Denard Span comes to Washington Nationals ready to take step up in his career
By Adam Kilgore,
tAMPA — One morning last month, Denard Span was inside a yoga studio, talking about New Year’s resolutions. As he unrolled a purple mat over the lacquered wooden floor, his instructor told him about all the people who sign up in January and drop the practice a month later. Standing in bare feet, black mesh shorts and a white T-shirt, Span shook his head. “Consistency, man,” he said.
He had driven from his home — high ceilings everywhere, framed baseball jerseys around a pool table upstairs, a batting cage in the back yard, and two chirping Yorkies running around — and parked his white Range Rover on the gravel driveway at the Lotus Pond studio as scheduled: every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. Yoga has become part of Span’s routine since a friend recommended it a year ago. It keeps his muscles flexible over the long baseball season and it centers his focus, he said, “away from the trauma” — the concussion that briefly threatened his career.
Span, 28, conquered that hurdle, and now the reminders of his next baseball phase are all around him. The Washington Nationals traded their best prospect, pitcher Alex Meyer, to pry Span from the Minnesota Twins in late November. Span moved from the only franchise he had ever known, a team currently at the bottom of the American League, to become the leadoff hitter and center fielder for a World Series contender. In December, he looked at rental houses around Crystal City and Nationals Park. He got lost in Georgetown with his girlfriend, Shadonna, looking for new sneakers. When his family came to his house for dinner one night, they scooped grilled chicken breast and salmon onto their plates using a spatula with a curly W etched into it.
Playing alongside Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, Span may not become the biggest baseball star in Washington. Odds are he will come to be adored, and not just because he gives the Nationals an unfamiliar leadoff threat and covers ground in center field with the speed that once earned him a scholarship offer from Florida — as a wide receiver.
The Twins gave Span an award this winter for his community service work, particularly the time he spent with children who, like him, are products of single-mother homes. In high school, he spent so much time inside the batting cage he made his weary coach regret installing lights. He speaks with his mother every day, he said, or else “it will feel like we haven’t talked to each other in two weeks.” He does not smoke, drink, curse or swing at bad pitches.
“They’re not going to have to worry about him,” said Henry Allen, Span’s uncle.
‘He wanted the ball in his hands’
Span began his preparation for his first season in Washington in December, and it brought him here, to the yoga studio designed like a log cabin, tucked into the woods. He sat cross-legged, forearms on his knees, his thumb and index finger forming a circle. The instructor told Span and his friend, Toronto Blue Jays minor leaguer Kenny Wilson, to focus and expel negative energy with their exhales. Wilson remained mostly quiet. Span, over and over, responded with a forceful, throaty “Hah!” The instructor complimented him on his breathing.
Span has always wanted to please people, he says, which did not always serve him well as he climbed the rungs of his career ladder. After the Twins selected him in the first round in 2002, the hitting instruction he received felt like a barrage. They wanted to change the way he hit, the swing he had taught himself.
Span learned to hit inside the batting cages at the Grand Prix Family Fun Center here on North Nebraska Avenue. The place boasts, in bright red letters on a yellow sign, the “FASTEST GO-KARTS IN TAMPA!” It also has a full arcade, mini golf and nine batting cages. The sign on the fence reads, “Can you hit a 95 MPH fastball? Try it here!!!!!”
Span learned, trial and error, one token at a time. He still calls it by its former name, the Malibu. His mother, Wanda Wilson, worked 12-hour days, first as an insurance claims adjustor and then operating a day-care center, to raise Span and Ray, his older brother. He has a relationship with his biological father, but he lived in Fort Lauderdale, largely out of Denard’s life. Span grew up in a middle-class part of Tampa wanting for nothing. “We were blessed,” he said. But his mother did not have the time or money for camps, personal instruction or private coaches.
“What clinic?” Wilson said, laughing. “He and Ray was the clinic.”
Once football season ended or after bad games during baseball season, Wilson took Span to the Malibu. One dollar bought 20 pitches, yellow, rubber balls flung at him by a mechanical arm. After he fed $4 or $5 into the machine, Span had ironed out the flaws in his swing.
Wilson signed Span up for T-ball when he was 4. By the time he was 9, he would meander over to Ray’s games at the senior field and stand behind the backstop, barking instructions: Choke up! Line your knuckles up! Stretch your legs! Ray always hit better when his kid brother came.
“I knew he was something special in baseball,” Ray Span said. “I’m not saying that because he’s my brother. He wanted to be that leadoff hitter. He wanted to be the center fielder. He wanted the ball in his hands. He wanted to win.”
As Denard grew older, he toggled from one season to the next, never specializing in baseball. He received attention from college football coaches, and his baseball talent led him to transfer from Hillsborough to Tampa Catholic, a local powerhouse.
“To be a great player and make good, mature decisions — as coaches, you’re always trying to get your best athletes to do that,” said Chuck Yingling, Span’s coach at Tampa Catholic. “That was something that was a little different to him. He’s definitely a rare case to have the tools you want your kids to have and was also a great team player to go with it.”
