Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Chatting With The Scouting Director

Under the Ownership of Major League Baseball, no one person involved with The Franchise, first known as The Montreal Expos and ultimately, Our Washington Nationals proved as valuable as Scouting Director, Dana Brown. Despite no budget, no resources, and, just about, NO HELP, Brown, virtually single handedly drafted and signed, Chad Cordero, Colin Balester, Bill Bray, and of course Ryan Zimmerman. He may well be the most creative and talented evaluator of young prospects in the game today. Respected throughout baseball.

After hanging on, and pushing forward, through a tremendous amount of crap, Dana Brown is finally being rewarded. With the gaining of a real Scouting Department, the ability to pursue players internationally--and, to go young in the yearly draft. Most importantly, Dana has been given the money necessary by The Lerner Group to teach those wet behind the ears teenagers the game correctly. The Nationals very first accelerated Spring Training, currently underway in Viera, Florida, is giving Washington an additional three weeks jump on most every other team in the game.

Last week, I had the fine opportunity to chat with Dana Brown about his new found fortunes and the ability to compete on an even level with every other team in the game in finding young talent. Pleased I was, that he remembered meeting me last January, on the day I first interviewed Team President, Stan Kasten for the Nats 320 Blog. Brown was kind enough to give me 15 minutes of his time, as he worked his way around the four practice fields, Our Nationals were training on that day.

I got the chat rolling by asking Dana how he pursued his job this past off season, his very first under foot of solid Ownership?

"During this off season, we prepared for a lot. The main thing was obviously adding to our Scouting Staff. We tried to strengthen the staff. We also have prepared diligently for this upcoming draft (June 2007), because we have five of the first 70 picks. So, we have had a very busy off season in preparation for that. Because we need to get to know the players (potential draftees) more. We have taken the time to look at everyone we are seriously considering, reading up on them, getting to know their makeup. How good they are; Monitoring their work, watching a tremendous amount of video. Now, I am getting excited to get out there and see them play."

How have your new resources changed the way you find talent, as compared to under Major League Baseball Ownership? The hiring of a new scouting department is the difference between night and day, correct?

"Correct, not only in numbers, but in quality. We now have a veteran scouting department--veteran scouts. We started this thing with nine area scouts, two cross checkers and myself. It was a very difficult time to keep up (with the other teams). Now, we are in a position where we've added numbers, to that, guys with years of experience. We are going to be in more ballparks each day this year. That's going to allow us to get more depth in our ranks."

Do you now have the ability to go anywhere in the world to find talent, if you want to?

"Well, yeah, we are going to become players on the international scene. I think we are putting our stuff together. We've signed some latin players. We are going to begin to expand. And, make no mistake about it, we are going to be aggressive in finding the best talent that can make an impact at the Major League Level."

Everyone's heard of the Latin American Talent. Latinos are dominant in the game today. Yet, General Manager Jim Bowden told me he wishes to pursue players in areas, not necessarily on the map, right now?

"Well, we do have The Pacific Rim. We now have the resources to go out and pursue those players. In a matter of time, as an organization, we are just going to be aggressive at just adding talent into the system, where ever we may find it. Hopefully, leading to that impact at the Major League Level. And, help us WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP."

When you were with The Expos, did you ever think you would get this far?

"It was really, really tough. When we first started, that first season (under MLB Ownership) in 2002, there was talk of contraction. We were really unstable. Now, the stability is beginning to set in. Its an exciting time, for all the guys who have been here from 2002, when we first started this thing. We've been through a lot. We preserved. Now, hopefully, we can reap the benefits."

I have to say, when you were with The Expos, you did a pretty good job of finding talent under some incredibly tight purse strings?

"Right, and we feel there are a few more players coming ( those Expos Drafts) from 2002. We feel that draft will yield some players. If guys like (Larry) Broadway can step in this year. (Darrell) Rasner pitched last year in the Big Leagues. And, of course Jason Bergmann came out of that 2002 draft. And, we are hoping Clint Everts can come back (from injury). A first rounder who is coming back from Tommy John Surgery. So, yeah, you are right. We started off we a very limited amount of scouts. A limited budget. But, we've had the chance to get some guys to the Big Leagues and on the 40 Man Roster. Hopefully, each year (since 2002) we have gotten better and now we can add even more impact players."

Other than Broadway, is there anyone from those drafts that you feel are ready to step up and make the jump to The Majors?

Broadway and Bergmann. Both from the 2002 Draft when we were limited with the budget. Of course, we lost Rasner in a waiver claim last year. Then, hopefully Everts will come back and show us what he is capable of doing. He was our first round draft pick that (2002) year. Tommy John surgery has set him back some. But, those are our main four guys really have the chance of making it in the Big Leagues for us."

Down in The Dominican Republic, you have Jose Rijo's Academy. You've signed Esmailyan Gonzalez. Now. Manny Acta has a nice presence down there. Are The Washington Nationals a hot commodity in the D.R.?

"We have scouts on the ground there. We have Jose Baez who is overseeing our operation down there right now. But, we have added some scouts there, Those guys are going to do the ground work, on the front lines. Something we have never been able to do until ownership took over this franchise. No big name guys. They are blue collar type workers. That are going to get out there (among the various baseball fields) to hustle, and find us talent. When they do come across someone or a group that interests them, Mike Rizzo and I will go down to evaluate the talent. Hopefully, we can keep adding."

It really is amazing how busy you have been this off season?

(Both of us laughing) "Yes, I usually get more time. But, I didn't get much time off this year. We are trying to build something special. Its worth the time I am putting into our efforts. I did get some time off. I have already made probably five international trips, during this off season. From December, all the way up to and through January. So, I had little time for rest."

The guys you signed from Venenzuela, are they top prospects?

"They are all really good talents. The catcher, Sandy Leon, has a chance to be really good. He's a switch hitting catcher with some pop from both sides of the plate. He can really catch and throw. The shortstop (Adrian Sanchez) is a solid guy. He's only sixteen years old, imagine that. Its like me going out to look at a High School Sophomore. We were able to sign him. I am really excited about him. He can run and throw and field really well. His bat is going to take some time, because physically, he is weak. He's not strong right now. His body is a few years away from filling out. But, he's got a good path to the ball. The outfielder (Jesus Morales) is a big projectable guy. The first baseman (Juan Urdaneta) is a big projectable guy."

