave them his new e-mail address — an overload of spam persuaded him to shed his old one. He told the players he thought they could win the pennant last year, and that now he believed they had a good chance to win the World Series. Then he sent them out into the cold.
The Nationals gathered on Field 1. They killed the moments before stretch by breaking into clusters and trying to keep warm. Temperatures dipped into the 40s. Coaches balanced caps on top of hoods. Reliever Drew Storen fished a pair of batting gloves out of his equipment bag.
They all know each other’s quirks, like a small-town high school class. Bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo cracked up outfielder Roger Bernadina. Pitching coach Steve McCatty weaved a golf cart through packs of players, honking the horn. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, his passenger, cackled and hopped out of the cart. “Woo!” he said. “That was cold!” As they broke up for drills, Jayson Werth patted the beanie on Adam LaRoche’s head and asked, “Where’d you get that?”
Twenty-five players will make the opening day roster. Johnson already knows with certitude the identity of 23 of them, and all but three, at least, will have played for the Nationals last season.
“That’s what’s great about this team,” Werth said. “It’s got a chance to be those guys for a long time. That’s how you win long-term. Guys play together. They win together. They go to war together. Chemistry plays, that’s for sure.”
One of the new players, center fielder Denard Span, tried his best to fit in. The familiar to almost everyone else felt weird to him.
“It’s like a big family in here,” Span said. “You can definitely tell everybody has a lot of fun. I’m trying to figure out what clique I’m in, or what group I’m in. I’m the kind of person, I observe a lot. I’m trying to stay out of the way for now.”
Span ripped line drives as batting practice pitcher Ali Modami tried to navigate the relentless breeze, which did not gust so much as it formed a wall. His normal tosses had hitters leaning forward. When he threw harder, they popped up into the netting of the batting cage overhead. “Can’t wait for 80 degrees,” he said.
Out in the bullpen, Gio Gonzalez stood on one of the six mounds. He rifled a two-seam fastball so sharp that, with an assist from wind, catcher Wilson Ramos could not squeeze it into his mitt. “I think I’m gonna end on that one,” Gonzalez said jokingly.
“What happened?” McCatty replied. “Did you throw a curveball that actually broke?”
Back on Field 1, Johnson observed batting practice. Someone to Johnson’s left asked Johnson where Bryce Harper would hit this year. Standing on Johnson’s right, Werth answered for him. “Third,” he said.
The workout ended with pitchers doing sit-ups on Field 3 and minor leaguers taking batting practice on Field 4. Players retreated to the warmth of the clubhouse. They shoveled pasta, salmon, vegetables and breadsticks from aluminum trays on to paper plates.
Tucked in the corner opposite from Zimmerman sat Zach Walters, a shortstop in his first major league spring training. Walters, 23, will spend the season in the minors. For one Sunday, he could call the men around him — Werth, Ian Desmond, Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, all of them — his teammates.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over that,” Walters said. “Because I’m some young punk, I see them on TV and I’m like, ‘These guys are bigger than life.’ Then I see them in real life, they’re right in front of me. I think the biggest thing is Werth’s beard. I need it. I want it.”
The room slowly emptied. They would all come back Monday morning, and the day after and the day after that. They would be together all of the days for the next eight months.
“They’re all fun,” Zimmerman said. “It gets tedious and long, the same thing every day. Coming here and hanging out, this is the best part. Everyone being together and doing all that stuff.
“It’s nice to get back to that daily grind. As much as we say we hate it sometimes, we don’t. We love it all.”