‘Baseball is the sport for me’
Span still thought of himself as a football player first until late in high school, when he received an invitation to a tryout for a national youth team that included the country’s top prospects, future top draft picks like B.J. Upton and Scott Kazmir.
“I was expecting them to be like God, 7-foot tall,” Span said. “I got there, and they were great players. But I said, ‘They’re no better than I am. These guys are going to be top-five picks. I’m right there. Baseball is the sport for me.’ Before that, I thought I was going to go to college and play football.”
Span did not realize how frequently high school players were chosen in the draft, but as scouts began hanging around him, he came to understand he could turn professional. After the Twins took him with the 20th pick in 2002, he turned down his scholarship offer to Florida.
He still had so much to learn. The Twins altered his mechanics, taking away his natural athleticism and trying to give him a more traditional approach. He had never thought much about his swing, and the tinkering wore on him. He wanted to follow every instruction, to make his coaches happy, and he thought too much.
“I had a hard time,” Span said. “My natural ability wasn’t doing what it needed to be doing, because I’m thinking too much. I’m thinking about everything that I’ve never thought about.”
He leaned, as he always did, on family. “I’m definitely a mama’s boy,” Span said. At his first professional games in the Gulf Coast League, Wilson and Allen, his uncle, would sometimes be the only two people in the stands, Wilson’s voice echoing through the empty ballpark.
“She knows what I need to hear mentally,” Span said. “If I’m going through a struggle or whatever, she knows when to console me. And then she knows when to say something to get me ticked off or fired up, to push me. She knows best.”
He reached the majors in 2008, almost six years after the Twins drafted him, and quickly established himself as their center fielder with a .387 on-base percentage. Given the chance, he entrenched himself in the community. He assisted at the local RBI Program, MLB’s initiative to promote baseball in the inner city.
Span devoted time and donations to the Jeremiah Program, a charity designed to support single mothers. He held a bowling event to raise money. On multiple occasions he visited the local chapter, where he would spend an hour or two playing with the kids.
“He understood the challenges single moms have, and he took it very personally,” said Angela Woodhouse, the director of major events at Jeremiah Program. “It was just him and the kids. Moms were taking pictures. It wasn’t an opportunity to get attention for himself. He was doing it for the kids.”
‘I want to be an all-star’
Span’s career changed on June 5, 2011, at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City. He ripped a line drive down the left field line, and as the ball rattled around the corner, he began thinking inside-the-park home run. After Span sped around the bases, he collided with Brayan Pena, a catcher built like a bull. Span’s head smacked Pena’s shoulder. His neck snapped back violently.
“I wasn’t unconscious,” Span said. “I remember getting up and feeling winded. I thought it was normal.”
Span finished the game, but the haze hadn’t lifted. He sat two days and went 0 for 4 in his return. The room moved as he sat still. A fog filled his mind. He was scared.
Tests revealed Span had a concussion. It was hard for him to explain symptoms to trainers and teammates. After a month, Span still could not play. The Twins started losing more, and he began seeing his name surface in trade rumors. He had never been a public trade target, and the stress from the rumors compounded the stress from trying to return from his concussion.
It all become too much: The fast pace of his teammates buzzing around the clubhouse and playing music. The cacophony of loud crowds and stadium speakers. The sour mood after losses. The reporters asking when he would play.
“I’m just sitting in my chair feeling worthless,” Span said. “When you go through concussions, I later found your emotions [change]. I feel like I had estrogen in me or something. Everything little thing bothered me. I was moody all the time. There were just a lot of components that had entered into my body I had never felt.”
Span missed all of July and played nine games in August before he was sidelined for another 34 games. After his concussion, Span mustered seven hits and three walks in 60 plate appearances. He needed to move past the ordeal and convince himself his career would not be derailed.
A friend insisted he try yoga. He started after the 2011 season, and he found the practice helpful. He eased back into spring training before the 2012 season, and by opening day he felt normal.
“When you have a concussion, mentally everything is distraught,” Span said. “Your mind is psychologically, mentally, you’re all over the place. It was good for me last year to find yoga, just to bring all that back to that centered place.”
On that recent morning earlier this month, Span’s instructor concluded his class with shavasana, or “corpse pose.” The instructor reminded him and Wilson to lay on their back and relax as much as possible: Close your eyes. Make your bones heavy. Focus on your breathing. Think about the one thing you want to change.
As he lay on the ground, his breaths measured and loud, Span visualized himself at the Home Run Derby, sitting in foul ground, enjoying the spectacle at his first all-star game. He pictured himself smiling and jogging down the first base line as the public address announcer bellowed his name during introductions. He envisioned sliding into home with the winning run of an October game, then high-fiving a pack of Nationals teammates in the dugout.
“It’s almost like the season is fast-forwarding in my mind,” Span said. “I want to be the best I can be. I want to be an all-star.”
The faces of his teammates are hazy. The details of the home dugout at Nationals Park do not come. They will have to be filled in during the coming months, as he gets to know Washington and Washington gets to know him.
There is one other thing he thinks about, the one thing that lets him know he has, again, achieved consistency.
“Believing that I’m okay,” Span said, “and everything is going to be all right.”