" WE ARE EXCITED ABOUT THIS TIME!! This (Nationals Organization) is going to be special and nice, with The Lerners coming in. Stan Kasten's vision from his past from his days with The Atlanta Braves. We are pretty stable now. Its so unlike 2002, when we were so unsure about what direction we were headed. And, we've got (Jim) Bowden, who has over 10 years of experience as a General Manager. So, this Franchise has a good chance of being special."

Personally, for you, its got to be satisfying to see everything change from when you struggled each and every day, just to do your job?

"I lived through the growing pains. Now, this is so refreshing and a great opportunity to do the right thing. I've learned to appreciate how it is in the valley (we are chuckling a little). Hopefully, we will reach the mountaintop!!"

Randy Almonte and Gonzalez (from The D.R.) What kind of talents are they?

"Both are really good. Gonzalez is an everyday, starting shortstop in The Majors one day. And, he is only going to get better. Almonte is the big left handed pitcher with BIG TIME arm strength. He is going to be a low 90's guy (MPH speed on his fastball). He also has a really good feel of a breaking ball. And, he's 6'5", a lefty, throws in the 90's. That's pretty good, in anybody's league. He is a good piece to have when you are looking for young talent."

How about some of last years draft picks, the first for The Nationals under new ownership. How are they progressing?

"Very well. Very Well. (Chris) Marrero stepped in and hit over .300. (Colton) Willems had a good earned run average. He is getting used to professional life. And, that's a big adjustment from High School. (Stephen) King was hurt and didn't play much. (Stephen) Englund really got off to a slow start. But, we are expecting good things out of him. And, (Glenn) Gipson, a high school left handed pitcher, we drafted, has a really good chance to be a front line starter. So, we are excited about the young talent, but we are also excited about some college guys we blended in there like (Corey) Van Allen, a left handed starter out of Baylor University. (Zech) Zinicola is a power arm reliever. He's moved through the system rapidly, finishing up in AA last year and was just drafted a few months previously. We thought we had as good of a (2006) draft as anyone. We picked up some guys that can make an impact."

I saw Zinicola play at Potomac last year. He was really impressive (SBF).

"Yeah, we got him in the sixth round. We are extremely excited about him. When you get an college arm like that you feel is so close to the Big Leagues, and he's got good stuff, a good bullpen guy, works hard, he goes at the hitters hard. He's exciting, and its exciting to get guys like that in the sixth round. (In the draft) You try to make an impact in every round. We get depth like that. ITS FUN!! Especially, when you have the extra picks."

I read where you recommended to Jim Bowden that he could trade Gary Majewski, because of Zinicola's rising stock?

"Yes, we talk shop all the time. We are always talking baseball. One of the things you must do when you trade players is realize who is going to fill those shoes (of the player traded). I was excited to say to Jim, Zinicola is on the fast track. He's got a really good fastball. A good slider. He's very competitive. And, he's a strike thrower. I felt we had an opportunity (in the Reds Trade last year) to close the gap, so to speak (on both the Major League and Minor League Level). And, you know what, that's what its all about, getting depth, adding strength, and just keep moving forward. That's is what it all about, when it comes to team building."

Is there anyone else I should be aware of?

(Laughing) "Oh, there are probably a lot of guys we could talk about. But, I would probably need their names in front of me (both of us laughing). I can't remember all these guys. Actually, I am trying to remember all the guys for this year for the (2007) draft, because those we have already signed, are old news now. Its time to move forward to 2007. Its always an ongoing process."

When fans bitch about the fact that the team didn't get high enough draft picks for Alfonso Soriano. How do you react to that. Was the team hurt by him signing with Chicago and their first pick being protected?

"The higher you pick, the better chance of a prospect, of course. But, when you get extra picks, that's exciting. You are playing with house money. You never know what you can do with an extra pick. You take a guy like David Wright (NY Mets All Star Third Baseman). He was drafted with an extra pick. Whether you get David Wright at (round) 33, or he's taken at 15. Think about it. At 15, he was passed by 14 other teams. At 33, after the entire leagues chose someone. So, my point is, there is quality all the way down the draft, especially in the top few rounds. Its our job, to evaluate the guys, and getting it right. Then, if you rightly develop them, you have the chance to do something special."

You have those resources to find them, develop them and bring them to The Major Leagues?

"Correct. Not only myself, but also the guys we've had around for a while. Now with our excellent scouting/player development department, we've added the depth to solidify. Its like the icing on the cake. We can now make GOOD QUALITY DECISIONS FOR THE ORGANIZATION."

With that answer, Dana had to head off to another field to continue his quests and update himself on those many young players that have joined Our Washington Nationals over the past year or two. Baseball talent that Dana Brown is responsible for putting on the field of play, in both the near term, and a few years down the line.

Dana Brown is thrilled with his new predicament. I could see it in his eyes, and in the tone of his voice. He struggled for years, just to keep the Expos/Nationals Franchise's head above water. Now, his hard work is paying off. Not a single person involved in baseball, that I have spoken with, has nothing less than the utmost respect for our Scouting Director. Dana Brown has earned his solid reputation. Unquestionably, one of the most talented and creative evaluators of baseball talent in this great game.

Our Washington Nationals are fortunate to have him. When Washington becomes the great franchise, I truly believe it will be, Dana Brown should get a tremendous amount of the deserved credit. He has earned it, for years to come.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Stuck In NYC

Sorry to report that I have been delayed in New York City on an assignment. When the Stock Market Crashed this afternoon, I knew full and well that I would not have time to complete my post for this night. I am sorry if I disappointed anyone. But, business calls, Television News pays my bills; and my Washington Nationals Season Tickets, so I had to comply. Of course, there is nothing wrong with spending extra nights in one of the most exciting cities in this world, NYC. Just a GREAT TOWN! No doubt, never a dull moment here!! I LOVE NEW YORK!!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Barry Larkin & Ryan Zimmerman

Last month, when I caught up with Washington Nationals 3rd Baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, I specifically asked him what part of his game needed improving the most. Right away, he mentioned his foot work. Zimmerman was tired of making silly errors. And, wanting to be the best Major League Player he can possibly be, his goal for 2007 is to NOT REACH double figures in errors.

