On a lazy late September weekend afternoon in Miami, it all came together for Johnny DiPuglia.
Baseball clubhouses are, in a way, one big social experiment: Front offices throw together 25 guys from different countries and backgrounds, pay them varying amounts of serious cash, then pit them against expectations that can be met only by winning a title.
They’re all together for eight months, if they are lucky, and see each other more than their wives and children.
That’s why it often takes an outsider to see what’s really going on. And that’s why Hughes, who watches every opposing team come through Miami, had a worthwhile perspective. DiPuglia said Hughes leaned over and told him, “This is the best clubhouse I’ve seen in probably the last five years.”
Fast-forward a month, zoom up the East Coast, and the Nationals’ home clubhouse was awash in alcohol and tears. They clinched Washington’s first pennant since 1933 last Tuesday night. The Reggaeton music was much louder. Campo Viejo champagne flowed onto heads and into red eyes. Budweiser flowed even harder.
Having made four first-round exits in seven years, the Nationals typically spend October trying to figure out what went wrong, why the latest mix of personalities and talent didn’t click.
This season’s Nationals have a different feel, benefiting from a noticeable Latin American influence, from veterans such as Gerardo Parra and Aníbal Sánchez, to budding stars in Juan Soto and Victor Robles. They were the oldest team in the majors this season, and therefore wise, helping them navigate a 19-31 start and not ditch hope. And their manager, Dave Martinez, has been a fountain of positivity throughout almost two years on the job.
“I’ve been on teams where you get to the end of the year and say, ‘I never even talked to that guy,’” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “That’s natural. Players gravitate to who they can relate to or who plays their spot on the field. But not this team. It’s something special.”
One member of the front office noted: “This team needed certain guys, Davey included, to realize that everything doesn’t have to be so negative. This group broke that funk.” Many players say Parra and Sánchez brought a looseness that didn’t exist before. The Nationals dance in the dugout after every home run. They celebrate victories like milestones — “It’s hard to win in the majors,” veteran Adam Eaton said with a grin — whether it’s smashing cabbage heads, blowing whistles or staging the occasional conga line. They’ve even gotten their most stoic players, namely pitcher Stephen Strasburg, to join in.
The result, in part, is that they’ll play baseball into the final days of October. Their worst-kept secret is that they are having a lot of fun.
“They have to be able to play,” Rizzo said of how personality is considered during roster construction. “That’s the first and foremost. But character guys that have had some experiences, successes and some failures, I think that all comes into play.”
Building this team was always going to be different for Rizzo.
It became clear last winter, when the calendar was about to turn, that he’d no longer have Bryce Harper as the franchise centerpiece. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million deal in September. A lot of the money was deferred for decades. A second offer was made around Christmas, after Harper met with Rizzo and Ted Lerner in Palm Springs, Calif., but it wasn’t enough. And the Nationals already had begun pushing their money elsewhere.
They signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract in early December. They knew their lineup would be led by holdovers — Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner and so on — but padded it with two proven catchers, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, plus veteran Brian Dozier at second. A rotation of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez was their nucleus from the start. Newfound resources led to offensive depth. But Harper’s departure is still a topic the team can’t avoid.
“Bryce is a phenomenal player, one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” said Ryan Zimmerman, a Nationals lifer, after the team advanced to the World Series. “That’s the business part of this game. You can’t keep everybody. We would have loved to keep him. We would love to keep anybody who’s been a really good player here. That’s just how it works out. He’s a big part of why we’re here today, as well.”
Zimmerman’s thoughts are the company line among players. They don’t paint Harper as having held them back for the past seven seasons. They focus on what was added in 2019 rather than what was lost. The simple math is that Harper signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, for 13 years and $330 million, added a ton of flexibility to their payroll.
Only nine players remain from the team that lost in the NLDS two years ago. This team has eight players of Latin American descent, up from five in 2017, including a few others who have bounced between the major and minor leagues, and Gomes is the first Brazilian-born player in major league history. Players feel the diversity in backgrounds and experiences has brought them closer. And there is frequent, and fond, mention that this is now a club without a star. Harper sucked up attention and, last season, his impending free agency hung over the franchise. Rendon is set to hit the open market in November, and that’s cause for tension, too, yet he deflects the spotlight whenever possible. Strasburg, similarly quiet, has an opt-out clause he can exercise after the season. But winning has pushed aside those concerns.
