washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell

A Place to Call Home

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla. -- Getting to know the Nats may not take as long as we thought. Parsing each player's style will be a summer's work. But the personality of this tough-minded, close-knit club has already been forged in the fire of endless unwarranted indignities.

The Nationals' remarkably strong old-school chemistry has impressed Manager Frank Robinson so much that he can't bring himself to retire and abandon them. Instead, as he approaches 70, he wants to stick around to see what his Montreal orphans can accomplish now that they finally have a "fresh start," a few bucks to spend and a square deal in a town that craves them.

"This team has not gotten their just dues," Robinson said Tuesday as pitchers and catchers reported to camp at Space Coast Stadium, officially inaugurating a new era of Washington baseball. "The conditions they've played under, it's been a burden. They say we have 'home games' in Puerto Rico, but what they really have is 19-20 day road trips. . . . These guys could have made excuses. Instead, they showed character.

"Last year with a lot of injuries, they really pulled together. The approach and attitude of this team couldn't be better. They're a great bunch," added Robinson, one of the few men in the sport who never flatters anybody, even his own teams. "I'm kind of surprised I'm still here [managing]. If they hadn't given me all the energy that they have, I wouldn't still be here."

No modern team, perhaps no team ever, has been so maltreated -- mocked as an unwanted, inconvenient public farce by its own sport. Baseball has brought nothing but shame on itself in its treatment of the ex-Expos. Yet the Nats arrived here to start a new season with their dignity intact, their nucleus of young core players firmly entrenched and a powerful desire to show what they can do on a playing field that is even remotely close to being level.

Year after year baseball has told this franchise that it was unimportant, more of an annoyance than a true big league team, that the game would actually prefer to blow up the franchise. Legalities and union pressure prevented it, but every Nat got the message. The answer they gave is in their record: 233-253 in the last three years under Robinson. That's about 50 more wins than should have been reasonable. Now that the team's front office is finally adding a few pieces to the puzzle -- moderately priced ones, but far more than the team could afford in the past -- there's a tone of quiet defiance as the Nats come to town.

On many teams, the stars find lame excuses to arrive days late. Almost never do all the key everyday players show up early along with the pitchers and catchers. But all of the central Nats leaders were on hand Tuesday: Jose Vidro (three-time all-star), Brad Wilkerson (32 homers) and first baseman Nick Johnson, along with catcher Brian Schneider, a self-made, universally respected leader.

"I'm seeing red," said Schneider, blinking and pretending to stagger backward from his brightly colored new "D.C." jersey.

In a sense, plenty of Nats are seeing red after their tribulations. "I know I'm ready to go right now," said Wilkerson. "Our talent is a lot better than we showed last year because of injuries. Two years ago, we were tied for the wild-card spot with a month to go in the season. If we stay healthy, I think we could be there [in contention] at the end of this year, too."

Of course, almost nobody else does. All of the Nats believers can be rounded up in just one room; fortunately, it's their own locker room. Even Robinson's famous testiness flashes when someone suggests that anything approaching the 83 wins of '03 would be exceptional.

"That may be putting it too low. This is the best defensive team I have ever managed. We have added some players that have been really big [improvements] for this ballclub," he said, naming Vinny Castilla (131 RBI), Jose Guillen (109 RBI), shortstop Cristian Guzman and starter Esteban Loaiza, who won 21 games in '03 for the White Sox. Regardless of record, the Nats are already refreshing. Their clubhouse feels more like the unpretentious, friendly atmosphere that's usually associated with the down-to-earth players of the NHL rather than the often-imperious multimillionaires of baseball. On Tuesday, a large boom box played in the center of the locker room, just as in almost every clubhouse. The difference? It played softly. This is a group that has been forced to be together in close quarters so much that mutual consideration has become necessary to survival.

"I don't think you are going to find too many [jerks] on this team," said 6-foot-3, 266-pound reliever T.J. Tucker -- nicknamed "Shrek" for obvious reasons.

While Robinson loves the on-field intensity of players such as Vidro and Wilkerson, that fieriness subsides off the field.

"A lot of us have been with each other for quite a while. It's like a big family in this clubhouse," said Tucker, who at 26 is in his ninth year in the organization. "The last couple of years it's been rough. That has brought us together more. Two years ago when we were still in the postseason race late in the season, we had to fly from Puerto Rico to Seattle -- with a [refueling] stop in Atlanta. That's an 11-hour plane trip after you just played a ballgame. We've been through a lot. . . . If the other people in this room don't like you, it's going to be a long season."

Even those who are marginal contributors, and may not even make the team this season, feel like they are a part of the core of the team. "The first thing I realized when I came up [from the minors] is that not one person here plays for themselves. It's all 'team,' " said reliever Gary "Tex" Majewski. "We're so enthusiastic, it's like a Little League or high school team. Now, it'll be better with people in the stands. 'It's always good when somebody wants you.' Think that might make a good country song title?"

If Washington gives these Nats a few years to play in front of big crowds, then tosses in a $550 million stadium and adds some overpaid free agents into their mix, maybe the special camaraderie that the Nats now have can be spoiled. Maybe we can ruin 'em. But, right now, after all its years in the wilderness, this team has the smallest hat size in its sport.

Whoever buys the Nationals sometime later this season will, presumably, bring a large wallet to the table with them. They may be tempted to seek the things that money can buy: $100 million free agents and stars who've worn out their welcome elsewhere.

Big bucks have their place. But whoever owns the Nats in this bright new era of high promise should remember not to squander all the qualities that this team fought for in its bad days. Washington's franchise may already have something that dollars can't acquire: an attitude that even Frank Robinson can't help but admire.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company