With Spring Training now underway in Viera, Florida--long time Cincinnati Reds great shortstop, Barry Larkin (currently Special Assistant to Nats General Manager, Jim Bowden) has been given a special task. Larkin's assignment is to work with Zimmerman, directly, one on one, to help Ryan improve his game. Last week, in Viera, I had a special opportunity to chat with Barry on the practice field, as that days workouts were about to commence. We talked about Barry's role with Ryan. What Larkin wants to see and do with Zimmerman this spring. No doubt, Barry Larkin is impressed with our Number 11.

"He's got a good game," stated Larkin. "I am obviously here to work with him on improving that game. Specifically, give him whatever help he wants. I give him a different perspective, a different way. How to try to do some things. There is not anything that he does not do well. I think the thing he is looking for is consistency. So, I think some of the best coaches I had or worked with told me the things that I did well and made notes. The game of baseball is very mental and I need to point out the things that I did when I was doing well, and pass those thoughts along. So, that's kind of the approach I am taking with him. Giving him some check points, making sure he is going through those. So, if he ever does struggle, he can reference and refer back to the times he wasn't struggling and doing well."

Ryan told me a couple of weeks ago, he needed to work on his footwork. What does he need to do to improve that, and why?

"It really of matter of Ryan getting himself into position, getting his feet up and down. We worked a lot this off season and now in Spring Training on drills to help him. Fielding is all about getting into position and it all starts with his feet. When you field the ball, its extremely important to keep moving forward, towards the direction of your throw, remaining balanced. Its interesting, we were having lunch one day. Ryan really respects the game. I was talking to him, saying: 'You being 24 or 25 years old.' He said: 'No.' I was a little stunned replying: '23?' (laughing). Its amazing the maturity level that he has at such a young age of 22. Understanding that he still needs to work on his feet. He is well ahead of the game, because this game is critical, mentally. And, he understands, he breaks down the game. He understands his fielding is not so much his glove. Its not so much his arm. Its his feet. And, if you understand that, then you are well underway to being very successful."

He really is a special talent. Will he be good for a long time?

"Yes, he is. Absolutely. And, I think even more so than a long career, a very consistent career. That's what you want to see. A Major League Manager, anyone that is running a big organization wants consistency. Guys ask me all the time, how can I make it to the Big Leagues? Well, I tell them, 'Make the routine play, routine.' And, that's where he (Zimmerman) is right now. That's the kind of mental state that he is in. If you have the fundamentals, then your athletic abilities can take over. No doubt, Ryan is a GREAT ATHLETE, as well."

The other day, during the first day of full workout, I found it interesting that you were hitting grounders to infielders, especially Ryan as they were on their knees in the infield. What are you working on in that drill?

"That particular type of drill is trying to get guys to catch the ball out in front. My mentors, Davey Concepcion, Ozzie Smith, showed me that drill. A drill which is very consistent with what you do when you are catching the ball up on your feet. You want to get your butt down as low as possible. And, you want to see the ball out in front, when you catch it. If you are on your knees, and you don't see the ball and you catch it and your glove is too close to you, the ball is probably going to smoke (get the best of you). That drill right there, first of all, tests to see if you are scared (We both laugh--hard). And, secondly, it also tests to see if you can catch the ball out front. Its a drill that drives home the fact that you better catch the ball out front. Matter of fact, after that drill happens, early in the pre season workouts, then we will stand up. inevitably, you will see a guy keep his butt very close to the ground, so he can catch the ball out in front. "

We will do it again today, and for many days to come. Some guys are not that polished, so you will see some flesh wounds, some welts and bruises here and there (laughing). But, they are going to catch the ball out in front."

"But, no matter what, there is no crying in baseball. Right?

Both of us laughing now mightily: "No, there is no crying in baseball."

And, as far a Ryan Zimmerman is concerned, he's willing to listen at Larkins wisdom.

Ryan commenting: "Barry is a really good instructor. His experience and knowledge is helping me, as a player, become more complete. His main emphasis on defense is footwork. That's it. That's the area I need to improve. I want to become a better all around player. I appreciate his help. On offense, I need to draw walks a little bit more, and strike out a little bit less. A few things like that. Barry gives me some good points. I am fortunate to have him as my coach. He's really willing and able to help."

Later, I was able to change subjects to ask Barry Larkin whether he feels comfortable being with the Washington Nationals Organization. After spending your entire playing career in Cincinnati playing for The Reds do you miss, not being there?

"I have thought about just that question many times. Over the past few years, after I retired, The Cincinnati Reds Organization has completely changed in structure. I really don't know anybody there anymore. Its not the same, and I feel I would not enjoy being there, now. Obviously, Jim (Bowden) is here. Jose Rijo, Bob Boone, Jose Cardenal. Many people that I have spent alot of time with in baseball."

"But, also, and this is an important factor. I am growing (as a coach) here with all the young guys. I am familiar with them. I am enjoying the work and what we are trying to accomplish here. This is really a great young organization. Its a very exciting time to be with The Washington Nationals. I love coming out everyday, working with the young players, watching them grow. Really, I can't say enough good things about my work here. I am very comfortable and happy here."

Barry Larkin was very impressive to chat with. A very confident, yet congenial and decent person. Later, I found out through my continuing talks with other players and coaches, that Barry is probably the most respected person on the staff. Not, only for his amiable ways, but his ever growing abilities to teach the new way, the professional way, for Our Washington Nationals.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spring Training Continues With Chad Cordero

The African Queen and I have arrived safely back in Alexandria, Virginia. Driving all the way, getting in at 1AM Sunday Morning, we just missed getting caught in the big snow and ice storm that has shut down the DC area most of today. But, that hasn't kept me from thinking sunny thoughts about Washington Nationals Spring Training. Fortunately, I was able to accumulate a lot of material that may well last me a week or two. So, as I begin my second week covering Viera, Florida, this time from Snowy Washington, its time to bring on "THE CHIEF ".

Last Tuesday, Washington Nationals Closer, Chad Cordero traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to appear before Baseball's Arbitrator to settle his 2007 contract number. "The Chief" asked for $4.15 million and Our Washington Nationals offered $3.65 million. After both sides presented their cases, the arbitrator must choose one of the two salaries offered. There is no compromise, once the proceedings begin. The Nationals did offer a two year deal to Cordero, but it was turned down. Some would say the arbitration process is tiring, as most teams tend to bash their players during the process.

