“Do you think most Nats fans like Werth’s persona?” a Nats fan asked me on Twitter last month. This fan had ranted against Werth’s persona to his buddies, a group of season-ticket holders. They were shocked by his stance. So was I.
I’ve been thinking about his question off and on since then. I thought of it again last week when Werth received the biggest ovation during what might have been his last regular-season game with the club, a moment that even had me — ol’ soulless me — feeling a certain type of way. I ran the question past some fans, and some media members, and some random people on the bus who were just trying to play Hay Day. (Not really, but I would.) They agreed with my impression: Nats fans don’t like Werth’s persona; they love it.
Then I appeared on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU program this week (I was great), and after the roundtable, I asked Nnamdi and a Nats fan for their thoughts on Werth. They both said at once that he’s their favorite player.
“He is my guy,” Nnamdi said. “I know nothing about his political views, I know nothing about his personal life; I just know what I see on the field and his demeanor. So cool.”
“It has little to do with baseball and more to do with the cult of personality surrounding him,” said Jennifer O’Dell, who suggested that if you polled die-hard Nats fans on which player they’d pick to spend time with, Werth would win in a runaway.
I can’t promise she’s right. But just imagine if the Nats win the World Series. Imagine there’s finally a parade. Imagine you could be in front of the stage for only one introduction, one ovation, one speech. There’s not any question whom you’d choose, right?
And this is interesting for a bunch of reasons. Werth plays for a team stocked with talent, including a recent MVP and a recent Cy Young winner; he hasn’t made an all-star appearance in eight years. On a team full of homegrown stars, Werth came from a hated rival in the middle of his career. He has a massive contract. He has struggled with injuries. He went to jail. He went to jail! He shouldn’t be so popular. And yet I can’t think of another D.C. athlete (since Chris Cooley?) who attracted this sort of love without ever once being the best player on his team. So how do we explain it?
He chose D.C.
This one isn’t complicated. At a time when the Nats were more often a punchline than anything else — they had the worst record of any team over the previous three years — Werth brought some hint of legitimacy and seriousness. It’s obvious, but it’s part of it.
“I think it’s loyalty,” said my pal Chris, a Nats fan from the very beginning. “Him taking a leap of faith when the team wasn’t any good and had an uncertain future. He wanted to be here when there was no reason for anyone to come here other than a paycheck.”
That’s different than Strasburg and Harper and Rendon getting drafted here, or Gonzalez and Turner getting traded here, or Scherzer signing here after the Nats were already great. And, as it turned out, Werth wound up as virtually the only mainstay who has been here through all of the good times, and none of the bad ones.
“I mean, this is my team,” Werth recently said on an MLB podcast. “This is my home, you know? I’ve put a lot of time and effort and a lot of thought into this team, and my career. And I feel like this is the pinnacle.”
The home run
This isn’t complicated, either. He is responsible for one of the first truly great moment in franchise history, which remains the greatest moment in franchise history, at least for the time being. That’s part of it, too.
He’s kind of a badass
But his popularity is about a lot more than loyalty, and a home run. It’s about the personality. It’s about the sense that — in a city that sometimes seems obsessed with niceties and rules and saying the right thing– Werth doesn’t give a damn about any of that. Ryan Zimmerman is the perfect Washingtonian. He could be a consultant on K Street. He could grab a beer at the Bullpen, and get Diamond Club seats, and blend in seamlessly with the Nats Park crowd. He could give a press briefing. He could brunch.
Werth doesn’t look or act like a Washingtonian. He doesn’t try to say the right thing. He doesn’t blend in. Maybe some of us admire that. Maybe some of us are jealous. (And for the record, I don’t know the guy, and don’t think I’ve ever even spoken with him.)
“He doesn’t care how he’s received by the opposition, by his own teammates,” said former National Mark DeRosa, now an “MLB Tonight” analyst at MLB Network. “He just wants to beat down another team, man. That’s all he cares about.”
I suggested there was something badass about this approach.
“That’s a very good description of him,” DeRosa said. “He is a badass.”
And so that’s chucking his bat halfway to Gaithersburg when he homers.
It’s doing his ridiculous pop-up slide.
It’s telling the suits in the front office that they’re doing the mascot race wrong, and that Teddy has to win. It’s ripping the lineup card off the wall during the death-rattle days of the Matt Williams era, and then confronting Williams and asking, “When exactly do you think you lost this team?” When you have faith that Werth was speaking for his team, and that his clubhouse loves him, this seems less like tsk-tsk-worthy insubordination and more like badass rebellion against a terrible boss.
“I think many fans were quietly thinking, ‘[bleep] yeah,’ ” wrote Allan Petersen, another longtime Nats fan. Which seems right. Werth does things that make working-stiff, buttoned-up Nats fans quietly think, “[bleep] yeah.”
And the best example of this might be all those interviews with MASN’s Dan Kolko, in which Werth cursed, or dumped beer on Kolko, or made a “Mean Girls” reference, or called a teammate the D.C. Strangler, or otherwise acted in a way that was un-Washington, and un-Nationals.
