Livan Hernandez, giving the Washington Nationals whatever they need

Liván Hernández, who threw the first pitch for the Washington Nationals when baseball returned to D.C., will now return to the team as a coach. Hear what he has to say about helping out the guys he used to play with. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

On the morning of their first spring training workout, the Washington Nationals gathered in their clubhouse for a meeting that included formal introductions. Every coach and staff member stood, addressed the players and explained his responsibilities in a few sentences. When his turn arrived, a man many of them already knew rose to his feet.

“Livo,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Whatever you need.”

And then Livan Hernandez sat back down.

The Nationals this spring have welcomed back Hernandez, who for a team with two winning seasons in its nine-year history passes as an old-timer. In his 17-year career, Hernandez spent parts of five seasons with Washington. But he feels a deep connection to the franchise, and it to him. Hernandez threw the first regular season pitch in the District after baseball returned in 2005. He still holds team records for most wins, starts and innings pitched.

“He’s one of the few guys we can call legends,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

Hernandez never caught on with a major league team last year, and as he turned 39 this winter, he accepted that his career had come to an end. The Nationals invited him to spring training as a means to keep him part of the organization. During early workouts, Hernandez sported a red, team-issued hooded sweatshirt and baggy white baseball pants. He ambled around the bullpens with a bat slung over his shoulder. He offered advice to players and whispered jokes to coaches.

“He’s the same,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who pitched on the same staff as Hernandez for two and a half years. “He’s walking around with a Fungo. He used to do that as a player. I’m like, ‘Are you going to go throw a bullpen right now?’ It’s been good, though. He just brings a good vibe to the club, and he’s got a lot of knowledge.”

The Nationals have not given Hernandez any official title. Some pitchers have given him the nickname “Slash.” As in: “He’s a life coach-slash-pitching coach-slash-mentor-slash-everything,” reliever Drew Storen said. “Even if he doesn’t do anything, his personality is great to have around.”

Hernandez’s future role with the franchise also remains undefined. He may travel to the Nationals’ minor league affiliates and assist prospects. When asked about his summer plans, Hernandez mentioned wearing a Nationals polo shirt and hat this summer when he plays in a celebrity golf tournament in Tahoe. Without a baseball season to steal from his golf time, Hernandez became a plus-2 handicap.

For now, Hernandez cherishes the transition from player to instructor.

“I love it,” Hernandez said. “I like to talk to the kids. This game, I think it’s like 75, 80 percent mind. Everybody here has the stuff to pitch at this level. It’s easy that way. The hard part in this game is the mind — how you prepare for the game.”

Hernandez’s pitching career left him perfectly suited to become an instructor. He can relate to any kind of pitcher, because he was every kind of pitcher. In the late ’90s, after he defected from Cuba, Hernandez burst into the majors — and to a World Series MVP — with a mid-90s fastball and electric breaking pitches and a skinny frame.

Age and an American diet added pounds to his frame and sapped velocity from his fastball. In 2005, Hernandez suffered a ligament strain in his knee, and he had to change his delivery and his style on the fly. He survived eight more seasons learning how to locate pitches, read swings and vary speeds. He turned from strikeout artist to snake charmer.

“He’s pitched on both ends of the spectrum,” Storen said. “He used to just be pure ability. Really, at the end of his career, nobody pitched better than he did. There’s a lot you can learn from him. He’s not in your ear a bunch. It’s fun to ask him about certain grips, stuff like that. He’s definitely a great resource to have.”

Hernandez’s career also informed his opinion of pitching coaches: They should maximize a pitcher’s talent based on the framework of each individual pitcher.

“When I talk to the young guys, it’s not about changing nothing,” Hernandez said. “I don’t change the way they throw the ball, because they throw the ball really hard. When you coach him, you coach what a young guy has. You teach him around that, no changing anything.”

This spring, Nationals pitchers have sought out advice from Hernandez frequently. After one bullpen session, Stephen Strasburg asked Hernandez about how to work his sinker to both edges of the plate. Clippard overheard Hernandez teaching another pitcher his curveball grip, and he tried to eavesdrop.

“You can ask him anything about any kind of pitch,” Clippard said. “He threw all of them.”

Manager Matt Williams played against Hernandez during the seven years their playing careers overlapped. (Williams now owns bragging rights: He went 8 for 29 with a double, three homers and five walks against Hernandez.) Williams values Hernandez’s presence, too, but he thought his style made him an effective teacher.

“I look at Livo as a shortstop in a pitcher’s body,” Williams said. “He could hit. If you put out a shortstop, he could play it, so I want him to bring that expertise. Beyond that, he’s a great ambassador for this organization, and so he’ll do a little bit of that, too.”

One day early in spring, Hernandez stood in the corner of the bullpen, looking over Storen’s shoulder as he fired pitches.

“Livan! Livan!” a fan yelled. “I’d pay some money to see that nasty changeup!”

Hernandez pointed to Storen, who twirled a changeup into the catcher’s mitt. Hernandez turned around.

“You see that one?” he said to the fan, eyebrows raised. Hernandez laughed and walked away, happy to be in a place that feels like home.

“Right now, I love what I’m doing,” Hernandez said later. “Let’s see what happens.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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