On the night of Jan. 30, two guards escorted Jayson Werth into the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He changed out of his black sweatshirt and dark sunglasses into an olive-green jumpsuit, more comfortable than he expected. Werth shuffled into a guard’s office, a guard who happened to be a former drill sergeant.
Werth had worn many titles over his 12-year major league career: reclamation project, World Series hero, highest-paid hitter in Washington Nationals history. Now he had added another, the result of pleading guilty to reckless driving: inmate. As Werth began his sentence, the guard told him, “Find a way to turn this negative event into a positive.”
In his first public comments addressing his conviction and jail sentence, Werth recalled that story and reflected on an experience he never expected. The jail time did not change him, he said, but it did add perspective, both deep and practical. The experience left him with a more acute appreciation of friends, family, teammates and fans. It implanted a newfound desire to volunteer at local charities. It gave him, to be clear, a full grasp of Virginia’s driving laws and penalties. He seemed penitent, if not necessarily remorseful. He is eager to keep the lessons and leave the rest.
“It’s a time in my life that I’m glad it’s behind me,” Werth said in a telephone conversation Wednesday night. “I’ve had time to reflect on the whole thing. I want to talk about it one time and kind of lay it to rest. I’m ready to put it behind me. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t recommend the experience I had to anyone, really. It’s not something that was fun. It’s not a destination you would choose.”
Even before he arrived in jail, Werth considered his place in the community. He built a home in McLean after he signed a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2010. He always planned to start charitable work once his career ended, when he had ample time. The jail sentence prompted him to start now, at age 35, in the final stages of his career.
“I don’t want to be looked at as some renegade in the community,” Werth said. “I live here. I felt like maybe some people might have the wrong idea of me. This doesn’t look the best. It was a one-time event. I was on my way to work one day. It was a Sunday morning. There was no one around on the Beltway. At the same time, I felt like people may have the wrong idea of me. In reflection, I thought, ‘What can I do make this right?’ ”
As Werth sought the answer, he also rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery. The court allowed Werth to serve his five-day sentence in two weekend spurts, enabling him to attend physical therapy sessions.
When Werth reports to Viera, Fla., next week for spring training, he plans to heal his shoulder, prepare for a pivotal season for the franchise and push everything else to the side, including the jail sentence. He spoke publicly now so he can he focus on his job then.
“I don’t want this to be a distraction,” Werth said. “This has been distracting enough. I’m not going to rehash this going forward. I’m sure other people are going to have questions about it, but we’ve got a big season coming up.
“I would say this is the biggest season in the history of the Nats, easily. With the guys we got. Contract statuses. The buildup coming off the last year. The letdown in the playoffs. I think everybody knows what we got to do. Everybody is willing to do it. This is not easy. This game is not easy. I think we got a chance to take another swing at it this year. My focus is on getting healthy and not coming back on the field until I’m ready to roll. I’ve been doing this a long time. I know where I need to be to help us win. I’m focused. I know the rest of the team is focused. We’re excited.”
Werth’s criminal odyssey began July 6, driving to Nationals Park on a Sunday morning for a day game. A trooper spotted Werth’s Porsche GT3 RS flying down the highway a half-mile from the Georgetown Pike ramp, merging on to the Beltway. The trooper testified he pushed his pedal to the floor and got his car up to 105 mph, but Werth’s car still sped further from him as he pursued. He eventually pulled over at the George Washington Parkway ramp.
“What I didn’t realize was the severity of the crime, so to speak,” Werth said. “I think that’s important. That’s one of the lessons learned here. You move to a new area, you really need to be sure of what the laws and penalties are. You hear those things. You hear, ‘Don’t speed in Virginia’ when you get here, just in casual conversations. What’s left out is why you don’t speed in Virginia. I learned the hard way, that’s for sure.”
The standard response for a public figure or professional athlete would be reflexive apology. Werth can have a contrarian streak. He vowed he would not drive so fast again, especially after studying statistics about the frequent role of high speed in driving-related deaths. He accepted his punishment as justified. But he still believed his actions, while wrong, did not endanger other motorists.
