It was as if someone had lost control of a confetti cannon of cabbage.
On Saturday, after a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Washington Nationals gathered in the clubhouse, formed two teams and passed around a head of cabbage in a relay race until the last person in each line hurled it to the floor. Afterward, shreds of translucent green coated the clubhouse carpet. It looked like iceberg lettuce, but players asserted later it was indeed cabbage, the leafy, “firm-headed,” Brussels sprouts-parenting, bloated basketball-looking vegetable that, on average, weighs about six times more than a baseball — and has come to define the Nationals’ dramatic wins this season.
“The boys like their cabbage,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
On April 9 in Philadelphia, Martinez’s team erased a 6-1 deficit and won in extra innings. When the players returned to the visitors’ clubhouse, they shuttled around the sauerkraut staple for the first time during the regular season and smashed it on the floor. Within hours, two companies had already started selling Nationals “Cabbage Smash Kids” T-shirts.
In that moment, the Nationals were resurrecting an activity from spring training. It started Feb. 17, when third base coach Bob Henley assumed the responsibility of firing up the players. He searched the Internet for inspiration, read it was “National Cabbage Day” and “National Random Acts of Kindness Day,” and apparently opted to become the Vegetable Vagabond.
That day, Henley acquired heads of cabbage and gathered some team members, mostly pitchers. He preached the hidden virtues of cabbage and surprised a few players, including veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson, who “had never looked at cabbage that way before.”
“Cabbage is very versatile, and it sticks together,” Hellickson said, even though the players ended this exercise by spiking the symbol of solidarity into smithereens.
That first day in camp, the pitchers were the only ones who relay-raced, so closer Sean Doolittle’s favorite part about last week’s comeback against the Phillies was getting the hitters involved.
“It’s a good, healthy way to get our vegetables in after a game,” Doolittle deadpanned. He added: “It’s a fun thing. We had fun in camp. And the message is about being able to pick your teammates up. We’re all in this as a group. It was just a fun way to end the night.”
Since spring training, the Nationals have tried to keep the specifics of their cabbage conventions confidential. The team believes, as Martinez and Henley do, that maintaining “the circle of trust” in the clubhouse will build chemistry and help performance. When reporters questioned center fielder Victor Robles about the debris after the Philadelphia win, the rookie revealed little.
“It's something we do together as a team, so obviously I was involved,” he said, smiling.
The journeyman Hellickson has seen these positive reinforcement techniques before. The most common from his 10-year, five-team career is a fog machine that the team turns on for the players to walk through after victories. Early in his career, with Tampa Bay, the player of the game got to flick on the light to a Captain Morgan sign after victories. Hellickson said he finds this one, turning triumphs into scenes from a dark, twisted episode of “VeggieTales,” “the most random.”
Still, though, after his stints with Arizona, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Hellickson respects the difficulty of rallying to a victory. He understands it’s a long season, that the team will need something good-natured to break up the monotony. He knows there won’t always be a head of cabbage to smash and to appreciate the chance when there is one.
“It’s hard to win ballgames,” Hellickson said, “so it helps to celebrate ‘em.”