VIERA, Fla. — As the Washington Nationals gathered in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium for the first time this year, an assortment of classic ’80s songs played over portable speakers at the center of the room. Jonathan Papelbon and Gio Gonzalez ate breakfast together at a table nearby. Minor league coaches and front-office officials filtered in. Sammy Solis and Matt Grace blushed as the team photographer took close-ups.
Long before the 10 a.m. team meeting, Trea Turner was in full uniform and waiting at his locker. Fittingly, David Bowie’s “Changes” played minutes before Manager Dusty Baker addressed the entire organization for the first time.
There are many milestones in a long baseball season, and Thursday offered the first substantive one: The entire team — except for Jayson Werth, home sick — worked out together for the first time. Position players took batting practice. Pitchers threw to their teammates. And Baker, hired to help lead the Nationals back to the playoffs, got the chance to issue his first tone-setting directive.
“You just tell them what your few rules are,” Baker said later in the afternoon. “You want ’em to start thinking like a champion. You want them to get together as soon as possible and to think like a family.”
Baker doesn’t write down his speeches; he has an idea of what he wants to say and then speaks from his heart. Which is why, hours later, he couldn’t exactly repeat what he had told the team. “I nicknamed myself One-Take Bake,” he said with a laugh.
But he did remember that he wanted to make a point about family. Bill Russell and John Wooden both told Baker that the secret to winning is love.
“It sounds corny, but it’s real,” Baker said. “Like a family, you don’t get along the whole time. I don’t know about your families, but guess what? You’re still family.”
Given the Nationals’ past season — in which expectations were quickly replaced by tension, the relationship between the clubhouse and manager’s office grew strained and frustration ruled — the words carried weight. Perhaps the most lasting image of the season was Papelbon’s hands around Bryce Harper’s neck.
“[Baker] kinda likened [his message] to me and my brother: We might fight at the house, but somebody from the outside comes and messes with my brother, we’re both going to get him,” said veteran starter Bronson Arroyo, who also played for Baker with the Cincinnati Reds.
“He wants it to be like that in this clubhouse. He never likes guys to vent their angst or frustration through the media. He likes man-to-man confrontations and likes to look people in the eye and tell him what the problem is. He wants us to be the same way with him because the longer you let things fester in the locker room, he believes it just gets worse.”
Several players and officials already have noted how much more relaxed spring training is under Baker than under predecessor Matt Williams. Most of the roster has stopped by Baker’s office to say hello or sit and chat. Baker listens, offers advice and laughs with them.
The workout was productive and uneventful. The weather was unusually chilly because of the wind, but no one complained. The likely first-team infield practiced together on one field: Wilson Ramos behind the plate, Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Daniel Murphy at second, Danny Espinosa at shortstop and Anthony Rendon at third base. The expected backups — Jose Lobaton, Clint Robinson, Tyler Moore and Stephen Drew — rotated in.
Harper, Zimmerman and Robinson later tracked pitches against Arroyo and Oliver Perez, both new faces. After facing Lucas Giolito for the first time, outfielder Chris Heisey said to himself: “Thank God I’m still alive.” Turner also took swings against Giolito, a matchup of the Nationals’ best prospects.
Later in the evening, a handful of players and members of the coaching staff planned to drive to Orlando to watch the Magic play the Golden State Warriors. “Sure wouldn’t mind starting off like these Warriors did,” Baker said.
It was hard to watch the workouts and not notice how much has changed in a year. Not only is the manager new, but so is much of the coaching staff, medical staff and some of the roster.
Mainstays Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann are gone, as well as Denard Span and Doug Fister.
“We lost a lot of good guys in the offseason,” Rendon said. “We’re going to miss them, especially Ian [Desmond]. . . . He was always a close teammate of mine and someone I looked up to. He carried himself the right way on and off the field. He’s going to be missed.”
Inside the clubhouse, there will be a need for a few new leaders. Werth and Zimmerman remain. Max Scherzer and Papelbon can offer tips to younger pitchers.
“We’ll see who is going to step up this spring training or take that role,” Rendon said. “I think as a whole we’ve all got to be a part of it instead of having him or one individual leader leading the pack. We can all come together and be group leaders.”
Or in Baker’s words: a family on a new journey.