“When the players with big talent are also real good people, it becomes very easy to fit in,” said veteran Adam LaRoche, the son of a big leaguer. “It’s usually the showtime people who are the problem in the clubhouse. They give off a whole other vibe off the field, like they want everybody on their own team to know how good they are.
“The great ones let their play speak for them. Those three are team guys, humble good guys — the kind that are really good for the clubhouse.”
“Harper listens, wants to learn. He knows he’s good but he keeps it inside. He has that internal cockiness,” said LaRoche, then shaking his head. “He’s 19. It’s hard to imagine.”
Luckily he enjoys absorbing rookie punishment. After a homer, Harper broke up laughing as Strasburg walked past, needling. “Because he works so hard and he’s so quiet, people don’t know he can be funny,” Harper said.
“Come on, Strasburg has no personality,” one Nats vet said. “He’s like me, boring,” Ryan Zimmerman says. And they’re off again, no one safe.
Perhaps what’s surprised the Nats most is an overarching similarity in competitive ferocity that links Strasburg and Harper.
“Players sometimes have an ‘interview personality,’ ” Zimmerman said. “What the public sees isn’t what we see in here. [Strasburg and Harper] are very similar. There are other athletes as talented as they are, but they are so driven. They have the same work ethic, the same high baseball IQ.
“For a 19-year-old, Harper’s got a remarkable ability to learn quickly and be criticized by coaches and other players,” said Zimmerman. He andJayson Werth, Mark DeRosa, LaRoche and Ankiel sometimes seem like a school of tutors for Harper, keeping an eye out for him or on him.
“Harper has guys who care about him, maybe even protect him,” Gonzalez said. “Those guys see that shining star and want him to stay that way.”
When the late innings approach and, five batters early, Harper seeks out LaRoche or Ankiel for a scouting report on relievers he might face, the Nats take note. “Strasburg and Harper both want to be the best that there is,” Ankiel said. “They don’t just want to show up and have a talent. When you get special talent plus special work, that’s when special gets really special.”
The Nats still lack health and hitting. But after a third of their season, they’re still in first place. A big reason for their resiliency so far, and their potential in the future, is that hard-to-define thing in team sports called “a good room.”
“We just don’t have any problems now,” said Zimmerman, who’s seen cliquish Nat teams, disrespected managers and flammable-to-felonious teammates, including one nicknamed “tri-polar.”
“Everyone in here kind of gets it,” Zimmerman said. “Either they have been places where teams knew how to win and how to act or they were already here, like me, and now we’re even happier that we are winning.”
Most teams aren’t this way. But many contenders are. Once in place, team chemistry can be perpetuated. However, it’s strongest when built around core stars. In the last nine months, three of the most gifted pieces of the Nationals puzzle have been put in place. So far, they fit — together.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.