Washington Nationals have right personality to handle the long grind of a regular season

After winning the NL East in 2012, the Washington Nationals are coming into the year with a cacophony of hype. But Thomas Boswell says focusing on this year’s potential is missing the point. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 17, 2013

Individual personality and team chemistry are bound together. No one knows exactly how. But when it clicks, with the right group of personalities all devoted to performing in the same way, every player recognizes it. And they fight to preserve that unity because months of victory, humor and harmony will usually follow.

The Washington Nationals have built just such a team. As they gathered for their first full practice Sunday, they greeted each other as if they were old reunited buddies. Part of that compatibility stems from a palpable personality type that runs through the team. More than half of the club, including almost all its leaders, can broadly be described as analytical, wryly humorous, intensely competitive, sociable but tending toward the introvert end of the spectrum. Luckily, that exactly fits the kind of baseball the Nats want to play.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

“They are grinders. They work hard, actually too hard,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “They have one of the best makeups of any team I’ve seen. Their mind-set is that every day is a big game and every pitch is a big pitch . . . and a season is a long war with 162 of those battles.”

In an itinerant mercenary sports world, the Nats are recreating something from a previous age — as much as the era permits. They want to be a club that stays intact year to year in its core personnel. That way, they accumulate knowledge as a group from season to season. More important, they want to embed a clubhouse culture in which everyone aspires to ferocious focus.

That has always been a baseball ideal, yet it seldom comes to pass. The Nats may be an exception. If they keep their heads out of the glory-gazing clouds, they might do dazzling things in the game’s mundane dirt and grass.

When they are asked, and they are asked often, the Nats will talk about their World Series chances. But in four days I have heard just two players bring up the Big Picture unsolicited. That is probably two too many. But a dozen players have redirected gaudy conversations, about talent or depth, back toward the primacy of the repetitive aggravating details of the game.

For example, this week Job One for pitchers was to work to remedy their almost unprofessional inability to hold runners on base last season. Stephen Strasburg hasn’t been patted on the back, but rather told how much he needs to vary his time to the plate so thieves can’t get a running jump.

Luckily for the Nats, that’s just what Strasburg prefers.

“A coach at San Diego State always told us, ‘You’re just another donkey,’ ” he said. “I really believe in ‘just another donkey.’ There’s not one guy in here that thinks they are better than the others. That’s the reason we get along so well.”

In no other sport is greatness so closely linked to daily-ness.

“Everybody wants to talk about ‘the season,’ ” said Drew Storen, probably one of the team’s handful of extroverts. “That’s understandable. But I’m stealing a line Jim Thome used in an interview: ‘Stay in your lane.’ That’s perfect. That’s what we need to do: Pay attention to your job, hone in on the next pitch.”

The Nats are extremely well-suited to narrow focus grinding and also to mutually supportive team chemistry. Susan Cain’s current bestseller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” might have been written about the Nats’ clubhouse. Like most ballplayers, the Nats are socially comfortable and play shaving-cream-pie pranks. But they dislike the extreme extroverts who want the loudest and last word on every subject or who force attention onto their needs, not the team.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the defending NL East champion nationals are considered the team to beat in the National League heading into the 2013 season. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“The guy giving us the drug test yesterday was reading ‘Quiet.’ He said, ‘I can’t put it down,’ ” said Jayson Werth, adding that he was “extremely introverted, but driven, when I was young.” No, not a typical clubhouse.

Johnson calls himself “an introvert who knows how to act like an extrovert when it’s needed . . . I don’t like [team] meetings. I like [individual] conversations.”

Adam LaRoche raises cattle in Kansas and hunts deer with a bow. Strasburg plays golf alone at dawn. Jordan Zimmermann talks a tenth as much as reserved Ryan Zimmerman.

Craig Stammen, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren (“very reserved, loner”) are mimes compared to any of the famous ’04 “Idiots” in Boston, such as Kevin Millar or Johnny Damon. All types can flourish in baseball. What matters is finding a group that syncs as people, but also meshes into an effective playing style.

On the Nats, the extroverts such as Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina give needed balance, but they are a minority. Bumptious life-of-the-party Michael Morse and Mark DeRosa might be missed. The Nats seem excellently suited to a long season, but, as they mature together, will have to develop a playoff persona on the fly.

One reason shortstop Ian Desmond played a central leadership role, even in 2010 when he was breaking in, is because his attitude falls near the center of the range (yes, an “ambivert”) who relates to everybody.

“We’ve got the right group,” Desmond said. “Everybody happy and pulling for each other. There are no ‘groups.’ Everybody goes to dinner with anybody: pitchers and hitters together, which doesn’t always happen. This team is going to be an attractive place to play for the next five years because of the kind of people who’ll be in this room.”

Fine teams in all sports tend to blend various personality types; but the balance between introvert and extrovert qualities, both within groups and in any one person’s character, may tend more toward the virtues of introversion in baseball than in any other major sport.

Don’t expect the Nats’ roster, temperament or chemistry to change for quite a while. Every probable opening day Nat, except Chad Tracy and Haren, is under team control for next season, too. Perhaps 20 members of the 2015 team are already in the organization. The team has 11 homegrown players.

General Manager Mike Rizzo looks for “good makeup” in every player, especially the ability “to get jumped [criticized] by a teammate and take it the right way.” But he may unconsciously have built a team congenial to his own nature. At the team meeting Sunday, Rizzo declined Johnson’s invitation to talk.

“Public speaking: not my thing,” Rizzo said. “I sat in the corner.”

Some fear that high expectations and premature praise will distract the Nats. That’s very doubtful. As all the Nats gathered for the first day of endless fundamental drills, the part of the season for which they’re remarkably well-suited has just begun to come in view: the regular season.

Those 162 games are hellish for prima-donna clubs, such as some of baseball’s instantly assembled new powers this season where stars who wore out their welcomes elsewhere are still learning each other’s names.

But those same six months are a grueling heaven for a genuinely tight-knit team. And Washington has one of the few.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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