Chad, eventually won his case garnering, $4.15 Million Salary for this season. And, this past Thursday, returned to Spring Training in Viera, Florida. The Media had a ton of questions for him. And an impromptu press conference occurred on my one day as fully credentialed press. I recorded the entire session. Cordero is quiet, reserved, but is a stand up guy to answer everything thrown his way. Of course the main subject, was his arbitration win, and those remarks are what the mainstream press mostly used in their stories. The Press see Cordero, up close, each and everyday. I do not. For me, these 15 minutes gave me a good insight into Chad Cordero, the person. He loves his friends, family and wants to keep it that way--No matter how successful his baseball career becomes. He was very refreshing.

So, here is the entire question and answer session from Thursday, February 22, 2007. I think there is some very good stuff about Chad Cordero included, especially how big of a role The Major League Players Association played in his arbitration decision.

You thought the entire arbitration process would be a bad one. Everyone would be telling bad Chad Cordero Stories? It didn’t go down that way.

“Exactly, I ended up being very happy (with the process). They (The Nationals) did not try to tear? me down, like they do with other players. So, I was very pleased, my agents were very pleased, and so was all the guys in The Players Association. My Dad was very pleased, and glad to with the outcome. It was a good experience. I was very happy to see the business side of it (baseball). I wish I didn’t have to go, but I am very happy to get it all over with.”

Chief, there have been so many questions about this pitching staff, one of the things Manny has consistently said, is that the Bullpen, especially with you there, is a strength?

“Yeah, it is. Last year, we did a good job. We were put into a lot of tough situations, but we handled ourselves very well. Especially, when you have guys like John Rauch, Ryan Wagner, those type of guys who give give it to you each and everyday. And, still do a good job for you. That’s always a plus to have those type of guys on the team.”

What are you original takes on Manny (Acta, as Manager) and how he’s handled things?

“Manny’s great!! I played under him in ’04, my rookie year. He was still with us, as the third base coach, up in Montreal. So, I now a little bit about him. He’s a great guy. He treats everyone fair. That’s the way everyone wants to be treated. He give everyone an equal chance. And, that is what he does. He’s very friendly. He gets along with everyone great. So, I think it’s a great thing to have him as our Head Coach.”

Chad, one of your staples was the Square Brim on the cap. Its not flat. What’s the deal?

“That’s just the way the hats are made right now. I have tried many times to get the hat to go flat. But, I can’t do it (almost dejectedly sounding).”

What are you going to do?

“I don’t know. I guess I am going to have to wait to get my Red hat. The Curly “W”. So, I will just have to wear this one and live with it.”

Chad, I have talked with a lot of players and the expectations of this team. And, they alluded to being close to the (success of the) Florida Marlins of a year ago. Do you see the same type of similarities here?

“Definitely, we have a lot of really good players here. We have a lot of guys we acquired during the off season who just want to get another chance. If we all go out there, play hard, we are going to compete. So, I think we can be like the Marlins. Of course, you never know. But, we just need to go out there, play hard, and see what happens.
Have you heard from any relatives or long lost friends, since you won arbitration?

(Laughing)”Not any new ones. Just all the ones I normally talk to. No knew ones yet. Maybe today or tomorrow.” (still chuckling).

Did you and Jim (Bowden-General Manager), have a big hugfest after the (arbitration) hearing was over? ‘I still love you man, but I had to do this as part of my job.’

“Yeah, that just the business part of it. We shook each others hand. He said. ‘We’ll see you tomorrow. That’s just the way it is. That’s the business side of it. There is no hard feelings on either end, even if I had lost (in arbitration). That’s just a part of the game. That’s the business side of it. We have to go out there and treat each other like we have the past couple of years. There are really no hard feelings at all.”

What the first thing you are going to buy?

(Chuckling) “Nothing right now. Nah, I am going to try to save it (the money). Put it all in the bank and just let it sit there for a while, until I figure out what to do with it.”

No new wheels (car)?

(Chuckling) “Nah, I just bought a new car in November. So, nothing yet, maybe a house next year, but nothing right now—that’s about it.”

Chad, coming into this season, you have John (Patterson) as the ace of the staff, then you have you as the ace of the Bullpen, what do you think your two roles will be, both you and Patterson?

“We both have to be leaders on the pitching staff. He takes charge of the starters. He’s one guys that’s been out there for a couple of years. Every closer has that leader role. Its placed on me. So, I have to fill that (role). Especially, with all the young guys we have right now. Some of whom, are not that experienced. I need to go out there and help them in anyway I can.”

In Stan’s (Kasten spoke to the team Thursday) speech to the team this morning, was there added emphasis to next season (2008). That he wants to see the team a winner, when that new stadium opens up?

“Yeah, he knows we all want to be a part of it. In addition, he said that this year (2007) was going to be kind of tough. But, we still need to go out there and play hard. And, we are trying to build for that next year. That’s basically, what he told us. Just go out there (on the field), do your very best you can this year. And, go out there next year and compete for a playoff spot.”

As your career progresses, and you see a lot of guys (hitters) over and over again, do you find that they adjust to you and you counter that. How does it evolve, as a pitcher?

“Yes, first of all, you do what you were successful with the year before and try to get them out. If they have made an adjustment, then you go out there, the next time you face them (that hitter), whether that be the next game, or next series, I make an adjustment, then see how they react. Of course, those hitters are up here (in the Big Leagues) for a reason. So, of course, they are trying to make an adjustment. I have to do the same thing, whether that means throwing more off speed pitches, or more fastball, or working them inside and out. I have to adjust like that.”

How has your life changed in the four years since you have been drafted?

“It really hasn’t changed too much. I am still the same person I was before. I still live a mile away from where I went to school (Cal State-Fullerton). I still live with six of my former college teammates. So, it really hasn’t changed much. And, I treat everyone else the same way I always have been. I really don’t talk a lot, like before. I keep to myself, and just try not to change.”

But, your place in The Clubhouse has changed. There are fewer veterans and you are more accomplished. Just professionally, how has that changed?

