VIERA, Fla. – Thursday afternoon, Jayson Werth will trot to right field at Nationals Park, the stadium he will occupy for the next seven years, his jet-black shades and that birds-nest beard giving him a distinct look yet hiding his face from the world. Seven years is a long time to get to know a man — to learn his personality, his opinions, his gratitude for what one crucial break helped him achieve in life. It’s enough time, even, to learn what makes him the man he is.
“Who’s to say I really want people to know me that well?” Werth asks.
Yes, you will come to know Werth over the next seven years. He has no other choice. The Washington Nationals handed the largest contract in their brief history – $126 million for those seven seasons – and that made him, by definition, a very public entity.
The Nationals chose Werth to start their turnaround — “Phase Two,” the team has branded it — for his graceful defense, his powerful bat, his keen eye, his intelligent base running, his desire to win. They believe his addition will help attract more free-agent stars to place around Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. He believes it will, too. He signed for seven years because he trusts the ownership. He came here to win.
Werth understands the status and stature his contract carries, what it means. “I realize who and what I am,” he said. But you will know him as a ballplayer, first and last. You will come to know Jayson Werth on his terms.
“It’s really no one’s business,” Werth said. “Privacy is my right, you know? Unfortunately, some people see it different. I’m just not into it. It’s for a lot of people. It’s not for me.”
Last year on opening day, Werth trotted to right field wearing a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. Most of the fans behind him wore Phillies paraphernalia and cheered for the road team. After that game, Werth observed the stadium had “kind of started to be our home away from home.”
So Werth knows the challenge he faces in turning Washington into a baseball town. This winter, a covert meeting with Nationals owner Ted Lerner convinced him the Nationals were ready to meet it. Lerner and his son, Mark, flew from the owners meetings in Orlando to California to meet Werth at the offices of Scott Boras, Werth’s agent. Werth had won a World Series with the Phillies, and he walked out convinced he could one day do the same in Washington.
“Washington is a sports town. It really is,” Werth said. “I’ve played in Washington the last four years. I know the fan support they’ve had. But I also know why. I want to be part of the group that changes perception of baseball in Washington, D.C.”
Manager Jim Riggleman said Werth has embraced his role and what his contract signifies. “He’s not a guy who’s standoffish,” Riggleman said. “He comes in here wanting to find out what’s going on, who’s who, what they’re all about.”
The Nationals, though, built a situation for Werth that suggests they will not thrust extra responsibility on him beyond reaching base about 40 percent of the time and playing splendid defense. Werth will bat second in the Nationals order. The spot best suits his skills in relation to the Nationals’ personnel. But second in the lineup, historically, is not the place reserved for free agents charged with altering the course of a franchise.
The Nationals also stocked their bench with veterans – including 43-year-old pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, Werth’s former teammate in Philadelphia – suited for policing the clubhouse. The Nationals count on Werth to set an example with his play and demeanor. “He’s no-nonsense,” one Nationals official said. “We need more of that around here.” But they don’t expect Werth to grab the clubhouse by the throat and make it his own.
“He’s not real verbal,” Stairs said. “He didn’t have to be [in Philadelphia] because the team was winning, we were doing well. Hopefully, he doesn’t think he has to carry the load on the field and off the field. He doesn’t have to be the verbal guy in here. He can be the guy who produces and plays the game right. But, I guess, all that money, you might think you have to be the verbal guy, too. Only he would know.”
Werth, 31, made his ascension in baseball later than most players, exploding with Phillies in 2008, steadily climbing the ranks of baseball’s elite until he finished eighth in the National League MVP voting last season. He had been headed for stardom since youth, when his stepfather, former major leaguer Dennis Werth, installed a batting cage in the backyard when he turned 8. He arrived in 2010, 13 years after the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the first round, four years after he wondered if would ever play baseball again.
In spring 2005, Werth had seized an everyday, major league starting position with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his third organization. He had finished 2004 on a tear, and then A.J. Burnett threw a fastball that drilled Werth’s wrist in his first game of spring training.
Werth missed the 44 games, and when he returned his wrist had not healed and he hit .234. He saw seven or eight doctors and none helped. One performed surgery that made the pain more intolerable. By August 2006, it became clear he might miss the entire season. Werth returned home to Springfield, Ill. He had no answers, he couldn’t play and he didn’t know else to do. “I was in purgatory,” he said.
One morning, Werth walked outside to the mailbox and spotted a man he knew, Joseph Whalen, walking his dog. They chatted, Werth explained why he was in Springfield. Whalen happened to be an orthopedic surgery resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and he happened to be working under Richard Berger, who happened to be pioneering a new procedure to fix a wrist injury that had not previously been diagnosed. Desperate, Werth contacted Berger and went to the Mayo Clinic.
“It seemed like the world had stopped for a while,” Werth said. “It was at the point like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ When I was waiting to go see Dr. Berger, I was in not a very good place.”
Berger had discovered that the ligament Werth had damaged did not tear or sprain like a typical ligament. Instead, it split and unraveled, like strands of twine. Berger dubbed the injury a UT ligament split tear.
Berger had performed the arthroscopic procedure that heals it, but he had not published his findings or held any conferences about them. The medical world effectively knew nothing about it.
“If I didn’t go to my mailbox right at the time,” Werth said, “I don’t know if I ever would have found that guy.”
Werth had not begun pondering what else to do for a living, but life without baseball had entered his mind. After he went to the Mayo Clinic, Berger diagnosed his problem within minutes. He spent two months in a cast. The Dodgers did not offer him a contract. He chose the Phillies. After four seasons, he signed the 13th richest contract in baseball history.
“I’d put this entirely up to chance,” Berger said. “If he hadn’t been nudged to come to the Mayo Clinic, who knows? He would probably still be in the same situation, probably out of baseball.”
Berger and Werth have remained friends; they talk about getting together at a game one of these days. When Werth signed his contract, Berger sent him an e-mail. Werth quickly replied. “He wrote about how grateful he was,” Berger said. “He acknowledged how lucky he was.”
Werth is also grateful for his time in Philadelphia, for the city for embracing him, for Manager Charlie Manuel, for the teammates he won a World Series and four division titles with. But now that he’s moved on, Werth views his years with the Phillies not as something to recollect, but as the vehicle that brought him to the Nationals.
Werth does not live in the past. And seven years is a long time to look ahead. His life with the Nationals starts now. Who’s to say he should concern himself with anything else?
“You can’t take away what happened [in Philadelphia], for sure,” Werth said. “I also feel like that’s what got me here to Washington. As thankful as I am for them, I feel like that part of my life is over. This part of my life is about ready to begin.”