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Nats' Olsen Lights It Up With His Arm, Mouth

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 3 -- Scott Olsen pulled out a cigarette, one of the dozen he allows himself every day, though sometimes, with a beer or two, he'll smoke a few more. He tried to quit on his 25th birthday, in January, but that didn't work. Now he's thinking he'll give up the habit only when his girlfriend gets pregnant.

"I just have to get motivated," Olsen said.

His vice, for this particular moment, lent only one benefit: Just weeks into his first spring training with the Washington Nationals, Olsen already had discovered his own private smoking nook, tucked just outside the right field corner at Space Coast Stadium. His teammates, less than an hour from their 1 p.m. exhibition game on Tuesday, clustered in the clubhouse. But Olsen sat outside in an unattended golf cart, legs up on the glass windshield, puffing away and telling the story of old bad habits.

Olsen's reputation arrived in Washington before he did. When the Nationals acquired him in a November trade with Florida, thinking he could be a front-end starter, Olsen already had pitched three full seasons. Olsen jawed at umps, scuffled with teammates, got into it with his manager, got arrested, developed a reputation for hilarious, straightforward humor and sometimes pitched like one of the most promising young lefties in the game. When Olsen recounted all of this on Tuesday, he spun it like an old bartender's tale -- all filthy language and honesty, softened only by the admission that he is a work-in-progress who is very much willing to work.

"Let's see, the one incident that happened with [Joe] Girardi," Olsen said, starting the story of Controversy No. 1: the argument with his old manager in 2006. "Everybody saw him grab my jersey. Well, what a lot of people don't know is that me and Girardi are actually very close. He was able to relate to me better than a lot of coaches I ever had.

"But the situation was, [umpire] Joe West was behind the plate, and he's kind of a stickler for certain things and likes rules. We get eight warmup pitches per inning, so I threw five, and he said, 'One more.' So I threw more, and he didn't like that and I said something to him, he said something to me, and as I get off the field, Girardi walks over.

"He didn't even yell. He looked at me, crossed his arms, and asked, 'What happened?' I said, 'That guy over there, he didn't give me my eight pitches, and I'm [freaking] pissed.' I understand he's the umpire, don't piss him off, blah blah blah, but I'm like, I get eight pitches whether I'm a rookie or a 20-year guy. It's a rule. And I told him that. He said, 'Okay, just don't show up the umpire.' It's not a big deal. People see it on TV, they see Girardi grabbing my jersey, and they think, '[Expletive], he [messed] up again. Yeah, but not like you think I [messed] up."

As Olsen remained in Florida, a certain paragraph -- the summation of everything he did wrong -- found its way into every news story, in a way that he can now parody: Scott Olsen, arrested for DUI in July 2007, pitched into the seventh inning last night. As a result, when Florida dealt Olsen and Josh Willingham to Washington in November, some people told Olsen it was a fresh start. Two problems with that assumption. First, Olsen didn't particularly need a fresh start, because by his third pro season in 2008, teammates (and umpires) were warming to him, impressed that he'd learned to shed his agitating side and retain his competitive side. Second, Olsen doesn't particularly believe fresh starts exist.

"They put your stats on the back of your baseball card for your whole career," he said.

Fact is, Olsen liked Florida. The team had drafted him. He didn't know how a new clubhouse would receive him, because here he was, ingratiating himself to the Nationals in typical Olsen style, planting his hip-hop-filled iPod into a clubhouse stereo just hours before his first exhibition start, looking to gauge the reaction.

It was 11:30 a.m., a Sunday. Jim Bowden had just resigned as general manager.

The bass pulsed.

This was how Olsen liked to prepare for his starts.

Nobody complained. A few veterans even asked him to turn it up.

Okay, Olsen thought. "Party's on."

For the last 1 1/2 years, Olsen said, he has tried to channel his competitiveness into something good. He's read books. He has learned from mistakes. He still dislikes umpires, but he no longer jaws at them. He has learned to defer to veteran teammates. Even on Tuesday, iPod plugged into the team workout room, Olsen took song requests from Nick Johnson when the first baseman came in.

"I didn't know what to expect from Scott Olsen," said pitcher Jason Bergmann, who keeps a neighboring locker, "but he's impressed me."

"The first year I saw him," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "I thought he was immature on the field. I thought he had a bad mound poise. Just his mound presence. I saw him get angry at teammates, I saw him get angry at umpires. Last year, I never saw it once when we played."

The goal now for Olsen is "to direct that fire," he said. In each of his first three seasons, Olsen made at least 31 starts. Though his velocity dipped last year -- some mechanical work with St. Claire this spring has both believing it will return -- Olsen went 8-11 with a 4.20 ERA in 2008. That helped him earn a one-year, $2.8 million contract this offseason that avoided arbitration and lessened the strain of his bad habit.

"Think about it," he said. "I was 17 years old when I started smoking. That's seven years, 365 days a year, five bucks a day. I'm gonna quit one of these days."

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