VIERA, Fla. — Pitching coach Steve McCatty bumped into Wilson Ramos, jostling him sideways, as they passed in a narrow clubhouse corridor here on Monday as the Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.
“So, how was your winter?” asked McCatty. “Anything goin’ on?”
Ramos stood stunned, blank-faced and speechless — totally fooled for a blink. Then infielder Andres Blanco started cracking up. “I see, I see,” said a laughing Ramos, who was kidnapped in November, held captive in a Venezuelan mountain shack for two days and freed after a gun battle.
McCatty’s day will come. No baseball gag goes unsettled.
Reporting day may be baseball’s most relaxed and talkative day. The game never neglects a tradition. Few are sweeter than this day of greetings.
“I thought, ‘Our team just got better, but I got dumber,’ ” he said. “Now, it’s always going to be either ‘They pitched good’ or ‘I coached horsesheep.’ ”
Ah, the first horsesheep of spring, that mythical baseball creature that, used as all seven parts of speech, is a surer harbinger than any robin.
The optimistic Nats walked into their clubhouse to get physicals and immediately started yacking, just like all big leaguers on their first day back together, as if their words had been saved up, stifled, for four months.
John Lannan told how, on his honeymoon in Tahiti, he ran into Nats free agent target Prince Fielder, who was there to renew his marriage vows. Renew vows. In Tahiti. At 26? The Married Guys Union will file a protest.
Ryan Zimmerman said that ardent hunter Adam LaRoche had killed a buffalo. With a bow and arrow. LaRoche, with a large biceps tat of a buck with huge antlers, did not confirm this info, but did say animals are smarter than you think, communicate well and “so I hide [the tattoo] when I hunt.”
This is the eternal baseball tone, better than a Florida fountain of youth, addictive for life, where absolutely anything might be true or a setup line. When a player such as LaRoche or rookie Steve Lombardozzi had a big league dad, then the stone-faced playfulness, the put-on, the mimicry, is ingrained.
After a winter of golf, what is your handicap down to, Davey?
“Are we bettin’ or braggin’?” said Manager Davey Johnson.
Who cares about scores when Johnson can quickly turn the tale to his lifetime total of deadly snakes killed on his build-on-a-swamp home golf course in Winter Haven. “Three rattlesnakes and a water moccasin,” he said. “I use a 2-iron. You take it up high above your head and hit down.”
Like a bunker shot?
Why a 2-iron?
“To keep ’em far away from you. Then, when they strike, you hit them when they’re in mid-air.”
Aren’t witnesses required for “Dead Rattlers,” like holes-in-one?
“Oh, that sounds like Davey. Only three?” said Danny Espinosa slyly.
Baseball lives in details as small as a handshake. This spring, Espinosa’s grip will bring tears. Off-handedly, Johnson mentions that last year Espinosa hit well right-handed but poorly left-handed. “That’s going to change dramatically this year,” said Johnson. Why? Because of that handshake.
All last year, Espinosa was recovering from offseason hamate-bone surgery to his right wrist that sapped his grip strength from 160 to 125 on the grip meter. His left hand measured 150 both years.
“I’ve always hit better left-handed than right-handed, except after that injury (and surgery). It’s the strength in your right hand that lets you deliver the barrel of the bat to the ball accurately when you hit left-handed,” says Espinosa, whose OPS was .707 hitting lefty in ’11, but .857 righty. So, if Espinosa breaks out in ’12, his mates probably knew it from the first shake.
“This is a great time of year. Until the first pitch [on opening day], they’re all still invincible,” said General Manager Mike Rizzo.
Actually, the only Nat who wasn’t talking with typical spring training bravado was Bryce Harper, 19, whose recent tweet, comparing his future social life in D.C. to Joe Namath’s in New York, did not amuse the Nats.
“Come see me in my office,” Rizzo said to Harper in the clubhouse, then added with an edge, “Before you talk to the media.” Harper didn’t notice and went to Rizzo’s office later with a half-eaten sandwich in hand.
Later, a restrained Harper mixed his usual enthusiasm with a different tone. A visit to the principal’s office? Probably. Someday we’ll be certain.
Harper plans “to try to make it hard” on the Nats to send him down, “but if I have to go to the minors, which I don’t want to talk about, that happens, too. . . . There are so many things I have to improve. . . . Last season was a grind, every day. I need to hit the weight room more during the season to keep my strength [up], which I didn’t understand.”
Defense needs work, too, “not trying to amp up [his extremely strong arm] and throw it 10 rows up in the seats” after overthrowing the cutoff man.
Of his post-Namath-tweet beat-down, he said, “I like to interact with my fans [to let them know] who I am and what I am. That’s just how I am. . . . I’m going to get blown up either way. . . . I’m never going to back off.”
But at least he backpedaled, saying that when it came to social media, “I need to learn from my mistakes” and “I need to grow up in that respect, I guess.”
Johnson tried to open the door for Harper, but he may have shut it, halfway, on his own foot. If you want to know Harper’s chances of being a National this season, then count his public remarks that draw attention to himself as if he were a star brand, and think of each of those episodes as a strikeout.
This was a day for jokes, gibes and flagrant optimism, with a small dose of Harper realism, to calm things down, around the edges.
“The potential I see on this ballclub is pretty damn high. This team has more potential than those Mets — it’s more athletic,” said Johnson of his ’84-’90 teams. “But that Mets team played up to its full ability.”
Potential, with its pressures and pitfalls, is weeks away. For now, the breeze here is soft and warm, getting kidnapped is still fair game and all the rattlesnakes are dead ones.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell