WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The decorations in the manager’s office at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches include a Washington Nationals logo on the wall, two rather bland-looking couches, a fridge filled with apple cider vinegar (good for digestion) and the desk where Dave Martinez answers eight fan letters a day. He keeps a stress ball available for his many visitors.
The whole room is rather sparsely adorned, and Martinez’s ratio of laptops on his desk to art on his walls favors the former.
“Soon I’ll have a laptop for every player,” Martinez joked, and while he is not exactly analytics-obsessed, he is open-minded enough that one could believe his math.
The most prominent feature of the office this spring has been a large motorized scooter gifted him by Gio Gonzalez, one with a Bluetooth speaker so loud Martinez felt he simply had to demonstrate it. Music is always wafting out of that office, even during games, in large part because the door is never shut to block the tones. Many managers say they have an open-door policy. Martinez’s might as well be an edict.
“He’s been super genuine, really good with all of us,” Bryce Harper said. “That door’s wide open.”
Many of the inevitable questions about a rookie manager can’t be answered in March. How will he handle adversity? How will he handle the unexpected? How will he handle October — and can he get there? But the most important question that can be answered now is whether Martinez can inspire a veteran team to buy into his unorthodox, laid-back, don’t-take-it-too-seriously approach.
Max Scherzer ended up in the middle of a circle of his teammates doing something that resembled dancing when Martinez brought a DJ to practice last week. Ryan Zimmerman seems as happy as can be because his manager has let him orchestrate his own spring training workload. Daniel Murphy, perpetually analyzing, also approves.
“His communication with the players, myself included, has been awesome — coming up to guys, talking to us, what he expects of us, what we should expect of them,” Murphy said. “Then also, any questions, his door is open. I’ve been in there once already.”
From the outside, the antics stand as the most memorable parts of this camp. Everyone will remember the camels and the golf tournaments and the music blasting over practice on “Turn it Up Day.” But to players, many of them already skeptical of the benefits of six weeks of spring training, the general takeaway is the sentiment that less is more — and fun does not preclude focus, but sometimes fosters it.
“I think it’s been a great way to break up the monotony of spring training. Do we feel that all the extra stuff helps you win or lose games on the field? Probably not,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “But as far as making spring training not feel like it’s Groundhog Day or the same thing every day, it’s definitely welcome in that aspect.”
In years past, younger players had to ride the bus and weren’t permitted to drive themselves to road games like older players. Martinez doesn’t mind if they drive themselves. If a veteran is sore, that veteran sits — no questions asked, no panic stirred. At least once a week, Martinez sets a late arrival time, just to give everyone an extra hour or so of sleep or be with their families.
“He’s all about our family. He’s always asking us about that. He really cares about how we’re feeling and everything like that. He’s done a great job talking to us, communicating to us,” Harper said. “It doesn’t matter if you have one day in the big leagues or 15 years. He’s a guy that seems like he treats everyone the same, and does a great job of making everyone feel right at home. He’s been great for us.”
Martinez works competition into almost everything, like the “27 outs” drill he put players through this week in which a defensive group had to complete 27 outs without making an error — or start from zero. Two different teams got a combined 54 outs with just one total error. He orchestrated a highly contested relay drill, one so heated that players took polls of teammates and officials and even a reporter or two about which team would win, creating a more vested stake in the ultimate outcome. When he had his players practice walk-off celebrations to wrap up a base running drill, Martinez’s reasoning was simple.
“We want to win,” Martinez said. He wants his players to expect to win, and to prepare to do so — celebrations included.
Relaxed vibes haven’t translated to an impeccable spring training. The Nationals hovered around .500 in the Grapefruit League, which means as much as anyone wants to allow. Some wonder if little-used stars such as Zimmerman will be ready, or if not flipping the switch now will make it more difficult to do so later. Time, of course, will tell.
Bench coach Chip Hale is more businesslike, a guy with a straight face amid the antics, more disciplined than chill — a surefire skeptic of all these tactics, if anyone would be.
“But that’s one thing I’ve really learned,” Hale said. “. . . I’ve really learned that, especially with a veteran team like this, let’s have some fun. Relax. The key for us is to get to the starting point healthy with everybody ready to play. . . . I think I won the Cactus League title as a manager, and look where that got me.”
Nobody wins or loses anything on the field in spring training. New managers can win over a clubhouse. Martinez is doing that, though this particular clubhouse is wise enough to know that the real tests come later. But the ever-present pressure around this team dissipated for a few weeks. So far so good for the Nationals’ rookie manager, who will still have to prove to his veterans he is the right man to lead them when that pressure returns.
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