Before when I first got called up, I didn’t say a word. I would never talk, keep to myself. I would let the veterans go out and do what they need to do, to be the leaders. And, I just stayed within myself and focus on just what I needed to do. Now, with everybody gone now, my role is bigger than the bullpen. Now, I got to talk a lot more. Just help all the younger guys out when they needs it” (Remember Chief is only 25 Years old—SBF)

Do your accomplishments give you the confidence to do that naturally (lead). Or is it still kind of a forced thing?

“ Its not a forced thing. Now, I really want to, because as a closer, that is your job. I am suppose to be a leader in the Bullpen, and because of that, I am put on that pedestal. But, its not a forced thing. I am willing to do it. I always tried not to bother the guys (in the past), and last year too. But, this year, I have to do it. Get involved even more.”

I heard you cut down on your Slurpees? (Chad has a daily penchant for drinking the ice favored drink from 7-11)

(Laughing) “A little bit, but not too much.” (So not daily anymore?) “Not daily. We are not close enough to a 7-11 here (in Viera) to make the trip. (Everyone laughing)”

This house you want to buy in the future, are your six roommates invited to it? Or, will this finally be your own place?

“I don’t know. We shall just have to see how big it is. If I have room for them, way not. I love living with those guys. They are a lot of fun. My brother lives there too. Its a lot of fun. Besides, they all played baseball, too. So, I always have someone to play catch with. You know, I don’t know whether I will kick them out or not. I just don’t know. We shall have to see what happens.”

What’s a day in the off season like for you?

“It all depends. When I first get back home from the season, I just want to relax, play some XBOX, some Halo with all the guys. We built a little fire pit. So, we roast marshmallows all the time, stuff like that. We just hang out and have a good time. When I start working out, I work out in the mornings, come back and do the same things as I did before. My buddies and I play Halo for four hours at a time per day, when I first got back (from the season), either online or with each other.”

Manny mentioned your first big league appearance. Pudge Rodriguez at the plate (2004). Does that seem a million years ago now?

“Its does now, yeah. I started out here, (In Viera) and I took a van down to Miami, to face The Marlins. It does seem a long time ago. Its been about four years now. Its still seems like yesterday, too, at the same time. I still have the same feelings as I did before. I still remember what happened.” (Pudge would hit a screamer down the third base line that was snagged for an out).

The scenario you were thrown into is something you have faced many times along the way. Out there on the mound, are you still thinking the same way now, as to how to get out of the situation, as the first time?

“No, the first time out, I was kind of awestruck. Oh Wow!! I am here (in the Big Leagues). I can’t believe it. Now, I just go out there and not worry about it. I worry about who I am facing, just pitch and do the best I can. As before, when I faced Pudge, I had to take a step back as grew up knowing his face and watching him. Now, I can’t do that anymore. Now, I need to go out there, just pitch, do the best I can.”

Was that first pitch (to Rodriguez) a fastball?

“Yeah, I think it almost took Jamey Carroll’s hand off!! (Everyone laughing) “I don’t see how he caught it, as I didn’t even see the ball.” (More laughs)

In terms of your stuff, we have asked you over the past couple of years, anytime you get beat, it seems to be, did you throw the change up or something else. What do you feel is your second pitch? Will changed your approach this season? Manny says. ‘What you see, is what you get.’

“I am going to go out there (to the mound) and be the same guy. I don’t have the most overpowering stuff. But, I got to work with what I have. And, try to get them (hitters) out. I know my change up is not the best. My slider is not the best. I don’t have the fastest, fastball. But, I spot them well. So, that is the thing. When I get beat, I leave my fastball up. The same for my slider or change up. When I throw them where I want them, which I do most of the time, I am fine. Its doesn’t matter, if I hang it.”

Was there a guy when you were coming up, growing up, a closer in baseball that you looked at that you said I want to be like him?

“I always looked up to Trevor Hoffman. Just because of everything he’s accomplished. In High School, I was a starter, so I never thought I would be a closer until I got to the college level. Once I got to college, I really started to focus on him (Hoffman). I looked at everything he does. How he goes about his business.”

Hoffman’s not the type of guy who throws incredibly hard?

“Exactly, He just goes out there and competes hard. That’s exactly the way I want to do it, too.”

Are you worried at all, that this could be a situation (in 2007) where you are not going to have a lot of save situations? Are you worried that might happen?

“It’s a tough thing to handle, but you never know. Even if you don’t have a lot of wins, you can still have a lot of close victories. So, I might still get all the chances I am expecting to get, if we are doing well. You just never know.”

Chad, your Dad always seems to play a role in your career and life. Did he play a role in your arbitration?

“He sat in on the hearing (in Phoenix). He wanted to see how it all worked. My agent said he could, if he wanted to. So, he took that opportunity. He told me ‘to do whatever you want to do. Just do it, if you want to (deciding whether to go to arbitration or settle beforehand). If you feel you want to sign, sign. Do what you need to do.’ He just left it in my hands. He didn’t try to step in, in anyway. He left that decision up to me. My Dad will advise me, but he is not going to tell me to do this or do that. He just tries to help me out whenever he can in whatever decision I have to make. He doesn’t push me in either direction.”

Is he still working?

“Yep, he still works (proudly). He still works at Wonder Bread, driving the truck. Doing the same thing he did before.”

He didn’t walk in and quit after you won arbitration?

(Laughing) “No, he wouldn’t do that. He will not let me give him anything.”

When you started to meet with Jim (Bowden) and the talk of a multi-year contract was discussed, is it hard to turn that down?
“Its very hard. Anyone would probably want to take the deal, because its guaranteed. With me, don’t know why I didn’t do it. I wanted to, just that me, my agent and The Players Association thought we had a good case (in arbitration). We went in to see what would happen. I wasn’t going to come out a loser, either way. Even if I lost in arbitration, I wasn’t going to lose. It was still a lot of money. More money than I ever would have thought.’

I assume that the two year total would have been higher, the first year total would have been lower?

“Yes, that is correct. It would have been lower. But, that wasn’t the whole thing. The Players Association thought I had a good case and they wanted to see how it would turn out.”

If it was three years would you have had to think more about it?

“Yes, anyone would. That would guarantee I would be in DC for three years for sure. That would have been great!!”

I am assuming there is no two year deal on the mound right now?

