The Nationals carry the best record in baseball on the field, but they’re also a vibrant and jovial group of players off it. They smile and laugh in the dugout, the bullpen and behind the scenes — enlivened by winning. But few of the players have ever been in a pennant race, and the light-hearted tone set by veterans is as important now as ever.
“We’re delving into waters a lot of guys in this clubhouse have never been in before,” said Mark DeRosa, considered one of the team’s most vocal leaders. “And I think the last thing you want to do is not be loose and not play up to your capabilities.”
Winning makes it easier to relax. Players say coaches cut them more slack when they’re churning out victories. And so far, they’ve found a good balance. “It makes it easier to come to the field every day when you’re friends with your teammates,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who endured seven losing seasons in Washington until now.
If the Nationals were a comedy show, DeRosa would be the main act, many say. The 15-year major league veteran won a World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 and has played in the postseason six times. And though DeRosa has played little this season, his impact behind closed doors is vital. He is part team dad and part team comedian.
Perhaps the most vital piece of equipment in the Nationals clubhouse is a suitcase-sized black speaker that sits in an empty locker between DeRosa and Michael Morse’s lockers. During a series in New York in late July, music aficionado Morse saw the speaker system with a microphone and iPod hookup, loved it and paid the clubhouse attendant about $500 to buy one.
DeRosa puts it to good use. With the delivery of a seasoned standup comedian and tinges of his New Jersey accent, DeRosa rags on anyone in the line of sight: in the clubhouse, plane and bus rides. He calls himself “a verbal assault machine.”
One quiet Sunday morning in August before a day game against the New York Mets, a reporter wanted to interview Ian Desmond. While singing intermittently over the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” DeRosa suggested that the reporter ask his questions over the microphone. On Kurt Suzuki’s first day in the clubhouse after arriving in an August trade, DeRosa read the new arrival’s Wikipedia page over the portable speaker for all to hear. Line by line.
“If you don’t have thick skin, you can’t come in this clubhouse,” DeRosa said. “Including staff.”