Chemistry Can Be a Tricky Experiment
For Nationals, Losses Challenge Unity, Leadership

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008

Earlier this week, the Washington Nationals were united by misery but divided by theories about how to escape it. In the days before Manager Manny Acta closed the clubhouse doors Wednesday and addressed his team, players had spoken quietly, sometimes among themselves, about how something needed to be done. But how can you flee the doldrums when nobody agrees on the right direction to run?

Paul Lo Duca, 36, one of the few healthy veterans on the roster, saw enough lazy base running, enough fielding errors, that he thought the team needed a message -- but for the moment, he kept that message to himself.

Second baseman Felipe López thought a sight gag might help. So, during warmup drills in Minnesota last Thursday, López wore a Rastafarian-style wig. As he loosened up, his fake dreadlocks bounced under the brim of his ballcap. Like that, the poorest team in the National League prepared to lose its third straight game.

Nobody expressed displeasure to López about the antics, but still, the second baseman felt a vibe of disapproval. "I'm sure people were like, 'We're losing. What is he doing?' But what does it matter if you're losing? You can't have fun? You're supposed to be bitter and not have fun?"

He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

"There's a lot of uptight people in here," he said.

Losing tends to magnify differences, of course. It can even create them. No baseball clubhouse enjoys perfect chemistry -- even winning teams are subdivided like school cafeterias -- but the Nationals, especially before Acta's meeting, faced a particular problem. Decimated by injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson, they had lost not just the heart of their lineup, but the heart of their leadership.

Zimmerman, though still around the team, spent his days playing catch before games. When the team took the field, he watched; he said he felt he had lost his license to speak as a leader.

"When you're out of the lineup it makes it harder," Zimmerman said. "If you're not in the lineup and you say [to a teammate], 'Hey, don't do that,' I don't think anybody on the team will yell back at you, but they have this thing in your mind where, well, he's not even playing."

Theories abound about the link between winning teams and clubhouse leadership. Roughly half discredit any link whatsoever. Acta, for one, believes on-field results trump in-clubhouse talking, figuring any player capable of helping a team win will become a leader by default.

"The best leaders in any clubhouse are the guys who are hitting .320 and driving in 100 runs," he said. If voices alone helped win ballgames, he joked earlier this week, he'd sign Bill Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama.

Acta's separation of word and deed explains, in large part, why he waited until Wednesday to have his first significant closed-door meeting of the season. The Nationals needed to hear his thoughts on playing together and helping one another before they sank any lower. Besides, they had nobody hitting .320 and driving in 100 runs. An embarrassment of errors in the previous two weeks -- four by López -- indicated that his team was not just losing, but losing focus.

López attributed a portion of the team's problems to lack of leadership. Speaking Tuesday in the clubhouse, he recalled the veteran voices that commanded attention on the teams he played for in Cincinnati. Barry Larkin was a leader. Ken Griffey Jr. was a leader.

"You know, those were people you looked up to," López said.

Catcher Jesús Flores, standing at a nearby locker, joined the conversation.

"We need that so bad here," Flores said.

The next day, Acta decided to speak to his team for 35 minutes. The players pulled up chairs in tight rows, so Acta didn't have to yell. For most of the meeting, one voice filled the room. But then, Lo Duca, who signed with the team this offseason, decided to speak, too. He was the first -- and the last -- player to address his teammates.

Lo Duca knew, same as López knew, that so much losing had piqued everybody's nerves. (Lo Duca's words: When you lose, "a lot of things get magnified." López's words: "The little things always come out when you're losing. . . . It's like you're under a microscope, and everybody's watching you.")

But here, Lo Duca hoped that his acknowledgement of the tough situation could help diffuse its effect. This season alone, he had lost his starting job. He had spent time on the disabled list. Returning, finally healthy, he found a new, misshapen role, with at-bats available only by playing left field or first base. By accepting that role without complaint, Lo Duca hoped to show that he appreciated the chance to play -- and took it seriously.

"It was just something I wanted to get off of my chest, something I wanted to tell the guys from the beginning," Lo Duca said. "A lot of the young kids here -- sometimes they get comfortable. And you have to realize, you're a last-place team. It's not fun to be a last-place team. We've got the worst record in the National League. And we need to do something about it, and take pride about it. I don't want to be the last-place team in the league. I don't care if I'm playing or not. I'm not going to let that happen, and that's the way I look at it."

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