“When I used to do the schedule and a letter was wrong, I’d rip it down,” said Hale, former Arizona Diamondbacks manager and Oakland Athletics third base coach, among many other titles. “ … I’d go in there five times before the guys came in the clubhouse.”
Such is the attention to detail brought by this overhauled Nationals coaching staff, one that includes three men who have managed in the big leagues, veteran pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, forever-Nationals coach Bob Henley, vaunted hitting coach Kevin Long and Dave Martinez confidant Henry Blanco in the bullpen. They have been energetic and involved, loud and lively, their willingness to listen already as evident as their willingness to mold players who might not seem to need much molding.
“I like the communication. I think everybody’s communicating really well,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “They’re letting us know what they expect of us, how they want to approach things. It’s our job to learn it and kind of implement it.”
Besides Hale’s daily trips into the clubhouse, most of the new Nationals coaches don’t make many appearances in there. But they certainly make themselves heard, starting with Hale, whom General Manager Mike Rizzo wanted on staff as much because of his fire as his extensive managerial experience. If Las Vegas were to make odds on the first Nationals coach to be ejected, Hale might challenge Martinez as the favorite.
“In high school, freshman P.E., I’d be yelling [at] people because they weren’t playing hard enough in softball or basketball,” Hale said. “It used to bother me. I’d be like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ ”
Now the former major league infielder hollers during the most basic infield drills — the ones he leads by hitting groundballs off soft toss, not out of his hand like most coaches.
“That dude loves to hit fungos,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “ … He’s into it. I guess it’s good when the staff is energized. When they feel like they’re having fun, we feed off that.”
Henley appears to be having the most fun of anyone. Martinez has, as he put it, “turned Henley loose,” leaning on him for high-energy, high-decibel declarations in morning Circle of Trust meetings. Henley has climbed atop a camel, donned a caddie’s outfit, acted in skits and provided endless quips softened by the polite southern drawl that has become a staple here.
“It seems in the morning that I read the daily schedule,” Henley said. “I go over the schedule in the morning, and sometimes it’s just about the schedule, and sometimes it has more activities to it …”
Henley is the only returning member of Dusty Baker’s staff — on which he was the only returning member of Matt Williams’s staff. He said he enjoyed working with all three groups and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with all three staffs. This one, like those, has a character of its own — though Henley was careful not to say exactly what that is.
Many within the organization believe Baker’s coaching staff functioned fine from day to day but could have been constructed to complement the old-school manager better. This time, Rizzo and his rookie manager emphasized energy and experience, hoping to put people around Martinez that could track the details a manager simply doesn’t have time to deal with, hoping to put a variety of perspectives at his fingertips. Baker’s staff, some of which Baker handpicked, some of which coalesced by front office mandate, consisted of more similar, traditional thinkers.
Henley, Hale and first base coach Tim Bogar all have run spring training camps as part of their duties at previous jobs. They sit in the coaches’ room each morning and plan, while Long and Lilliquist focus on their respective units. Long is just as vocal as the others and spends most days in the cage, from before 8 a.m. each day until the game ends each afternoon. Lilliquist is the most understated of the bunch, more steady than perky, more willing to slide into the background while helping a pitching staff loaded with veterans who need more tinkering than molding.
Bogar carries a tiny training glove around from field to field, eager to implement high-energy drills instead of the usual sluggish infield practice. A few days ago, he pulled Wilmer Difo aside to tell him both that he was doing a good job and that he needed to continue to tweak his approach to the bag when taking a throw from the left side and trying to start a double play. These are the details this staff won’t let go, at least not now, when everything is fresh — none of which have been lost to this group this spring.
“Some of the scouting reports and stuff, I feel like you can already see in spring training — Bogar’s moved me in certain areas and the ball’s hit right at me,” Turner said. “It’s pretty cool to see that and be on the same page already. Hopefully throughout the year it gets even better.”
Veterans fill the Nationals’ clubhouse, and they can be difficult to please because of their experience. Max Scherzer’s locker is, rather fittingly, right near the entrance, as if all those who enter must pass him first.
Asked about the new coaching staff, Scherzer has been clear. Nothing that happens now indicates the reality of the situation. When things get hard, during some late-summer losing streak, then the Nationals can decide exactly who these coaches are. But in mid-March, this much seems certain: Martinez’s new coaching staff will make itself heard — and no spelling mistake will go unfixed for long.