The Nats' Clubhouse Comes Alive

The Nats' clubhouse last year was a
The Nats' clubhouse last year was a "morgue," but under new manager Manny Acta, above, it's done a "180." (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

VIERA, Fla., March 1 -- There is but one portable stereo in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, constantly set to an innocuous pop station. Not once during the past three weeks has it risen to a level that interfered with normal conversations. Not once has someone slid in a country CD, only to have eyes roll, only to have a player from another country take it out and replace it with, say, salsa.

A year ago, the Nationals' clubhouse was overseen by one of the most imposing figures in the game, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, and it featured a slew of veterans who dominated the conversation, the music, the mind-set. The current Nationals are hesitant to pin any perceived changes on the arrival of Manager Manny Acta or the departure of established players such as Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro and Livan Hernandez. But on the eve of the Nationals' first Grapefruit League game, the team that is unlikely to succeed on the field appears completely comfortable with its overhauled demeanor within those clubhouse walls.

"It's a total 180," outfielder Ryan Church said. "The whole atmosphere, just the sense that you get. I mean, last year it was probably dead as a . . . morgue in here. Not anymore."

The conventional wisdom early in camp was that the stark contrast between Acta and Robinson inherently created more energy every day, in every drill. The new manager is 38, the former manager 71, and there's no way Robinson could have been expected to pitch batting practice or take grounders with the infielders, two of Acta's frequent chores this spring.

"You're just sitting down there," Church said, motioning to the practice fields, "and you're like, 'Holy . . . , that's our manager.' You wouldn't see Frank doing that."

Functionally, Acta's and Robinson's camps were similar. "Everyone pretty much does the same things," Acta said, and his first three years as a major league coach were spent under Robinson in Montreal, so his old boss was one of many sources from which he drew.

But Camp Acta has, as right-hander John Patterson said, "a different feel," and that means Acta's first major league team will have one, too. Some rules have been loosened, and players will be allowed to wear jeans (no sneakers) on road trips, though they'll still be required to wear sports coats. Other edicts have been issued. Acta will prohibit players who don't live in Florida from driving themselves to spring training road games, a practice that the veterans from teams past took for granted.

"I'm just trying to get the chemistry going and get these guys [to] be more teammates than in the past," Acta said.

Whether Acta would have been able to persuade established veterans such as Vidro and Hernandez to accept such standards without significant grumbling is another matter. Several Nationals veterans declined to specifically address the departed players, but were clear that those who remain intend to handle internal issues differently.

"I don't think we have a lot of big personalities anymore," Patterson said. "In the past, you might have a big service-time difference, where you have certain guys really running the clubhouse. Now, everybody's kind of in this together. There's guys in here looking for an opportunity that don't want to rock the boat too much. Then there's guys who've been here who are just enjoying the way the clubhouse is right now."

Clubhouse chemistry is a chicken-and-egg matter; the debate about whether winning breeds good clubhouses or good clubhouses breed winning has raged for generations. Spring training, too, comes before losing streaks have been endured, before teams are presented with significant stress. An upbeat, energetic spring training only goes so far.

"It doesn't necessarily relate to wins," right fielder Austin Kearns said, "but it definitely helps you enjoy coming to work.

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