“No, nothing right now, but you never know. Something might happen towards the middle of the year. Just not right now, but again, you never really know.”

Your name has been bandied about this off season. Did they (The Nationals, give you any indication that you could be traded, still?

“No, not at all. They haven’t told me anything like that. I am just hearing stuff, and that’s about it.”

When you first heard your name come up (in trade talks), do you get worried or flattering that a team like The Red Sox are?

“I was surprised, but its flattering. When someone else wants you and you can do just as good of a job with them, especially the Red Sox, always competing for a playoff spot too, that would have been great to go up there. So, it is flattering, but I hope and wish I can stay here (in Washington). We shall see, but it’s a part of the game. If I get traded, then I get traded.”

You just said a three year contract would guarantee you staying in Washington. Do you think you are now more tradable?

“It could happen anytime. I am still elgible for a second year of arbitration again next year. If I don’t get an multi year deal or something, anything could happen. I could get traded tomorrow. I could get traded next week, it’s a life of its own.”

That concluded the Press Conference. As I was writing this post, I was told, unexpectantly, that I must leave on an assignment to New York City, Monday Morning at 5AM for two days. Since we are going by train, I will attempt to write my next two Spring Training Posts on the train, and Post them from NYC. I apologize if there is any delay. Unfortunately, sometimes, the real world gets in the way of my love of Our Washington Nationals.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Baseball Fans Dream

Make no mistake about it, my just concluded week of Spring Training with Our Washington Nationals will go down in my life as ONE OF MY GREATEST!! I didn't really know what to expect, beforehand. Knowing I would not have total access, left me wondering whether I might be wasting my time. If I couldn't talk to the players, there was no real reason to make the trip. The closer you are to an actual event, the less information you can gather or hear, as your resources can be limited. Most of the real Nationals News from the past week, I read on my computer, on the internet, at my hotel, after returning from practice.

Once The African Queen and I arrived in Viera, we headed out to Space Coast Stadium, to check out the scene, this past Monday morning. To our surprise, Our Washington Nationals allowed fans to walk between the four practice fields. No one was allowed to go on the fields, unless you were actually with The Nationals or Credentialed Press. But, even The Press were restricted on the field. Yet, the players and coaches were extremely accessible. At any given time, when players were not participating in drills, most all of them were willing, to either talk, take a picture or sign an autograph.

The number of fans that reguarly attend Spring Training over the years for many Major League Teams were stunned, and quite thrilled. Our Washington Nationals went out of the way to open up to its fan base. Sure, you had the hucksters carrying their binders of 100 cards of every player and cases of bats for team members to sign, so they could attempt to make money on eBay (You are always going to have those fools). But, by far, the majority of the folks attending camp were fans. Baseballs Fans, enjoying the opportunity to get close with Major League Players. The atmosphere was GREAT!!

And, you got to credit Team President, Stan Kasten and General Manager, Jim Bowden for letting this atmosphere grow. Along with new Manager, Manny Acta, The Nationals want to be "Fan Friendly". The Nats want to be close to their fans. Washington wants to build an image of accessibility. They certainly showed that fact to me this week. Can you imagine The Yankees or The Red Sox allowing their fans so close to the players for Spring Training. I doubt it.

The openess of the week, allowed me to freely seek interviews, take pictures and produce a good amount of posts that hopefully many Washington Nationals Fans enjoyed. When I was granted a Full Credential this past Thursay, the entire week in Viera became complete. Players for The Nats became familar with me, accepted me, chatted with me. And for me, these players become the guys that live next door. Seeing all of them having normal everyday conversations that you and I have each day, made me realize that the only difference in their life over mine, is their chosen profession. They play baseball for a living. I do not. That, along with the money, is the sole difference.

As the week progressed, I found myself enjoying meeting each player, not just because they were a Major League Player for the team I love, Our Washington Nationals. More so, because I was enjoying getting to know them, as people, personalities-folks with substance. Another person to learn something from and add to my life experiences. And, let me tell you, there was no more interesting personality than Chris Snelling. Later, I will post up my extended conversation with him. He was flat out cool, different. Quite worth getting to know a little bit better.

Baseball players like Snelling, Mike Restovich plus up and coming prospects Garrett Mock and Zechry Zinacola were fun to meet. Although Esmailyn Gonzalez and I struggled to communicate through a cross cultural language barrier, I just loved his constant smile, his innocence. Hopefully that smile and fun face will remain with him for years to come. These five along with countless others, and their personalities made my week of Spring Training with Our Washington Nationals Special--A Baseball Fans Dream!! I could not thank The Nationals more for their kindness. And, The African Queen, for putting up with me, allowing me to pursue my passion, all week long.

Our Final Day In Viera

Today's morning practice for Our Washington Nationals was the last one for The African Queen and I for this TERRIFIC TRIP!! What more can we possibly say. The granting of a one day press pass was just icing on the cake. Sohna and I were able to meet just about every single player looking to make Washington, DC their home. And, through random luck, actually were able to meet up with some players in area restaurants. It just doesn't get much better, as a fan, really.

Today, Chad Cordero, Micah Bowie and Luis Ayala were the most prominent Nationals pitchers getting their bullpen work in. Everyday players continued taking batting practice from real pitchers. Catchers worked on retrieving foul pops behind the plate. While, all pitchers continued to practice fielding situations around the bases.

Nick Johnson continued to rehab and attempt to get himself back into shape. Nick working to build up his stamina by walking around Field 3 again. While doing his work, AAA Manager, John Stearns yelled over to Johnson, "Nick, How far are you away from doing a light jog." Johnson looks over, "Well, I don't know really. I don't know." Stearns was a little taken back by the answer, saying: "That long, too bad." Nick continued on his way.

I asked Nick how's the rehab going? "Good," he stated, "I am doing a little walking, up to 12 minutes. And, I am also doing some pool work, trying to get real strong again."

Has it been frustrating for you? "Yes, it has been. I really would liked to be out there with the guys. Unfortunately, it is what it is, and I got to keep working so I can get back out there (on the playing field)."

How accurate was your original statement about a June, 2007 return to play? "Yeah, (you know that comment caused alot of controversy?-SBF), there is no time table. When I am strong, I will be out there."

