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Nationals' Day Does More Than Paint the Corners

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 25 -- The physical stuff is obvious. Zach Day is tall (6 feet 4), lean (216 pounds), floppy-haired and occasionally bespectacled, thus earning the nickname Harry Potter (H.P. for short). He owns what is known in baseball as a "heavy" sinker, and when you see him throw it, you understand why, for it drops from his right hand like a dead weight, inviting hitters to tap out harmless grounders. He is 26, and he will end up with a prominent role for the Washington Nationals, either as the fifth starter in the rotation or as a primary member of the bullpen.

Pretty clear-cut baseball story. Other than the artwork.

Pitcher and artist Zach Day, leading the pack, wants to sponsor a youth baseball team in the District. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"He does it as a hobby," said Bob Natal, the Nationals' bullpen coach. "But he's got some talent."

Natal should know. He's one of a few Nationals who is the proud owner of a signed Zach Day original. Natal's is of his three boys, Colby, Cooper and Cavan. Right-hander Dan Smith has an action sketch of himself pitching, offset with a portrait in the background, that hangs framed in his house. Second baseman Jose Vidro beams about a drawing of one of his prized possessions -- a souped-up 1997 Toyota Supra -- hanging in his garage. Former teammate Vladimir Guerrero had a couple of Day portraits done, one of which even appeared in ESPN The Magazine. Day has drawn Manager Frank Robinson several times, he said.

"He won't do one for me," Robinson said. "I think he's afraid of what I might think."

Really, though, Day is as comfortable with his creative side as anyone in a baseball clubhouse -- not exactly the warmest, coziest environment -- can be. It started with pencil sketches, just shades of gray, portraits and sports action. It has extended to water colors, color pencils, even abstracts in acrylic on canvas painted over this past offseason, "Just to tie the colors in our house all together," Day said.

The Nationals who are gathered here for spring training frequently discuss what they'll do after departing Space Coast Stadium each afternoon, maybe getting in a round of golf or visiting one of the seemingly endless strip of strip malls in nearby Melbourne. Day is the only one who legitimately might respond, "I think I'll draw for a while."

"It comes from my mom's side," Day said.

"Well, that's because all his dad can draw is stick figures," said his mother, Bonnie.

Truth is, there's so many sides to Day's family, it'd be hard for anyone but a Day to sort it out. He grew up in Cincinnati, not far from the subdivision where both his mother and father were raised. Bonnie was the oldest of 10 children; Zach's father, Steve, the second-oldest of seven. Zach has "upwards of 50 cousins," Bonnie Day said, and is so close to his family that he now lives in the same neighborhood as a set of grandparents as well as an aunt and uncle.

That atmosphere, Day said, helped foster in him a bit of a generous spirit. Though he hasn't yet signed his 2005 contract, he will earn about $350,000 -- and, in the not-too distant future, likely be in position to make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than that.

But there are guys in baseball who earn millions more than Day who don't think the way he does. He sold one sketch of Guerrero to the gym at which he works out back in Cincinnati. Brought in $1,500. So what'd he do with the money? Bought eight baseball gloves and a protective screen -- one for a coach to stand behind while throwing batting practice -- for an inner-city Cincinnati high school that started a program from scratch just three years ago. He has been to Washington merely as a visitor, but has already taken the initial steps to form a charity -- The Z Foundation -- that would benefit kids in the area. He wants to sponsor a youth baseball team in the District. His wife, Megan, works for the Red Cross, and would like to volunteer for the national office when they relocate to Washington.

"It's something that I've always wanted to have the opportunity to do," Day said. "For me, giving is something I look forward to just as much as being on the field. It's something that if you're in that spot, if you're able to do it, I think you should do it."

"You learn that kind of thing," Bonnie Day said, "when you're around as many family members as he is. They're giving people -- all of them."

One group which Day would like to give back to is the Nationals, and he and his teammates believe this might be the year he can. Last season -- when he received fewer runs per nine innings, 2.47, than any pitcher in the majors -- he went 5-10 with a 3.93 ERA. Twice, he made trips to the disabled list, once for tendinitis in his right shoulder, the final time for a broken finger suffered while trying to bunt on Aug. 1. That ended his season. Throw out two horrific starts -- one against Atlanta, the other against Minnesota, in which he gave up 12 runs in just 2 2/3 innings -- and his ERA was just 3.05.

"He's ready to make that jump, if he stays healthy," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "He's got a good arm. And he's learning to pitch, learning to trust the stuff that he has."

Robinson came to spring training with the idea that maybe -- if John Patterson or Jon Rauch could fill a starting spot -- Day might fit nicely in the bullpen. The sinker, his best pitch, leads to those grounders, all the better to induce inning-ending double plays. But Robinson certainly hasn't committed to that idea, and Day is planning to force his manager's hand.

"I like the challenge of starting right now," Day said. "I want to start right now. I'm sure [ideas] get knocked around. It's their job to try and find different pieces to the puzzle. I've kind of made my point that I'd rather start, but I'm not the one up top making the decisions."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company