When discussing clubhouse dynamics recently, Eaton pointed to a mocking “passive aggression” that keeps everyone on their toes. The 30-year-old was not tying any of his observations to Harper. He rather described an environment that welcomes constant ribbing and accountability. Scherzer, Eaton explained, is as much a target of jokes as middle relievers or minor league call-ups. But Scherzer also took Eaton aside in Atlanta in September, after Eaton didn’t tag up from second to third, and told him he simply had to do better.
“We’re all on the same level,” Eaton said, using a hand to motion around the clubhouse. “No one is safe.”
Many of the Nationals’ traditions began with Sánchez and Parra, who are both from Venezuela, and who were both cast off before landing here. Parra, 32, was designated for assignment by the San Francisco Giants in late April. Sánchez, 35, signed with Washington just a year after he considered retirement.
When Parra joined the Nationals in Los Angeles in May, after they had been swept by the Milwaukee Brewers, the two hugged and jumped into a long conversation. Then they taught their teammates how to relax.
“It was like a hamburger without any ketchup or salt, or mayonnaise, or mustard,” DiPuglia said of the clubhouse before Parra arrived. “He put all of the condiments on top of the hamburger.”
“I never do nothing intentional,” Parra said. “Everything I do, I do from my heart because, if you don’t do it from your heart, nothing happen like it will happen right now.”
In just a few months, Parra and Sánchez have introduced the following routines to Washington: Parra wears pink-tinted sunglasses during games; Sánchez’s pair has orange lenses. Parra uses “Baby Shark” as his walk-up music and now thousands of people clap in unison when he comes to the plate. They wrap Strasburg in group hugs after he exits strong outings — Strasburg describes himself as “not much of a hugger” — and Strasburg and Parra were dancing together, hands clasped, during the World Series-clinching celebration. The dugout dance parties were Parra and Sánchez’s brain child. Yet neither will take credit for the eased vibe.
They are, after all, just a part of the Latin American influence on this team. It has been 10 years since a scandal rocked the Nationals’ operation in the Dominican Republic, leading general manager Jim Bowden and adviser Jose Rijo to lose their jobs. A federal probe found that 16-year-old prospect Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, a budding shortstop, was actually a 20-year-old named Carlos Alvarez. Their Dominican academy closed and had to be built back up from scratch.
All that is in the current outfield, where Soto and Robles have become pillars of the present and future. Soto, 20, is Washington’s cleanup hitter and a premier slugger. Robles, 22, is a Gold Glove candidate in center. They are both from Santo Domingo and came through a revamped system run by DiPuglia. And now they are in a clubhouse that doesn’t feel so different from home.
“When you have all of those kids, everyone's speaking Spanish and you have the music going, a lot of the Americans sometimes aren't very happy about it,” DiPuglia said. “And they accepted it and part of them became Latinos, too. It was one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen.”
That shows in Strasburg’s rigid dance moves, whether in the dugout after a home run in July, or during any of the beer-soaked celebrations across the past month. It showed in St. Louis toward the end of the season, when Scherzer used broken Spanish to teach Robles how to play Sudoku. He told Robles to be absolutely sure before writing any numbers down. So Robles, not one for slow processes, attacked the page with a pen. Scherzer could only smile and sigh. Then there is Dozier, a near-fluent Spanish speaker from Mississippi, singing every word to Pedro Capó’s “Calma” with teammates gathered around.
The Nationals have four regular players from the Dominican Republic, three from Venezuela and another from Cuba. The atmosphere reminds DiPuglia of a bunch of teenagers in the Dominican Summer League. He quickly added that that’s a compliment.
“You see Latin players have a certain confidence, swagger, always having fun on the field,” Dozier said. “It really feels like this entire team has adopted that.”
Now comes the final push, starting in Houston on Tuesday night, sure to decide how the Nationals will remember this season. They got to the last weeks of the season, and that’s an accomplishment in itself, but the Astros are a waiting giant. They have Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in their rotation. They have one of baseball’s best offenses. They won the title two years ago, with a lot of the same faces, and that gives them the experience edge.
The Nationals’ chemistry and character were engines all season, but neither should eclipse their talent and drive.
“I wouldn’t mistake the fun we have for being content with just getting here,” Doolittle said. “That would be wrong. We’re fully confident we can win the whole thing. It would be a big disappointment to come this far and not finish it off.”
The disappointment, at first, was being 12 games below .500 in mid-May. It was the possibility that Martinez could be fired. It was the rumors that it would be smart to trade key veterans, such as Scherzer or Rendon, to stock up for the future. But the Nationals didn’t wilt under the weight of their shortcomings. Instead, in a twist, because of their new complexions and camaraderie, they stuck together.
The most successful teams often do.