Personally, would it hurt you to miss the whole season? "When I am ready, I will be ready. I don't know when that will be. I certainly don't want to miss the entire year, but we shall see how long it takes (to heal).

When you get the word that you are 100% healthy and ready to go all out. How much longer will it take for you to get into baseball shape. You haven't, at that time, hit or fielded a ball for some time."

"Wow, I don't really know the answer to that. I might be hitting and something else might happen. So, I just take it day to day. I have not swung (a bat) in a while, or run. You have to do the whole bit, we'll see."

That day of your injury was, by far, the saddest day of the year for The Washington Nationals. I have written that until you get healthy and back out on the field competing, Austin Kearns might be affected, at least, mentally?

"No, he's a gamer. You don't have to worry about him. He (Kearns) plays the game the right way. He will be fine."

Do you fear that the thoughts of the injury might make you hesitate chasing down a ball again?

"No, it will not change the way I play. When I get out there, it will be the way its always been. I just go. I will play the game the way I always do, play hard. That play (the accident) was a tweener, tough to get to. We both missed it, by a foot or something. I will continue to play hard."

How tough was this winter, sitting around, limited in your movements?

"I had two other surgeries, rehab three or four days per week. I was pretty busy doing that stuff. But, I pretty much hung out with the family. ("Watch alot of TV?--SBF) "Alot of TV!! (laughing). I had every package going--NHL, NFL, NBA. I got all of them. I was sitting on the couch. I didn't do too much. (both of us chuckling).

We talked briefly about the fan support in Washington and how so many will miss Nick Johnson until he returns healthy., "Its terrific. The fans are into the games. I love how they jump around down the 3rd baseline. The Stadium (RFK) starts shaking. Its a great place to play."

I only hope that Nick Johnson's career will not be derailed by his injury. More than one Nats Player this week told me, Nick is the heart and sole of the team.

Chad Cordero telling me: "Yes, he is. He plays hard each and every day. That's all you can ask for. Unfortunately, its part of the reason, he got hurt, because he was going so hard after the ball. That is the way he is. Again, he's had injury problems. He goes out there and plays hard every single day. He's awesome (as a teammate) because he jokes around in The Clubhouse. He is really a good guy, and it was sad to see what happen to him last year."

Personally, I can only wish Nick Johnson the best. I really like him--as a person.

As I mentioned yesterday, Jason Bergmann was aware of The Nats320 blog. Jason reads the blogs to keep abreast of fans feeling about, not only his work, but the teams.

"Yes, I read the blogs," Bergmann told me. "My teammates call me 'Internet Junkie'. I look around the internet for all kinds of stuff. I like to be handy. I like to think of myself as a 'Geek'. But, I do like the internet games, the online games. So, obviously, I read all the stuff. What's everyone else's take on the fellows. But, for me personally, I am not looking for bad news about myself or anyone else. Or, even good news about myself. I am only interested in being informed."

Do you or your teammates find it humorous, what you read about yourselves in the blogs?

"I don't know if its humorous, but its nice to know what other people think sometimes. I have heard some nasty things written about myself. Some good things, also. Basically, its me keeping in touch with the fans thoughts, see what they think, and maybe improve my own character. I try to reach out to fans, talk with them, sometimes. I tell people I have helped out, meeting with people, saying 'hello'. Its a good thing to do."

There are nearly 30 Nats Blogs and Chat Rooms out there?

"That' GREAT!. And, that shows the extent of the fan support. I think its wonderful. The past two years, We have been up and down. We were .500 one year, the next season we were a little poorer than that. But, the fan outcry and support has been fantastic. Playing in Washington has been a real thrill."

Even when the team is down, the fans have been there at RFK Stadium?

"Yes, but you can still attribute that to a new team in a new city. Washington's been in dire need of a team since the early '70's, when they (The Senators) left. Its been a real thrill playing in front of fans who want to see you day in and day out. In time, we will have a quality team to really root for."

Of course, Jason has been up and down these past two years, switching gears, I asked him: What do you want to accomplish this season?

"Stay in one place," Bergmann immediately laughed back. "Hopefully in the Major Leagues. I worked by butt off this off season. There was a lot of things that I corrected, hopefully. I have had some really tough games, and some positive games. I am working forward from there, not lingering on the bad stuff, but concentrating on the good stuff?

Like what exactly? "My main thing was throwing quality strikes. I was flipped around from being a starter to a reliever. Its tough to really find a groove. But, using the coaching staff we have. Randy St.Claire is back. He is a really good supporter of me. He teaches real well on my pitches. I am trying to keep myself in great pitching shape. Last year, I did not come in (to spring training) too hot off surgery. So, this year, I have a fresh start and have the ability to find a spot. There are four open starter roles. I am just trying my best to make impressions on people."

You want to be a starter?

"Absolutely, I will take any position that is open. I will play first base if they want (laughing). Don't think its going to happen, but (even with Nick Johnson injured, its not going to happen), I think I can play first base anyway (both of us laughing). No (shaking his head back and forth), not going to happen."

Of course, I could not finish up my last full day of 2007 Washington Nationals Spring Training, without giving the final word to Manager Manny Acta. As Manny was leaving the practice field for the day, The African Queen and I stopped by to thank him for his graciousness toward us this past week. If not for Manny's encouragement to talk to fans, many of his players may not have been so forth coming to talk with me so I could gather so much information for The Nats320 blog.

These were my final few questions to Manny Acta:

Manny, In my week of being here, what do you feel you have accomplished toward your 2007 goals?

"We have installed the positivity to the guys that we are able to win without having the big names and high paid role guys. I like the attitude. I think I can feel it. Guys are going to be able to put that behind them. And, also the fact that we have been implementing the plan we want for defense. I think we have gotten the point across, in a week."

Most every player I have talked to seemed happy to be here in camp with The Nationals?

"They should be because of the opportunity we are offering, but the fact that we are in The Capital of The United States. Then, next year we will have the brand new stadium. And, if you are not excited by that, then something is missing. I think we are doing it the right way, building from the ground up. I think our international fruits are going to be paying dividends in the very near future."

Finally, after asking hundreds of questions all week long, my last question for the week: Manny, are you having a good time?

"Oh, I am having a GREAT TIME! I am LOVING IT!!"

So you are going to feel that way after that first five game losing streak?