“On some level, in our society, people want you to be sorry — say sorry and apologize — that sort of thing,” Werth said. “I would think that I’m sorry if I let anybody down. But I don’t feel like I put anybody in danger.”
Werth’s initial hearing was pushed back from November to December. Fairfax County General District Court Chief Judge Penney Azcarate sentenced Werth to 10 days in jail, telling him, “495 is not a racetrack.” Werth understood the potential punishment, but not until that moment did he imagine he would spend time in jail.
Werth could have appealed and taken the case to a jury trial. He chose instead to accept a plea deal. His time in jail was reduced from 10 days to five, and the court allowed him to serve his time on the weekends so he could rehab his shoulder during the week.
“At that point, I was just ready to get it over with,” Werth said. “I didn’t really want to go through the whole process. The facts were the facts.”
After his sentence, Werth researched to prepare himself. Jail, really, had never seemed like an option to him. He didn’t have a criminal record, and he didn’t think his actions would ever warrant one. Werth began his sentence Jan. 30.
“You get taken in, and they give you a jumpsuit, which are a lot more comfortable than you’d think,” Werth said. “It depends on where you go — what floor or what cellblock. For me, you go in, and you’re just in with a bunch of other people who are in serving their time. You’re just in there. It’s just boring. You’re in detention, essentially.”
The Fairfax Adult Detention Center allows for recreation. Werth could play cards and board games or watch television if he wanted. He could call home. He used a treadmill and a stationary bike and joined a group CrossFit workout.
“Where I was wasn’t the same kind of thing you may have seen on TV or the movies,” Werth said. “That goes for the guys that were in there. The inmates were very supportive. The guards were very supportive. Nats Nation holds no bounds. It’s grown a lot since I got here, I’ll say that. It wasn’t so bad I’m like a different person. It was just an experience you went through. You get over it. You get through it.”
The guards, Werth said, remained professional, but many fellow inmates recognized him. He autographed one inmate handbook for a man just getting out of jail, who later posted a picture on Reddit. The fan had told him he attended Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series, which Werth ended with a walk-off home run. Signing to “George,” Werth scribbled “Gm 4 was sick!!” above his signature.
“That’s authentic,” Werth said.
Werth also had his mind on a different form of giving. On Christmas Eve, working with Our Daily Bread in Fairfax, Werth and his son delivered Christmas dinner, enough food to last a week, children’s gifts and a Target gift card. A self-described “child of food allergies,” Werth led a cooking class at Children’s National for kids with celiac disease. He handed out meals at Shelter House. He had no idea how much he would enjoy it, and he plans to keep working with all three groups.
“It’s not something I’m trying to sell or anything,” Werth said. “Help some people in need and do some things that before, I didn’t think the timing was right to do this kind of stuff. Philanthropy was always kind of something that I wanted to do when I had more time, maybe when my career was over. I believe charity starts at home, but at the same time, going through this, I felt like it was something I felt like I should do or wanted to do. I’ve been able to help some people. Without this sort of thing, I might not have.
“I want to get out in the community and make sure everyone knows I’m not some renegade driver that’s out there and irresponsible and reckless. I really think this is just a one-time thing. You live and learn. If you do the crime, you do the time, so to speak. With that said, I got a lot going for me. I got a great job, a great career, a great family. This is just a little bump in the road. My spirit’s not broke. I’m not down and out by any means.”
As he discussed his experience, Werth often returned to the response he received. The number of people he heard from — old neighbors, former teammates, friends he hadn’t heard from years — overwhelmed him.
“I’ve never felt so much love in my life,” Werth said. “Everybody reaching out, people I haven’t talked to forever, they’re getting behind me and supporting me. I don’t want to say it’s been a blessing, but on some levels, it’s nice to know that people got my back.
“I wouldn’t say it was the easiest thing to go through. I don’t feel like my spirit has been broken or anything like that. It was something I went through. I put it behind me and moved forward. I got a lot to look forward to. It is what it is. It happens. I went through it. I’ll be glad to put this behind me, that’s for sure. I’ve already done that, really.”
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