On a Thursday afternoon this month, Tanner Rainey sat on a recliner near the front of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse.
The paper wasn’t a scouting report on his upcoming opponent. It wasn’t an advanced analysis of his pitch repertoire or mechanics. He was staring at a USA Today crossword puzzle.
“I get to the field and come in, and if I have 20, 30 extra minutes, I’ll sit down and do that,” Rainey said. “It’s just a good way to get the day started.”
All players have routines before they take the field. Some walk through the clubhouse to the kitchen to get a pregame meal. There are pregame workouts and stretches with a trainer.
But Rainey, a reliever, has found that he has a lot of time on his hands. So while his teammates are often hustling in and out of the clubhouse, he walks over to an organizer under the TVs and grabs a crossword.
Rainey said he does the puzzles just about every day, but it’s not a superstition, so he doesn’t stress if time doesn’t allow for it. He generally will work on them before the pitchers stretch and throw pregame. Other times, he will sit down with one after the pitchers come in from their warmups after shagging flyballs. Ultimately, it’s just a way to pass the time.
He started doing crossword puzzles in 2018 when he was with the Louisville Bats, the Class AAA affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds. He would get to the field around 2 p.m. with fellow pitcher Jimmy Herget. But the two wouldn’t start their pregame routine until 4 p.m. So Rainey said he and Herget turned to crosswords to help fill the gap.
Herget, now a reliever for the Los Angeles Angels, remembers it a bit differently.
“It’s funny that he would say that. Most of the time it was him doing it, and then I would just kind of give little inputs here and there,” Herget joked. “I’m always good for just the random off-the-wall ones. . . . I was just kind of like the sidekick.”
The role of a reliever is one that often lends itself to sitting around and waiting for a while. So the two found ways to pass the time by playing poker or table tennis or working on crosswords.
“He was just like one of the smartest guys,” Herget said. “It was just crazy. Random things that you wouldn’t think he would know, he would know.”
Rainey said he completed only one of every five puzzles when he first started but now completes three of every four. Over the years, Rainey said, he has gotten a feel for them, especially when the title gives a clue about a theme. He also said some of the words have started to repeat themselves.
Has doing the crosswords helped him improve his word skills? Rainey isn’t so sure but said that’s not why he’s trying to complete them, anyway.
Rainey isn’t the only person who knocks out crosswords in the Nationals’ clubhouse: Bullpen catcher Brandon Snyder, trainer Paul Lessard and pitcher Stephen Strasburg work on them as well. But Rainey has his own clipboard — which reads “Rainey’s board” across the top — waiting for him.
“The other day, I can’t remember who it was trying to grab it, but [clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace] actually walked by and saw somebody else pick it up and said: ‘Aht, aht! Read the top,” Rainey said. (The culprit turned out to be Strasburg.)
Later in the week, Rainey was sitting down before a Sunday game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He sat up in the recliner closest to his locker and looked over his board again, seeming stumped as he tapped his pen again.
“Hey, Pauly, you do the crossword yet?” Rainey said to Lessard, the trainer.
Lessard walked over and knelt down, and the two began to talk as they stared at Rainey’s board. Then Lessard pointed and Rainey nodded as he wrote in another word. He kept nodding with a smirk as he put the clipboard and pen down on a table and Lessard walked away. The day was starting. He changed into his baseball pants, grabbed his glove and was off to the field.