Jayson Werth left behind a legacy of winning and professionalism after signing — and playing the entirety — of a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Reporter

The time came for Jayson Werth to leave home on June 18, and suddenly a certainty felt more like a decision. For 22 years, he had played professional baseball, always focused on the next workout, the next at-bat, the next pitch. He had been home in McLean for the past 10 days, recovering from the hamstring he pulled on a minor league diamond in Nashville, playing for Class AAA Tacoma, with the belief he would eventually be called up to the Seattle Mariners. He finally felt healthy, and he was a ballplayer, so that meant it was time to leave.

Except Werth wanted to stay. At home, he got to coach first base and watch his 16-year-old son, Jackson. He studied the Mariners’ outfield situation and saw little urgent need for a right-handed bat. He would have to relocate to Tacoma, where “it’s like playing on the rings of Saturn,” Werth said — he would text his family to say good night between batting practice and first pitch.

The hamstring strain had been minor, but he wondered if it wasn’t a sign from the baseball gods. A serious injury — Achilles’ tear, knee ligaments — could affect him for years and limit his ability to hunt and snowboard and whatever else he wanted to do.

And so Werth, 39, made a tough choice. He would stay home. He would accept the end of his career, the inevitable, sooner than he imagined.

“Once you give up that dream, you give it up,” Werth said. “But on the other hand, it’s like I haven’t been a member of my family in the summer, ever.”

Werth made public his retirement Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a season he expected would be far different. He knew Father Time would win. He is surprised it came like this. But he also feels at peace, free of stress, he said, for the first time since he entered professional baseball. He plans to coach his kids and take up tennis.

Over 15 seasons in the majors, Werth carved out a small place in baseball history. He won a ring with the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies and could have — probably should have — been named World Series MVP. His seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals was the 13th-richest ever at the time of signing. He boasts some peculiar statistical achievements; he retires fifth all-time in stolen base percentage (85.161), a figure he cherished.

In Washington, he will be remembered as the intense, shaggy, beloved, relentless, fascinating figure who turned the Nationals from a laughingstock into an annual contender.

“His play on the field can be analyzed and evaluated based on the numbers,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “What he brought to the organization cannot be. He’s the unsung hero of what we have become.”

He had a transformative effect on the franchise in tangible ways, beyond standard change-the-culture cliches. He understood what a major league operation should be, and when the Nationals failed to meet the standard, he let people know.

Werth made recommendations — which the team acted on — about the food the Nationals serve in their clubhouse and the medical specialists they sent injured players to. He pressured ownership to invest in better workout equipment in the weight room. He insisted the Nationals expand auxiliary staff — batting practice pitchers, bullpen catchers. The baseballs the Nationals use in practice, from the majors to the Dominican Summer League, are better quality than they were seven years ago, thanks to Werth.

Ryan Zimmerman provided the best analogy about Werth: He is the guy who annoys everybody in the office because he’s always complaining the copy machine is broken, but then management fixes the copier and everybody is happier and everything is running a lot smoother.

“Ultimately what we have become is a lot to do with some of the things that he brought to the ballclub,” Rizzo said. “He was teaching us how to be a championship organization, not only on the big league side but throughout the organization.”

Werth did not tolerate ineptitude or laziness or other traits he viewed as impediments to winning. In his first spring training, he demanded Nyjer Morgan finish a dog-days battery of sprints and nearly came to blows with Morgan, who would shortly thereafter be shipped to the Milwaukee Brewers. He tore one of Matt Williams’s lineup cards off the wall and then asked him, “When do you think you lost this team?” He told a rookie to change the neon green laces in his sneakers. Once, when asked why he had trotted to first base rather than charge the mound after New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon clearly drilled him on purpose, Werth replied, “We don’t have time for bull----.”

Werth believed the shtick of Teddy losing every President’s Race embedded losing into the franchise’s identity, so he declared himself “the last remaining member of the Bull Moose Party” and, with teammate Rick Ankiel’s assistance, staged a coup in defiance of team officials, tackling or blocking the other mascots in the right field corner.

Werth’s retirement prompted reflection on how he came to Washington. In 2011, the Phillies were a colossus and the Nationals were a punchline.

“Some would argue less than an expansion team,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo sold Werth on his vision at a covert meeting in California. Theo Epstein and Terry Francona pitched Werth on behalf of the Boston Red Sox, a team his grandfather had played for, an organization Werth always envisioned himself playing for. The Red Sox offered the same $18 million per season as the Nationals, over six seasons. When the Nationals offered a seventh year and a no-trade clause, Werth accepted. He wanted to build a team rather than sustain one.

The Red Sox pivoted to Carl Crawford, whose miserable Boston tenure ended when the Red Sox dealt him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a salary dump. He crumbled under the expectations Werth would have faced.

“What happened to Carl Crawford was not probably the best time of his life, it didn’t seem,” Werth said. “That could have been me. That was one of the things that really stood out [over the past week]. I made a really good decision. It was not an easy decision.”

In Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Werth survived 12 pitches from Lance Lynn and clobbered the 13th into the visitors’ bullpen. It remains the greatest Washington baseball memory since Walter Johnson won the World Series. The next night, the Nationals took a 6-0 lead and still lost when the St. Louis Cardinals scored four runs in the ninth inning.

“Coming in the clubhouse there’s plastic up, they’re wheeling the champagne cart and the beer carts out,” Werth said. “Somehow, we didn’t win that game. That’s probably the one thing that will stick with me probably forever.”

The Nationals never won a title, or even a playoff series. But Werth won four division titles, and during his Washington tenure only the Dodgers won more regular season games. Since the start of Werth’s second season until now, the Nationals have played only a handful of baseball not relevant to the standings.

Werth wanted to sign another contract after his Nationals megadeal expired, to hang on another few seasons in a limited role, to play the kid’s game he took deathly serious a little longer. Forces worked against him — he battled injuries last year, and teams en masse chose cheap youth over late-30s veterans. “He had bad timing,” Rizzo said.

Werth still believed he could make it back to the bigs, but this month convinced him to halt the effort. He’s intrigued by working in a front office, and he could see television. For now, he’s happy to coach his sons and relax.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this little stress,” Werth said. “A lot of that stuff that’s going to be tough to replace. Some of it will be nice to not replace.”

The feeling is mutual for the Nationals.

“Whenever I hear his name, I miss him,” Rizzo said. “I miss that frickin’ big beard and that big hair and his presence in the clubhouse and the stuff he would pull. Especially in spring training, I think he was missed. I think guys kept looking for him to pop through, and when he didn’t, it was weird.”

Werth will not go into the Hall of Fame. But two cities will remember him fondly. Old teammates will revere him. Former opponents will respect him. He helped one franchise to its highest point and utterly changed another. Baseball will go on without him. But it will feel a little weird.