After Winter of Discontent, Nats Spring Forth

A groundskeeper at the Nationals' spring training facility in Viera, Fla., applies the finishing touches before the team's pitchers and catchers report.
A groundskeeper at the Nationals' spring training facility in Viera, Fla., applies the finishing touches before the team's pitchers and catchers report. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 17 -- The sound of horsehide pounding leather Friday morning in the home bullpen at Space Coast Stadium, as veteran catcher Brian Schneider sized up one of the Washington Nationals' new pitchers, might as well have been that of champagne corks popping. Despite all the attempts this winter to kill off the Nationals -- or at least bore their fans to death with dramas of the political and economic varieties -- that pop, pop, pop, under a pale yellow sun, served as a joyous reminder of why it all matters so much in the first place.

On Saturday, the day pitchers and catchers are to report to the team's spring training camp, the Nationals officially launch Year Two. And while the first workout is not scheduled until Sunday, a dozen or more players breezed through the clubhouse Friday morning, pairing off for workouts or quick throwing sessions, or shuffling through boxes of mail at their lockers.

"Never better," said outfielder Ryan Church, newly married, when asked how he was feeling. "Ready to go." Someone informed Church that he was occupying the locker that had been reserved for Sammy Sosa, before the former slugger chose retirement over the Nationals' offer. "Really? Just call me Ryan Sosa."

By shortly after 9 a.m., Schneider was already donning the "tools of ignorance" in order to catch a bullpen session for newly acquired right-hander Brian Lawrence, the team's presumed number three starter behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson.

"I want to catch this guy as often as I can before I leave," said Schneider, who will depart the Nationals on March 2 to join Team USA's workouts as it prepares for the World Baseball Classic.

The last time the Nationals were on the field together, last Oct. 2, they were doffing their caps and waving to the fans at RFK Stadium, having just completed the final entry in a rollicking, fulfilling 81-81 season that served to reignite Washington's love affair, dormant for 33 years, with baseball.

And then, as beautiful as the inaugural season was on the field -- with the team spending much of the summer in first place, and remaining in contention until the season's final weeks -- that's how ugly the offseason was in Washington.

Months of squabbling between the city and MLB over the lease for the team's proposed new stadium have kept the franchise's future on hold, even leading to speculation at one point that the team's stay in Washington might not last beyond this season. To this day, the Nationals are still owned by MLB, with no firm sale date on the horizon.

But in sunny Fullerton, Calif., where Nationals closer Chad Cordero makes his home, that whole ordeal existed somewhere outside the realm of his own life. The stadium lease imbroglio occupied Cordero's mind for as long as it took to read three lines in a newspaper a couple of times a week.

"I would hear something about it from time to time," Cordero said Friday. "But I didn't really follow it."

If last season was truly a romance between a city and its baseball team, then Cordero was Cupid, firing the strikes that sealed the victories that brought the lovers closer together. In his first full season as a major leaguer, he became the unlikeliest of all-stars, led the majors in saves and at one point went five weeks without giving up a run.

"I'm trying not to look back too much," said Cordero, who will join his teammate Schneider on Team USA next month, "because it's a new season and I have to turn around and try to do it all again. But I spent some time this winter, sitting down with my parents and looking back at it. It was hard to believe, everything that happened to me. It seems weird."

Aside from being recognized a few times more than usual, Cordero said this winter was like any other for him. "Nothing really changed," he said. "The way I go about things was the same. Same friends, and they treated me the same."

Players entering the Nationals' clubhouse on Friday morning were greeted by a giant, just-completed construction project in the middle of the room -- a monument to Jim Bowden's lofty ambitions.

Actually, it is a bank of temporary lockers, as Bowden, the Nationals' general manager, went out and signed too many players -- many of them familiar names, such as Royce Clayton, Damian Jackson, Michael Tucker, Rob Fick and Felix Rodriquez -- to squeeze into the two rows of permanent lockers that run the length of the room. Sixty-eight players in all will participate in this camp, with perhaps half of them holding legitimate hopes of making the team.

Over the next six weeks, Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson will confront the pressing issues that face the team: piecing together the back end of a starting rotation out of the many arms in camp. Deciding what to do with second-baseman-turned-reluctant-outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Figuring out who is going to play center field and bat leadoff.

Robinson, who is scheduled to speak to the media on Saturday, has yet to weigh in on the Soriano matter, and the old-school soldier in him no doubt will be tempted to tell the latter to either get his rear end out to left field or go home.

And if that sounds ominous and controversial, at least the confrontations, beginning Saturday, will be taking place on the field and in the manager's office, as opposed to the D.C. Council chambers -- which, for anyone who loves baseball, is an excellent development.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company