"Oh, I am not going to get beat down. This is not the first time I have managed, even if I lose five in a row."

Manny laughing at his answer, then wished The African Queen and I well. Asking if we might come back in Mid-March for some exhibition games. "Manny I do work for a living, you know. The blog is not a profitable business."

Manny still chuckling: "Yeah, I know, but you do seem to enjoy it."

No doubt, I LOVE IT!!

Quote of The Day: Since many have told me I write about everything I hear or see. Team President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden were driving past The African Queen and I, in a golf cart, leaving the practice fields. Upon spotting us both put up their hands, trying to pretend getting away from us, yelling: "No Comment, No Comment!!" laughing as they drove past.

Quote of The Day--2/22/07

Washington Nationals Team President Stan Kasten upon seeing me yesterday morning, before I was given a Credential for the day: "I have been monitoring what you have been doing. Everyone within our organization has said the same thing to me. We can't figure it out. HOW SOMEONE WITH NO ACCESS, SEEMS TO HAVE TOTAL ACCESS!! You are posting about everything down here!

"I am very creative," I responded.

"No Doubt, No doubt," replied Mr. Kasten, laughing and patting my shoulder. "Why do we even have reporters. You can do it all."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Today's Anecdotes

What made today's access so special, was how comfortable all the players reacted to my approaches. Over the past four days, they had seen me at each and every practice. Already, many had answered my questions. They knew who I was. That I write The Nats320 blog and am having fun doing it. The more comfortable Our Washington Nationals became with my presence, the more and more their natural ways were openly expressed, in front of me.

While interviewing Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann asked me what blog I write. I replied, "NATS 320". Bergmann, sitting on a stool, reading the USA Today Newspaper, stated: "Yeah, I know that one, you're Screech's Friend. I read alot of the blogs. Its always good to see what the fans are thinking. I don't necessarily agree with what many say, but its important to find out." Later, Bergmann would chat with me for a good five minutes on this very subject. To be posted, at a later time.

Luis Ayala is a card shark. Since Day One, Luis has taken a liking to, not only me, but The African Queen. He finds us interesting. After each practice, he stops by me to say something or comment to my questions. Today, in The Clubhouse he was sorting a deck of playing cards. I asked him what he was doing? What games do you play? Luis responded: "Take a card, any card." I picked one face down and sneaked a peak. Without him seeing the card's face, I stuffed it back into the middle of the deck. Ayala shuffled the cards three times, then told me to pull out another card. I had originally picked the Ace of Spades. And, did so again after his shuffle. Luis just started laughing. "Pretty Good, huh? Gets "The Chief" everytime!!" We both slapped hands, chuckling. Luis Ayala is fast becoming another favorite of mine.

Nick Johnson was out on Field 3 today, doing a 12 minute walk. Although he is far from 100% healthy, his humor has not missed a step. We chatted in the dugout, after his workout for a good 10 minutes. Talking baseball, comparing injuries and recovery times. You may recall I broke both collarbones in an horrific accident in my early 20's. My injury took one year for me to recover--18 months fully. Again, the entire chat will be posted later, but near the end, I asked Nick if he had ever seen so many players in a Big League Camp? "How many are here?" he replied. "72, if YOU are counted," I said. Nick nods his head up, looks right at me and states: "Do I count? I guess I do. I can't hit a baseball right now, but I sure can hit the team buffet!!" We both laughed, high fiving, so hard, that Spin Williams, one of the pitching instructors asked us to keep it down in the dugout. This was my favorite moment of the day. Nick Johnson was totally at ease chatting with me. It was nice and friendly.

As I walked onto the field during warmups this morning, John Patterson was standing at the water cooler. He looks down at me as I walk through the gate. "You in today?" he said. "Yeah, I responded, but I promised my wife I would not stalk you after Carrabba's the other night." JP chuckled, "That would be a good thing, welcome aboard."

Later, Patterson was standing behind a batting cage joined along with Jim Bowden and Stan Kasten. John standing there with no cap, long hair flowing down to his shoulders. Their conversation was very animated, and led to them talking about his hair. Whereupon, Stan Kasten stated: "We are just going to have to call you "Newt Guzzler". They all laughed mightily for some time, almost to tears.

Barry Larkin, Manny Acta & Austin Kearns were standing behind the batting cage when Acta turned to Kearns asking him what was the longest home run he had ever hit. Kearns starts thinking, when Larkin states: "Come on Austin, that's a no doubter. Remember that one you hit in Puerto Rico against the Expos, that thing went a mile!" Kearns: "Yeah, that was like a softball swing. I just clubbed it (pretending to take a softball cut) and it just never seemed to stop. And, I didn't even swing hard."
Manny jumps in: "Yeah, I remember that, it went over the fence, over the stands, over the Advertising Signs. I think it may well be still flying. THAT, MY FRIEND, WAS A MONSTER! Thanks. Its glad to know I saw it." Everyone Laughs.

Chad Cordero is not too happy with the new Batting Practice Cap. Since they are made of a polyester micro-fiber, the bill of the cap does not go flat. "Its sort of kills my image. I can't wait to wear the Red Curly "W". But, "The Chief" may not be aware of the fact that the new Game Caps are also a polyester. April 2 may come too soon for Chad's Image, if the cap can not be ironed flat.

Also, despite the fact that Cordero will make $4.15 million this coming season, he still may not buy a house. "I like living with my six buddies back home in our current setup." Someone asked him whether he would invite his buddies to live with him in a new house. "Yeah, maybe, I love my friends."

Finally, I got in the elevator at Space Coast Stadium with Todd Jacobson from The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star and Robert Fick. They are already in an animated conversation about this child size red Tie, (already tied and is just looped around the neckline) that Fick has in his hands. As Todd already blogged about, the tie was given to Fick by Stan Kasten, because Robert is terrible with ties and did not wear one on the road once. Learning that Kasten was on the scene, Fick traveled up to the executive suite of the stadium to return this fine piece of wardrobe to Mr. Kasten.

Todd and I were laughing. Robert Fick is a total character.

Through today's anecdotes, Our Washington Nationals became more like everyday people to me. The experience was very enlightening. February 22, 2007 was a GREAT DAY TO BE A WASHINGTON NATIONALS FAN!!!