“I’ve been doing this for four seasons now, and you could rattle off the top quotable moments from walk-off interviews, and they’re pretty much all Jayson,” Kolko said this week. “He’s willing to showcase a personality and say things that he truly believes. And there probably aren’t a lot of players out there these days that do that.”
I mean, they made a bobblehead out of one of his postgame interviews — normally the blandest bit of white bread in the sports world. People waited in line for well more than an hour for that bobblehead. Not everyone got one. Shirt unbuttoned, undershirt ripped, hair flopping around, a beer-league softball champ three Bud Heavys deep — from a 38-year-old guy with a nine-figure contract. It’s irresistibly unexpected.
And it actually helps that Werth keeps himself scarce. He doesn’t like pregame on-camera interviews. You rarely see cameras surrounding him in the clubhouse. That adds to the mystique, the perception that every on-air appearance is a magical middle finger to … I don’t know, to someone.
“Everyone goes ‘Wow, that was awesome, and I don’t even know why that was awesome, but it was awesome,’ ” said Helen Mosher, a mother of two who runs a Facebook page dedicated to Werth, appropriately called Eff Yeah Jayson Werth.
“And again, that’s something a lot of us respond to,” Petersen wrote. “In an age of cookie cutter responses like ‘I’d like to thank God, first and foremost, and my teammates, and the best fans in the world,’ Jayson says things that are different.”
“You know as well as I do that baseball is just so monotonous, and there’s so much repetition,” Kolko said. “And he provides character and life.”
(After I posted this, someone reminded me of the time Werth was heckled in Philadelphia, and then wrote an e-mail to Adam Kilgore about his hope “to get back quickly and see to it personally those people never walk down Broad Street in celebration again.” Nothing about that sentence is monotonous.)
The social media blackout
Also, he won’t meet you halfway. How many star-ish athletes in 2017 do not even pretend to have a social media presence? How many have no Twitter, no Instagram, no Snapchat, no website? It makes him seem more distant, but it also allows you to craft your own image of him, free of all the noise. Tweeting about fantasy football is not cool. Blowing off the Internet is cool.
“I had someone ask me the other day if I would create an ‘Eff Yeah Somebody Else’” if Werth leaves, Mosher told me. “I was like, ‘I don’t think anybody else can fill those shoes.’ On the Nats, absolutely not. I think it’s because the other players are a lot more accessible. There’s a mystique about Jayson.”
And at the same time, one of the most influential Nats social media presences — one team officials interact with — is an account purporting to be Werth’s beard.
“He seems like an interesting guy who kind of goes by the beat of his own drum,” wrote the anonymous soul behind JWerthsBeard, which has more than 22,000 followers. (And even that person has remained gloriously mysterious.)
I’m quoting a Twitter account purporting to be Werth’s beard that has amassed more than 22,000 followers. The Facebook page referenced above was built with an audience of mostly middle-aged women. None of this is typical.
I know this is dumb. I’d be embarrassed about George Will seeing this. My editor has promised it will never run in print. But it’s true. Part of the mystique is because he has a big-ass beard.
“He’s not just an outfielder,” Kolko said. “The beard, the hair; he’s a presence.”
“An incredible presence,” Petersen wrote, coming by that word independently. “He is huge, he is hairy, and he has the gravitas of a proven winner.”
“It’s like he’s got a presence about him,” said Mosher, also arriving at that word independently. “And everybody I know him that has met him has said that he’s incredible. It’s not the angry lumberjack thing.”
I hesitate to include this one, because I don’t know whether most athletes (or writers) (or cheesemongers) are or are not good people. But Werth does seem to have a certain way with fans he meets. Not sure if this is better or worse than how other athletes interact with fans. But I don’t think it hurts Werth.
“I’ve seen him pop over into the camera well that I’m in during the game,” Kolko said, “and he’ll have a conversation with some kid he remembers he met, and he’ll tell that little girl, ‘Say hi to your parents for me.’ “
“There are tens, hundreds of other examples,” Petersen wrote. “Despite his public demeanor, he will always make it a point to at least wave or say hello. That means a hell of a lot to fans.”
And as he’s gotten older, he has seemed increasingly in on the joke, willing to play the part of Jayson Werth to help spice up a sport that needs spice.
That’s all a lot of words, and maybe they’re not the right ones. Some fans who care more about baseball and less about personality are more cynical about the Werth thing, and the beard fetish, and the outsize attention paid to the seventh- (or eighth-, or ninth-) most important player on this team.
But I’m guessing more fans feel at least some of Werth’s pull. He came here when he didn’t have to. He looked and acted differently than most ballplayers. He didn’t give a rip about conventions. He had a presence. It all connected. And there’s no athlete in this town who will be able to replicate quite all of that.
“The people who love Jayson Werth love Jayson Werth,” Mosher said.
“I love the guy,” DeRosa said. “You know, you go to spring training with a new team every year, and you never know. You never know who you’re going to hit it off with. And he was one of those guys I just really grew to love.”
“There are so many bigger stars on the team, but it really does seem like the fan base has taken to him in a different kind of way,” Kolko said. “I really think that he holds a special place not just in the minds of Nationals fans, but in D.C. sports.”
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