The sun rose, blazing above a bank of clouds over the Atlantic, at 7 a.m. as though the earliest rays of morning wanted to report exactly on time for the first full-squad day of spring training. The Nationals were bathed in this abundant sunshine on a balmy 74-degree day in their little ballpark, freshly painted a shade of red that can probably be seen from space.
"Everything is snappy and organized," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
"It's hard to explain, just a feeling, but this is a happy environment," pitcher John Patterson said. "The manager's full of energy. There are smiles on everybody's faces."
Thus began a Nats season with a mood that has been utterly transformed from the gloom that enveloped this park almost every day last spring training. Then, even when the sun dared to shine, there always were metaphorical storm clouds. Now, even when discussion turns to the starting rotation and a chill arrives, there is still warm, bright light on this franchise's horizon.
One year ago when all the Nats showed up for camp, it's almost hard to remember how bleak their prospects looked. They had no new ballpark, no team owner and not even a TV deal. The franchise also had no farm system or scouting department worth the name. Baseball's brass refused to authorize sufficient payroll for competitive bids on contracts, even to the Nats' own free agents. So the roster was stripped. The team's president, GM and manager had no idea if they'd keep their jobs.
Everything was a mess. Everybody knew it. Frank Robinson, revitalized in '05, seemed dejected, even demoralized by the uncertainties. His team, which had been a contender until September in '05, had no realistic hopes for the present. And, if stadium funding collapsed, perhaps it had no future either.
"After last year," said Patterson, his smile a mirror of his teammates' grins, "there is no comparison."
The Nats' new park on the Anacostia River will be half-finished by Opening Day and baseball's future in Washington is as solid as its concrete. The team has rich owners with deep local roots and a famously successful team president. New scouts have been signed by the gross, more coaches added everywhere and the farm system, force-fed with kids acquired in trades for mediocre veterans, is now on steroids . . . well, so to speak. Perhaps most visible, and symbolic, of all these changes is the manager, Manny Acta, who is as energized and engaged with his players as Robinson was remote by the end. Activated, indeed.
"Last spring the mood of the team was worse than when we were still playing home games in Montreal and Puerto Rico," said Patterson, staff ace by default. "We finally got a home in '05, but then [the D.C. Council] couldn't decide on money for the new stadium so we didn't know if we were really staying in D.C. or not. Baseball kept delaying, not giving us an owner, not giving us money to re-sign our own players. The games weren't even on TV. . . . We weren't on a level playing field. Everything was always 'ifs, ands and buts.' It just went on and on and on. It wore you out. I'm sure our fans got sick of it. We did.
"Now, the feeling is entirely different. Manny brought up the differences from last year. You're playing in the capital of the United States in a top 10 market with a new park coming. If this can't motivate you, there's not much that will."
For an image of this spring, look on the most remote practice field at Space Coast Stadium where Acta, 38, leans on the batting cage and exchanges quips with his players on the latest trends in music -- that is, until he sees Nook Logan hit a lazy fly.
"Super Nook, that's not your game right there," the manager says loudly and decisively, but without a trace of hostility. To be the center fielder and leadoff man the Nats so desperately need, Logan must play the speedster's groundball game. When Logan, who has a .270 career average in 545 major league at-bats, hits a hard ground ball in the shortstop hole, Acta says, even louder: "That's it. Now run like you stole something."
In this brief exchange, you can feel the difference, and it may prove to be a surprisingly large one, between Acta and Robinson, the tart, intimidating Hall of Famer who had fine relationships with perhaps half his players -- usually young potential stars, veterans or extroverts -- yet sometimes seemed to live in a parallel universe from a dozen others. A no-longer young player like Logan who, at 27, still doesn't seem to understand what kind of player he has to be, would have driven Frank nuts.
In contrast, the new manager has given Logan a confidence-building nickname -- Super Nook -- as well as a public compliment when he does as he's been told. But, in a barely veiled way, Acta also has let a half-dozen players around that batting cage know that Logan is on notice -- do it my way or you'll be back in the minors or buried on the end of my bench.
All the good things that have been said about Robinson, in this column and by countless others, are all true. But three negatives also are true. When seasons didn't go his way, Robinson's energy and spark fell as low as any manager's. When players displeased him, which was often, he was as publicly negative and often disparaging as any manager since the caustic Dick Williams. As for strategy, he was still in the '60s. In 21st-century baseball, he was a hunch-playing day trader going up against a hedge-fund quantitative analyst with seven computers.
So, by last season, the Nats began every game ahead in dignity and reputation, but behind in strategy and motivation. The Nats echo this, but not by name. "He did a lot for me. I'm a Frank guy," one Nat said. "But we had an energy problem."
Not anymore. Robinson brought Acta to the majors as his coach in Montreal. They're close. But they're antipodes. Acta can give a speech, but prefers to communicate constantly, including working as the team's infield coach this season. "I'm not going to spill my guts," said Acta, anticipating his full-squad chitchat on Tuesday. "This is not a football team."
But, compared with last year's fundamentally atrocious team, they may sometimes seem like they're charging out of an end-zone tunnel. "We're not as bad as we look on paper," catcher Robert Fick said. "And the attitude is definitely right now."
It better be. The sun won't get any brighter or the breeze blow away any more doubts than on the first full day of camp.
"I'm a very nice guy right now," said Acta, the man whose large, hard hands most directly grasp the future of the Nationals. "In 15 days, I may not be so popular."