Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Posted: 11:38 p.m.
By John R. Finger
WASHINGTON For a player who has been around as much as Matt Stairs, certain things have a tendency to stand out. A part of 12 different big league teams over 19 seasons, Stairs can see when a player has let the fame and money go to his ego when he finally gets that payday.
To be sure, though, Stairs has played with very few players that have received contracts as lucrative as the one his Phillies and now Nationals teammate Jayson Werth got last December. Seven years, 126 million and a guaranteed choice of uniform No. 28 could lead a guy to go wild, but in this case, says Stairs, nothing has changed.
Hes the same guy, Stairs said from the cozy home clubhouse in Nationals Park hours before his team was to host the Phillies on Tuesday night. He still loves to play and he wants to win.
Of course the Phillies fans that turned out to boo Werth dont necessarily believe that, considering he took the most money to play for a franchise that hasnt had a winning season since 2003 in a city that hasnt seen a .500 team since 1969.
No, this isnt like Werth left Philadelphia for Baseball Heaven.
Instead, Werth is the poster boy in Washington. Literally. On the parking garage just beyond the leftfield concourse there is a three-story high mural of the slugger following through on a swing as if he had laced one over the office buildings surrounding the park.
Perhaps its that huge picture and what it represents that Werth was most after.
It is a big picture. I was surprised to see a picture of myself that big, Werth said. I remember when I played in L.A. down the foul lines near the parking lots, at the time I think in 05 it was J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent. I always remember telling myself, One day, thats going to be me, so here I am.
Leader of the Nats
Yep, here he is, in Washington, D.C. where his rugged image is being used to help market the team. The team owners, the Lerner Family, brought in Werth as part of Phase II of the rebuilding process that began with signing big-time prospects Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper before ridding the team of players that werent great for team chemistry. So with the youngsters like Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa, the Nats brought aboard playoff-tested veterans like Ivan Rodriguez, Livan Hernandez, Rick Ankiel and, of course, Stairs and Werth.
If you look around, there really arent too many young guys in here, said Stairs, who turned 43 in February and has no plans to quit anytime soon. This is a veteran team with a lot of guys who have been around.
In that sense Werth, now playing for his fifth organization (Baltimore, Toronto, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington), says the Nats remind him a bit of the Phillies when he was plunked off the scrap heap by then-GM Pat Gillick.
You have to change the culture of an organization that hasnt won, Werth explained. When I came to Philly in 07, when you played the Mets (in Philadelphia) it was like 50-50 with Mets fans and Phillies fans. And over the course of four years there, theres no more Mets fans. Its going to take 25 guys going in the same direction.
Apparently, Werth has been integral in that regard, too. During spring training there was an incident where combustible outfielder Nyjer Morgan decided he didnt want to run wind sprints with the team following a Grapefruit League game. After Werth told Morgan to finish his work, a verbal altercation broke out and two days later, Morgan was traded to Milwaukee for minor leaguer Cutter Dykstra.
That certainly was part of changing the chemistry that several Nationals players spoke about before Tuesdays game. Again, in that regard, Werth says things really arent that different than they were in Philadelphia.
Not a whole lot, Werth said about the differences in the two clubhouses. Obviously, you got Chase (Utley) and Howie (Ryan Howard) and J. Roll (Jimmy Rollins) and Shane (Victorino) and Raul (Ibanez) and Chooch (Carlos Ruiz) and Polly (Placido Polanco). Those are some big names there, so you kind of blend in a little bit no matter who you are. Here, theyve had Zim (Ryan Zimmerman) for a long time and he has played that role. Having me here kind of takes the pressure off him a little bit. It helps him out. Its not that big of a deal. Playing in the market over there in Philly and playing in the postseason as many times as we did the biggest stage the pressure of the postseason definitely outweighs the pressure of the regular season by a hundred, so its not that challenging.
Travels with Charlie
That doesnt mean Werth didnt feel a little bit of pressure on Tuesday night. Going against his old team for the first time was a highly anticipated event and certainly will take a bit before games against the Phillies are no big deal. In the meantime, Werth spent a long time in the tunnel between the indoor batting cages chatting with a bunch of his old teammates many of whom he hadnt seen since the last game of the 2010 NLCS.
More than anyone else, Werth was happy to see his former manager Charlie Manuel. The pair had a pretty strong relationship over Werths four years in Philly. Interestingly, Manuel didnt exactly push Werth out the door and to Washington, but the manager let his former protg know that it was OK to go elsewhere.
Ive been through a lot with Charlie. I went from kind of not one of Charlies guys to one of Charlies guys, Werth explained. You know, a lot had to happen between that. Shane and Michael Bourn got hurt the same day in 07 when I was on the DL. I think it was right after the trade deadline. They (activated) me on Aug. 1 off the DL and I played that whole August and hit 4-something that whole August. We ended up winning the division. Then, (Manuel) didnt play me against a lefty against Colorado in the Divisional Series. I still tell him about that. I ended up in a platoon at the start of the next year with Geoff Jenkins and having to really convince him to play me against righties. And I was his guy for 09 and 10.
Weve been through a lot. One of the things that he told me throughout the season last year was he mentioned Jim Thome. When Thome was (a free agent), he wanted to stay there (in Cleveland) and Charlie said if you stay Ill never speak to you again. Thats one of his life lessons. I learned a lot about life other than baseball from Charlie Manuel. There was a lot of good times there.
Werth also remembered how Manuel used to heckle another one of his former pupils, Manny Ramirez, during games. If Manuel rode Werth when he dug in on Tuesday night, he got the Manny treatment back. In the Nats 7-4 victory, Werths leadoff double in the fourth helped the Nats break open the game with a three-run frame. An inning later, he lined a solo shot to the foul pole in left.
He wrapped up the game with a two-out walk and a stolen base in the seventh for a 2-for-3 effort with a pair of runs, a homer, RBI and stolen base.
When asked if Charlie had any good zingers for him when Werth dug into the box, the ex-Phillie smiled mischievously and feigned ignorance. Sometimes it can be really tough to hear a the voice of a man with a booming Appalachian twang pierce through the outdoor stadium filled with a little more than 13,000 people.
Nope, he says he didnt hear anything and hes sticking to it.
But when a few of the writers down from Philly headed out to be replaced with the gang from DC, Werth was energized again.
Yeah, the Nats, he said. Lets talk about the Nats.
E-mail John R. Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org
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