Recently, Werth laughed about that punch ritual with admiration. Johnson still tells the story of Earl Weaver, managing at Elmira, putting him in the lineup the day after a horrid beaning with his face black-and-blue and cotton still stuffed in his broken nose and blurred vision. Get back on that horse. For months, “I’d be walking down a street, see a ball coming at my head and duck,” Johnson said. “I’d say [to the other players], ‘Didn’t you guys see that thing? It was comin’ right at me.’” More laughter.
This is not aberrant behavior. It is just baseball, pro hardball version. It’s not “pastoral.” Quite a bit of hell-bent is essential. But too much is a disaster.
How do you draw the line? Shouldn’t it be different for every player? Watching someone who is attuned to every nerve in his body, like Jim Palmer, on the same team as a human bruise like Ripken, is like observing Strasburg with Harper: different species at the same watering hole. They both belong there. But each has to learn his own way to survive and thrive.
The Nats, as they rise in the sport, are learning many things. And so are those who supervise them.
On Thursday, Rizzo and I stood by the batting cage and talked about care of injuries. Rizzo emphasized that treatment of day-to-day injuries, such as Harper’s, are entirely different than major procedures, with six- to 18-month rehabilitation periods, such as Tommy John or labrum surgery. The problem, Rizzo said, was that Harper has to learn how to play smarter when banged up. His two headfirst slides last Sunday were both on poor-judgment, unnecessary plays.
“It is just youth,” Rizzo said. “He’ll learn. They all do.”
That sounded sensible to me. But sometimes the moral of the story, and the measure of your own stupidity, is standing in front of you. As we talked, Harper was taking batting practice, trying to hit the Camden Yards warehouse, after doing some light running in the outfield. Cool, what a stud.
By the time the Nats plane landed in Atlanta that night, Harper was limping and, by Saturday, he was — finally, mercifully — on the DL.
This is all part of the Nats’ learning curve, each player absorbing his own often-painful lessons. Johnson and Rizzo always say they “err on the side of caution.” But the results, the thing you’re judged by, haven’t been agreeing.
At the moment, the Nats would look at the Kon Tiki and say, “That raft looks pretty safe for ocean travel, right?” They may need to think again.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.