The Nationals‘ fourth manager in six seasons made his Washington debut Thursday afternoon. He pulled on a red fitted cap, buttoned a newly stitched home jersey, joked and spun, showing off the outfit as the two men before him had.
For Dave Martinez, the Nationals’ latest attempt at a long-term manager, everything is new and fresh and hopeful. For the Nationals, days such as these have become an awkward habit, so much so that General Manager Mike Rizzo joked about the rapidity with which they hired Martinez.
“We’re good at it,” Rizzo said. “… We’ve had a lot of practice.”
Thursday’s introduction was different than the others. This time, the field at Nationals Park was torn up, dug down to the dirt while workers improve its drainage, an unintentional analogy for the state of the franchise as a whole — not in need of a total remodel, but certainly in need of a dig into the lingering leaks.
This time, the news conference was held in the Nationals’ clubhouse, instead of the news conference room — apparently because it allowed for more space. Instead of sashaying around the stage as his predecessor Dusty Baker had done, Martinez walked out from behind a black curtain, unassuming and seemingly a bit uncomfortable. In 10 years as a bench coach, Martinez likely never had to field as many questions, in such rapid succession, as he did over nearly a half-hour Thursday. In the course of that half-hour, Martinez seemed to emerge somehow, to shed awkwardness and reveal glimpses of the personality those who know him always thought would make him a good manager someday.
“I think the most impressive thing about it is I’ve been doing this a long time. I know a lot of people,” Rizzo said. “I couldn’t find one person to say a negative word about his character. To me, that was what it was all about.”
Martinez learned under Joe Maddon for 10 years, officially as his bench coach with the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. Lately, Maddon told Rizzo, Martinez had been even more — “a co-manager,” he told him.
“The only thing ‘first time’ about Davey [is that] he’s never had the title ‘manager,’ ” Rizzo said. “He’s been managing games for [a decade] standing next to one of the best and brightest guys in any dugout.”
Rizzo interviewed Martinez four years ago, too. He remembered Martinez talking a lot about what he and Maddon did, and less about what he, himself, could bring to an organization. This time, Rizzo said, Martinez seemed more certain of himself and his own ideas. The 53-year-old shared some of them — such as Sunday Fundays during spring training that include family breakfasts, or making sure the music plays even after losses — as he described his as-yet-unproven style.
“The one thing I’ve known and I’ve learned from the best managers, it’s to stay positive. For me, that’s the key,” Martinez said. “… I think positivity and a lot of energy. Let them know that we care, even when they have a bad game and not a good game, let them know that we always care about them. You’ll get the most out of every player.”
Martinez played for 16 seasons, and he has a reputation as a confidant for players — a coach capable of being one of the guys, but willing to separate himself from them when situations call for sterner stances. His predecessors, Baker and Matt Williams, spent little time in the clubhouse. Martinez said he plans to spend little time in his office, preferring to be out and about with the players, instead.
While Baker came with decades of managerial clout, Martinez does not. Though Williams’s first season went just fine, his second succumbed to internal doubts about his ability to handle the position, with veteran players questioning his decision-making and the culture he fostered. Rookie managers must establish themselves with any roster, but this Nationals roster is particularly experienced, opinionated and cohesive — loaded with stars such as Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. A rookie manager named Dusty Baker once won over Martinez and led his San Francisco Giants to 103 wins in 1993. The key?
“Building relationships. Communicating. Trust. Those are three things I’ve kind of instilled myself with. Let them know that I’m on their side,” Martinez said. “This is a partnership between all of us. They’ll know that right away. As soon as this day’s over, my job is to get on the phone and get to know all the players.”
Martinez spoke to Sean Doolittle at Nationals Park on Thursday morning. The Tampa resident is flying to Arizona to participate in Scherzer’s charity event this weekend and get to know the incumbent, post-Jayson Werth clubhouse leader. Those relationships will likely matter more than decisions this season, which the Nationals enter with nearly the same team they had in 2017, and a better starting bullpen base.
But Martinez is not a one-and-done type pick, like Baker might have been had he won a title, or as a more veteran manager might have been. Instead, he is a developmental project, a second attempt to find someone who can do what Williams could not and grow up with an organization — become one of those managerial staples.
The Nationals generally do not give their managers long-term deals — even Baker’s two-year deal represented a longer commitment than they have given some of the other men to hold the position. They gave Martinez three years with an option, a commitment that Rizzo identified as not only “market value,” but important to the health of the franchise.
“We did not go back and forth on [the length]. It was something that I felt was important for this manager at this stage of our franchise, that it needed to happen,” Rizzo said. “… We talk about these ‘windows.’ We see the window wide open for a long time to come. And we think this is the right guy to take us in that direction.”
The Nationals thought they had that guy before. Their history tempers any optimism. But Thursday, Rizzo and the rest expressed hope that in Martinez, they finally have him now.
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