LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the lobby of the Swan and Dolphin hotel, bustling with the exuberance that accompanies the first day of baseball’s annual winter meetings, a few members of the Washington Nationals’ public relations staff huddled behind a monitor, leaning their ears into a tiny speaker to hear what new Manager Dave Martinez was saying on live television.
Martinez said all the right things about his opportunity with the Nationals, successfully avoided committing to an Opening Day lineup, and dodged any of the pitfalls a PR staff fear from a rookie manager. Then MLB Network host Harold Reynolds brought up one of those dime-a-dozen stories about the time he and Martinez were in a Caribbean casino as it was robbed at gunpoint. Martinez chuckled and confirmed the story, raising more questions than answers, but successfully steered the interview to a conclusion without having to go any further.
No one can prepare Martinez for all the questions his duties as Nationals manager will raise. Much of his success will lie in the moments that leave him to think on his feet and shoulder the spotlight after a decade in Joe Maddon’s shadow. Martinez is known for his ability to relate to players, but much of his reputation will depend on his ability to mix authenticity with the official message, to mix the pleasant personality for which he is known with the need to maintain the message for an entire organization. He met with local reporters for the first time since his introductory news conference, talking roster and injuries and all the things he’ll need to talk about on a daily basis. He passed the first test.
Unlike his predecessor, whose Nationals debut at the 2015 winter meetings ended in sudden controversy, Martinez navigated the questions without much intrigue. In a jacket and plaid button-down, he seemed comfortable if guarded, jovial if calculated, and stuck to the script.
“Best piece of advice I got was from [Cubs Manager Joe Maddon], obviously, and he told me just to be myself,” Martinez said. “You know what you’re doing.”
Martinez said later he was comfortable with the media. He talked to reporters throughout his career, first as a player, then on days when Maddon just needed a break. People who have spent time with Martinez speculate that part of what took him so long to get a managerial job was that he is not a natural conversationalist like Maddon. Sometimes he cuts sentences short, loses a word here or there, or pauses to regroup when a sentence gets away from him.
But Monday, his message was once again clear: He will be a players’ manager, one who wanders the clubhouse and communicates as much as possible, one who will emphasize “having fun” and embracing the pressure — and one who will try new things, at least as far as the Nationals’ veteran clubhouse will tolerate them.
“It’s really important to build that relationship and start getting to know these guys and what makes them tick and let them know that, hey, I’m there not only to be your manager, but to help you in any way I can,” Martinez said. “And it’s good to know that they’re open-minded, they want to win and they also want somebody that can believe in them.”
As a bench coach, the ability to relate to players was all that mattered, and Martinez has started that more familiar process already. He talked to Max Scherzer, who this offseason welcomed the arrival of his and his wife’s first child. He talked to Anthony Rendon, who got married. He talked to Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton and Matt Wieters, all of whom he’ll meet in person at Winterfest in Washington this weekend. And of course, he talked to Bryce Harper, who is entering what might be his final season as a National.
“Can I lobby right now?” Martinez asked reporters. “I can’t wait to work with him and I hope we get to work together for a lot of years. He’s a tremendous player.”
Martinez spent the afternoon in the Nationals’ suite, glasses on, discussing plans with the rest of the team’s contingent. He will be a part of the baseball decisions, in on all the discussions about roster construction, though General Manager Mike Rizzo likes to leave the use of that roster to his manager.
Lineup decisions largely will be Martinez’s to make. For example, Martinez said he called Eaton, who told him he would be 100 percent ready for spring training after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in April. Martinez said he told him to calm down, that he’d rather have him ready for Opening Day than spring training. And if Eaton is ready, Martinez said, he will lead off and play left field.
Martinez also said he sees Ryan Madson as his setup man and Sean Doolittle as his closer. He said Murphy’s rehab process is “on schedule,” perhaps foretelling a tenure full of vague injury updates — a well-honed Nationals tradition. As for the rest of his lineup plans, Martinez dodged.
“We got to keep some things a secret, you know,” he said with a smile. When someone informed him that the Nationals were, in fact, under no obligation to secret-keeping at all, Martinez just praised the versatility of his roster, a veteran managerial maneuver.
After a few such dodges and weaves, all made in good humor, someone asked Martinez if the reality of his new job had hit him yet. After all those years of waiting for a chance, has it sunk in that he finally has one? He couldn’t help but devolve into candor.
“Oh, it hit me,” he said, nodding vigorously.
“I really believe this feels right,” he said. “… I feel lucky to be part of such an unbelievable organization and a winning organization, so I think this is the moment.”