On a dreary day, in the midst of a long and draining weekend, in the midst of a long and draining season, a 39-year-old bearded man with a half-shaved head and what was left of his hair pulled back brought Nationals Park to life. For the first time in weeks, the place seemed to buzz, to rejoice, and to celebrate. The Nationals inducted Jayson Werth into their Ring of Honor Saturday night, revealing his name on the second deck facade, where it will now be forever more.
The ceremony slid between games of a true doubleheader on a chaotic weekend, the kind of rigmarole only Werth could pause, the kind of evening only Werth could turn into 20 minutes of laughs and tears and memories. His longtime postgame deadpan partner, MASN’s Dan Kolko, hosted the ceremony at Werth’s request. The big screen aired a collection of Jayson Werth’s greatest hits, set to his unmistakable walk-up songs, including the Game of Thrones theme.
Old teammates recorded video messages showering him with congratulations and praise. Danny Espinosa suggested Werth tell anyone who thinks he’s too old to kiss his you-know-what, in keeping with one of Werth’s most memorable postgame interviews. His old Phillies teammate Chase Utley declared it time to shave the beard. Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche and many others shared their praises.
Ryan Zimmerman, presenting on behalf of his teammates, carried out a rocking chair decorated in camouflage — “an age-appropriate gift.” Werth availed himself of its services immediately, plopping down to rock in that chair as Kolko continued the ceremony, creating the kind of bizarre and hilarious image so often created by that duo over the years. The Nationals also presented Werth with a picture of his 2012 walkoff home run in Game 4 of the NLDS, signed by every one of his teammates from that season.
The Lerner family then gave Werth an honor ring to commemorate his place in the ring of honor, a gift that also served as a reminder of what did not happen here. Werth did not sign with the Nationals before the 2011 season hoping his tenure would end with the ring he received Saturday night, but rather another kind, something he discussed with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo before the game.
“It started in a conference room at Scott Boras’s office out in California,” Werth explained. “Mr. Lerner, Mark Lerner, Scott, myself and Mike. Mike said, ‘do you think this is where we’d be eight years later? I said ‘actually, I thought we would be doing a statue unveiling after a couple parades.’ Missed our mark, but it was still a pretty successful run at it.”
The Nationals’ Ring of Honor has sparked discussion over and over, in part because it seems an embodiment of the team’s desire to find history before it can make much. Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson and Senators great Frank Howard are in that ring. They added Ivan Rodriguez, the Hall of Fame catcher who played a season and a half for them, to that ring, making him the first person to actually play for the Nationals inducted. They also added Tim Raines, a longtime Expo and Hall of Famer who had never been to Washington before his ceremony. Former Expos Gary Carter and Andre Dawson are also in the ring. The franchise grapples with the extent to which it should acknowledge Expos history as part of its own.
In Werth, the team adds the first true, longtime National, a decision that goes far beyond numbers. He did not make an all-star team during his seven-year Nationals tenure. He hit .263 with a .788 OPS. But his value here always transcended numbers, as has the value of so many players — Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, etc. — on those first Nationals teams that won. Werth has, and will always, mean more.
He was the first big-name free agent to sign with this franchise when he agreed to a seven-year deal worth $126 million before the 2011 season. He brought clout and culture, the latter of which he shaped with a constant willingness to speak his mind about the things the organization needed to do better. He helped reshape the Nationals’ training staff, nutrition, and various other staples of big league life in a way that helped the franchise gain respectability.
He was also the leader of the clubhouse when the team won for the first time, the devil-may-care rebel who won the hearts of a fan base that, for the most part, cannot see much of itself in characteristics like that — but loved him anyway. Werth also hit one of the most memorable home runs in Nationals history with that walk off shot, the first unforgettable postseason moment in the organization’s history.
When Werth finally addressed the crowd, with his former Nationals teammates on the top step and the Cubs bustling around the dugout waiting to begin the second game, he demonstrated the charisma that has always made him more memorable for who he is than what he hit. He talked about his former Phillies teammates and what they meant to him, shouting out to Cubs’ starter Cole Hamels, who was warming in the bullpen at the time.
He talked about Max Scherzer, joking with him that he couldn’t say what he wanted to say publicly. A few minutes before the ceremony, Scherzer said Werth was one of few worthy trash-talk adversaries he ever encountered. In his speech, Werth said Scherzer was the only player he encountered who could compare with his late teammate Roy Halladay, then asked the crowd to acknowledge Scherzer, who pointed his way in gratitude.
He shouted out to his pupil and “16-year-old star” Bryce Harper, who he greeted with “Bryce, you’re an idiot,” a common refrain from there relationship. After all that, Werth didn’t tear up until he talked about his mother, who he said always told him to “give it everything he had” and “leave it all out on the field.”
“I gave it everything I had, Mom,” he said, fighting tears, something he did not make a habit during his Nationals career.
Soon after, the ceremony was over and the smiles returned. Werth bid his goodbyes to the crowd that had accumulated in large part just to offer their goodbyes to him. He said it’s too soon to consider a return to baseball. For now, he’ll just be present with his family.
“I feel like I’ll always have ties to the Nationals, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Werth said. “This is my home. This is where we choose to live. We chose Washington for all the right reasons . . . we’re part of the community. Whether I’m in some capacity that is an actual job or just coming in to hang out every once in a while, it’s fine by me.”
For Saturday night, just hanging out with Werth gave a recently disappointed crowd something to cheer for, gave his beleaguered former teammates reasons to smile, and gave everyone a reason to remember that things have been rough before, but didn’t stay that way for long. The last time this team needed to rise, it was not from its own ashes, and Werth led the charge. This time, it will have to do it without him, and do so quickly. Ever since Jayson Werth got here, no one has been content to lose.
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