By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 4, 2007
On a grease board outside the Nationals' locker room, these words are written: "Your attitude will always determine your altitude."
Whose handwriting is it? "Manny for sure," Ryan Zimmerman said of rookie manager Manny Acta.
Right now, the Nats' altitude is hard to comprehend, so the team's attitude under Acta certainly is a big part of the reason. This team, picked to be the worst in baseball and perhaps the worst in history, has a better record (23-34) than the Rangers, Royals or Reds, the same number of wins as the Cubs, Astros and Devil Rays, and one fewer than the Pirates, Cardinals and Yankees.
"I check out those standings. It's pretty cool," reliever Chad Cordero said. "We're not 'the worst team in baseball' anymore. Knock on wood."
For the Nats, the knock on wood part always is essential. They're the team that always seems to hang by its fingernails yet somehow survives -- so far. In a sense, that's the core of this season for the Nats: find out which players have the resilience to survive under the worst of conditions. Because those are the people most likely to flourish when times get better for the Nats.
From the beginning of spring training, Acta and the Nats devoted themselves to identifying team leaders, emphasizing strong character and hoping that the team would develop internal chemistry. Little did they know how soon it would be needed.
On Opening Day, Acta lost his starting shortstop and center fielder for five weeks. Now, four of the team's five starting pitchers are on the disabled list. Almost everything that could sink a team's attitude has befallen the Nats. They started the year 1-8, then they lost eight in a row to drop to 9-25.
"Those two losing streaks probably helped us," Cordero said. "We still kept our heads. We proved we could come back. We all knew it would be a rough season. If we lose by 10 runs, we're still going to come out the next day and battle."
Acta was tested quickly. And passed. "Manny talked to us twice when we were going badly," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He didn't come in here and blow us up. He builds your confidence. Everybody is on the same page. We lose some games, but we bounce back. We have short memories and we have fun. We actually think we should have a few more wins than we do."
The Nats are best appreciated for their resilience. As Cordero says, "We lost big, huge guys from last year's team." Yet it hasn't mattered. Last week, in one of their periodic displays of utter offensive hopelessness, the Nats were shut out back-to-back by Brad Penny and Derek Lowe by a combined score of 15-0.
Yet the very next night, the Nats scored 11 runs, then won on a walk-off hit the following evening. "I don't think we've given up in a game all year," left fielder Ryan Church said. "That comes off Manny. There's just something about him. What's the word for the thing that a leader has? Whatever it is, he's got it."
A third of a season hardly is enough to judge. But every week, Acta shows more aspects of his feel for the game. He's in tune. Yesterday in rain and mud at RFK Stadium, the Nats lost their second straight game to the Padres, 7-3. Acta immediately identified the only issue of importance: Nobody got hurt. "With that [dangerous] field, I did a lot of praying," Acta said. His starting pitcher, Jason Simontacchi, shortstop Cristian Guzman and first baseman Dmitri Young all were coming off recent injuries. One more loss meant nothing. Staying healthy enough to continue to field a facsimile of a team was everything.
"That was probably one of the more miserable games I've played in my life," said Zimmerman, who hit the first home run into the yellow seats in the upper deck since baseball returned to RFK, off the stairs to the right of Section 533.
One wretched afternoon does not obscure the clubhouse foundation that the Nationals are building. "In a way, our players should be proud," Acta said. "We're ahead of some teams and we're close to some other clubs, like the Cubs, with all those big-time payrolls. But I don't want to be satisfied."
When Acta first mentioned this goal, in his comments on the first day of spring training, he seemed dangerously daft. Now, perspective has changed. If the Nats play as well for the rest of the season as they have since their 1-8 start, they would equal last season's total of 71 wins. Find one person who predicted that. Even if you can, they didn't predict that it could be done with Mike Bacsik, Micah Bowie and Lavale Speigner in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
This season, regardless of results, is part of a larger process of building an organization and setting its tenor for many years. That starts with a handful of players, including Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Brian Schneider, Cordero and, most remarkably, the 22-year-old Zimmerman, who has gotten hot, driving in 22 runs in his last 23 games.
"We try to play the game the right way. That's how you get respect here. We have guys who love to play hard," Zimmerman said. "This is a young, fun group. But it starts with Manny. He doesn't call you out in front of everybody. He pulls you aside to teach you. If we lose, we'll be upset for 15 minutes, then we'll be ready to win tomorrow.
"When Stan [Kasten] and Jim [Bowden] bring in new guys, they're going to have to blend in," said Zimmerman, referring to free agents, trades and the five players in the first 70 picks that the Nats will draft on Thursday. "They're going to have to be like us. We're not going to be like them. That's how you build a winner for 15 or 20 years."
Last offseason, the Nats cut adrift any possible problem players and added veterans such as Ronnie Belliard and Ray King, who were good clubhouse influences and embraced their limited roles. When Young arrived after substance abuse nightmares in '06, he rediscovered the playful personality that had endeared him to former Reds teammates such as Kearns.
That's what the best clubhouses, managers and organizations can do. The strongest hands define the culture. Then, the occasional reclamation project sometimes can be helped and, in the hard times, the Basciks and Bowies suddenly feel at home.
It's a good thing the Nats have so much resilience. Until the team's halt and lame return, the Nats will have lots more chances to practice what they do best: Turn a whole lot of attitude into a little bit of altitude.