WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Late last month, on a random morning at Washington Nationals camp, Max Scherzer drifted over to Erick Fedde’s locker at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Scherzer took a seat, and the two starting pitchers — one a three-time Cy Young Award winner destined for the Hall of Fame, the other still a prospect seeking to establish himself as a major leaguer — spoke for a few minutes. The conversation was, in its simplest form, an example of a veteran doubling as a leader for a youngster in a semipublic setting.
Scherzer is an obvious choice to assume a leadership role at this stage in his career. A few months shy of his 34th birthday, he is the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner whose relentless passion and intense work ethic never seem to cease.
“I understand my place in this clubhouse,” Scherzer said.
But the Nationals boast a roster saturated with experience and a core that has been together, enjoying thrills and suffering failures, longer than most. Leadership duties, as a result, don’t fall on one or even a couple of players’ shoulders. The combination of experience and familiarity has rendered the Nationals confident that they will absorb two simultaneous leadership changes that would derail other teams — not having Jayson Werth around for the first time in eight years and adjusting to a fifth full-time manager in eight seasons — in perhaps the most important season in club history.
“This group of guys has been together for so long,” said 33-year-old Ryan Zimmerman, who has been around since 2005. “We’ve already done the policing of ourselves. It may be different if it was a team of young guys that haven’t been through multiple seasons and didn’t know what they need to do individually to get through a season. But this team pretty much takes care of itself.”
For the Nationals, leadership responsibilities are spread among various players in different departments — in the everyday lineup, in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. Scherzer is joined by Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley as the veterans whom teammates expect to assume the responsibility of steering the talented club through October.
Madson, 37, has been on an experienced National League East club expected to win before. At the turn of the last decade, his Philadelphia Phillies were perennial contenders with names including Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Werth. They advanced to the postseason five straight years, won the 2008 World Series and returned in 2009. The Phillies, like the current Nationals, featured a veteran roster that went through plenty together.
“Everybody just has to make themselves a leader,” Madson said, “and do what they need to do so a team can win.”
Being a leader, Madson emphasized, isn’t about being the “rah-rah” cheerleader type. He can’t stand that — he finds it fake. Kelley said it isn’t about calling team meetings. It’s as simple as being a good teammate. Scherzer seeks to show he is worth following.
“My best form of leadership is leading by example,” Scherzer said. “Making sure that every single day I’m putting forth my best effort. I’m not taking any shortcuts. I feel like if I go out there and go with my routine every single day and put the work in where I see fit, that rubs off on guys just more so than saying anything. So, for me, nothing really changes from my standpoint. Just my accountability. I have to be accountable to myself and my teammates every single day, making sure that I’m one of the guys that upholds standards in this clubhouse.”
Madson pointed out leadership usually isn’t pressing until things go awry. Of course, it’s way too early for that. For the most part, spring training proceeded without adversity for the Nationals. Most transpire that way, but Nationals camp was particularly cheery this spring. There were camels and music and a golf contest. It was Dave Martinez’s attempt to keep things loose in his first exhibition season as a manager — and preeminent leader — of a club.
“It’s about creating that culture,” Martinez said, “and a lot has to do with giving them the freedom to be who they are. We’re not creating robots. Yet we have that structure, and once you have that structure, you let them become who they are.”
Who the Nationals are is a veteran club with, they believe, plenty of leaders capable of policing a clubhouse enduring the pressures of another year with lofty expectations.
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