By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Late this afternoon, after the final workout of his offseason, Ryan Church and his wife will climb into his gray 2006 Range Rover near their home outside Cleveland, point the car south, and seek solace in the town that holds one of his most painful memories.
"I can't wait," Church said yesterday by phone. "This is the year I prove everybody wrong."
For the Washington Nationals' front office, Church's attitude is no doubt refreshing because it represents an about-face from his feelings from a year ago. Presumed to be the Nationals' starting center fielder when 2006 spring training began, Church sleepwalked through spring training, acting like a seasoned veteran when he was, in fact, an unproven commodity. The attitude, coupled with a horrendous spring, cost him his job and put him in the minors, a blow from which he never recovered.
Now, he is scheduled to arrive in Viera, Fla., more than two weeks before he is required to be there, vowing to attack the spring. And after 12 tumultuous months -- a period in which he toggled between the minors and the majors, when he was supposed to go to winter ball but didn't, when his name was bandied about in trade conversations -- he says he is different.
"Did I learn from last year? Hell, yeah," he said. "I learned all last year. I'm mentally tough now, beyond belief. I've been basically through all my trials. Last year, I couldn't deal with going up and down, all that stuff. I'm that much more confident now, and I'm just looking forward to getting down there and getting started."
Last year at this time, confidence -- or at least a lack of it -- wasn't Church's problem. He was coming off a promising rookie season. The 2005 starting center fielder, Brad Wilkerson, had been traded in the offseason. The job, Church thought, was his.
"I guess I kind of took things for granted without really knowing that I was doing it," he said. "But there's nothing in this game like that. This game isn't given to you. Roster spots aren't given to you. You have to earn it. I kind of maybe took my position the wrong way, and I paid for it."
Just days before he was sent down, he talked about making sure he "had enough bullets" left for the start of the season. But he was hitting just .200, had just one extra base hit. And thus, the shock: With less than a week to go in spring training, Church was demoted to Class AAA New Orleans and Brandon Watson -- coming off a sterling spring -- was granted the starting job in center.
"I was devastated, and it affected my whole year," Church said. "I was just like the other guys down there that don't belong there, and I sure . . . didn't belong down there. But it was my fault."
Now, Church says, he won't allow such circumstances to be his fault again. He said his offseason -- though rattled by a controversy in which the club wanted him to play in the Mexican winter league and then followed by trade talk -- hasn't fazed him. "I don't pay attention to it," he said.
Church said he and his agent, Jeff Borris, had pursued a chance to play in Mexico, but the club instead signed another outfielder. After that, Borris and Church jointly decided not to push for other chances. Church has since spent time working with a vision specialist on exercises that will help him track the baseball, another request made by General Manager Jim Bowden, and said he feels like his place in the organization is secure.
"I just want to play," he said.
It appears he will get that chance. Though new manager Manny Acta said Nook Logan is all but sure to be the center fielder, Church could end up in left, even with increased competition around him. The Nationals have two oft-injured but talented prospects in Chris Snelling and Alex Escobar, and Kory Casto, the franchise's minor league player of the year in each of the past two seasons, could be given a shot, too. Still, Acta said yesterday, "If the season starts tomorrow, Church is the left fielder."
The reasons for that, Acta has said during the offseason, are Church's high on-base percentage and, in a lineup with few established stars, his potential. Church's experience in 2005 and '06 combine into one decent season, a .282 batting average, .359 on-base percentage with 19 homers and 77 RBI in 464 at-bats.
"He can hit, man," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's always been able to hit. If he can not get banged-up a little bit with those bumps and bruises and stays healthy for a whole year, I'd really like to see what he can do."
Twice in 2005, Church went on the disabled list. Worse than that, teammates quietly wondered whether he played through pain. He was aware of the talk, and it's another issue he says will be put to rest.
"It's frustrating," he said. "You can't win. You're not going to impress everybody and make everybody happy. There's times when you are hurt, but you got to play anyway. I know that. That happened last year. I just didn't say anything when I had a little something wrong, and I'm not going to now, either."
Nationals position players aren't due in Viera until Feb. 18. Church will arrive at some point tomorrow, a Range Rover full of supplies. The baggage, though, he left behind.
"In the past, I've felt that if I mess up, I'm screwed," Church said. "It affected me. Now, I want to put myself in position to go out there every day. But I know I have to put myself in that position."