Today was the day of the first full-squad workout for the 2015 Washington Nationals. Instead of rain, which was forecast throughout the Space Coast, there was excitement in the air. From bunt plays, to infield work to outfield drills to batting practice, this was the first day all 60 players in Major League camp got to work together, with their collective eyes on a single goal.
Manager Matt Williams addressed the entire group, (players, coaches, training staff, medical staff, clubhouse staff and front office staff) Thursday morning prior to the workout. He delivered a powerful message about “staying with the process” and let them know that “everything we do here has a purpose.” From there, it was time to go to work.
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Yunel Escobar took the field Thursday morning and instead of going to shortstop, where he’s played the majority of his career, Escobar went right to second base. This spring, the 32-year-old native of La Habana, Cuba will be given a crash course in the fundamentals of playing the position.
Escobar manned second base during the team bunt defense drills before taking full infield work with the rest of the team’s infielders, and batting practice. Following organized workouts, Escobar worked with Williams, shortstop Ian Desmond, and Defensive Coordinator/Advance Coach Mark Weidemaier, who is fluent in Spanish, on basic fundamentals of playing the position.
“What I saw is a guy who certainly has skill and that can play anywhere on the diamond if he wanted to,” Williams said. “Beyond that, what I saw was a guy who came in and asked for some extra work after practice. That’s the most important thing to me. It tells me he will take pride in playing second base and takes pride in his game in general. He wants to work at it. We made an agreement that, barring being sore or going through the ‘Spring Training soreness’ that he would like to do that on an everyday basis. That is a really good sign…If he wants to take grounders at 5 a.m., we’ll be here.”
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Quote of the Day:
“Depends on the guy. Depends on the manager. I’ve played for some guys who could set the tone and some who couldn’t it just depends on the guy. I would say our guy can set the tone,” – Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth on Matt Williams’ first address to the team.
I am writing to you from my office at Space Coast Stadium on another picturesque day in Viera. Sorry, I know you’re all facing some pretty tough weather back in D.C. We just wrapped up Day 4 of our Pitchers and Catchers workouts and the full squad is just about complete. The position players will all report by this evening, get their physicals tomorrow, and on Thursday we’ll get them all out on the field together for the first time.
— Spring Training is one of my favorite times of year. It’s always so great to see everyone after the long winter. I truly enjoy hearing what our players did in the offseason, how their families have grown – some got married, or had children – or any of the interesting things they did in the time they were away. It’s a little like the first day of school. But way more fun.
I ran into Ryan Zimmerman in the hall outside the clubhouse just this morning. He looks great and is truly enjoying preparing to be our first baseman.
It’s also always fun to see who has worked hard all winter to grow their hair out – Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond are leading this category right now – or who has been experimenting with a new facial hair look. You’ve all seen Danny Espinosa, right? Yosemite Sam, as we call him — just one of the names they’ve come up with in the clubhouse.
— We’ve now seen the pitchers all go through two rounds of bullpen sessions. And all that’s done for me is solidify how excited I am to see these guys compete this season. To stand in the bullpen and watch Max Scherzer throwing next to Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez throwing next to Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen side-by-side with Matt Thornton – I could go on all day. It’s tantalizing to watch, and to think about what is to come.
It’s also been great to see guys like Dan Uggla and Heath Bell in camp. That these players, with such accomplished resumes, are here in our camp as Non-Roster Invites speaks to our depth. Both players have arrived in tremendous shape – Heath Bell told me he’s lost 40 pounds and participated in two triathlons this winter – and I look forward to seeing what they will do during the Grapefruit League season. You never know how much of an impact their veteran presence can have on a club. We’re happy to welcome them to our team.
— I know I’m not the only one enjoying these workouts. It’s been wonderful to see so many of our fans lining the fences and taking the front-row-seat offered to them at Spring Training. The turnout has been fantastic and there really aren’t many better pro sporting experiences. The access for fans during Spring Training
workouts is really unparalleled. There’s no better opportunity to see these guys up-close-and-personal, and no better opportunity to get that autograph you’ve been seeking. Our guys have been signing each day after the workout. Nothing like the smile on a young fan’s face after they’ve received a prized autograph. There’s still plenty of time to plan a quick trip down here!
— Another part of Spring Training I really enjoy is that it’s a great time for me to catch up on all the movies I’ve missed. I enjoyed watching Aaron Barrett and Jerry Blevins battle it out on Twitter over their Oscars predictions earlier this week, and I got a chance to see American Sniper myself last night. Bradley Cooper was tremendous. I highly recommend it.
I also want to give a shoutout to our great staff at our complex here at Space Coast Stadium. They do a tremendous job, and we’re very lucky to have such wonderful people working for us and working to make the experience for everyone here so positive.
— We are thrilled that we’ll be welcoming ESPN’s SportsCenter here on Sunday morning, and really looking forward to them broadcasting LIVE from our camp all day. I know how eager our fans back in D.C. are to see these guys and for us to get back up north, so hopefully this will help make a cold Sunday morning that much warmer! Be sure to tune in!
— I want to personally congratulate our manager, Matt Williams, on having his option picked up for the 2016 season. Matt has done a tremendous job thus far and we are honored to have him guiding our players. The pride he takes in playing the game the right way and in helping our players reach their full potential is outstanding. I am really looking forward to watching him as he continues to lead.
Well, that’s about all for now. Don’t forget that single-game tickets are already on sale. While I’m already looking forward to the Grapefruit League opener on March 5, Opening Day will be here before we know it!
Until next time,
Images and content for this spotlight were provided by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. The exhibition, “Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” provides an overview of the popularity of African American baseball teams played on segregated fields in Washington, D.C., from Reconstruction to the second half of the 20th century.
Baseball: Universal Pastime in D.C.
More than 150 years before the Nationals brought Major League Baseball back to D.C. in 2005, the city was home to a baseball mania comprised of every age, every race and even every government level. From schoolyards to the White House lawn, baseball flourished after the Civil War when thousands of men turned from the battlefield to the baseball field.
While baseball was played by all, the teams were segregated by race. While many white teams had fields, black clubs including the Washington Mutuals and Alert Base Ball Club were left to rely on the generosity of other clubs for the use of their fields and open spaces. As far back as the 1860s, black clubs came and went until the Homestead Grays formally called D.C. home in 1937.
DID YOU KNOW? From 1891 to 1965, Washington’s Griffith Stadium and St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park were the only segregated major league ballparks hosting both black and white ball games.
“Home Away From Home:” Homestead Grays
The Homestead Grays are considered one of the most successful baseball teams to call Washington home, even if they split time between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. While the first incarnation of the Washington Senators were busy giving Washington the distinction of being the “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League East,” the Grays won nine Negro National League titles and two consecutive Colored World Series. The roster featured Hall of Famers James “Cool Papa” Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson. Each of these men is also a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor, displayed at Nationals Park.
Although the team was only in D.C. from 1937 until 1948, the team adopted Washington as its “home away from home” and scheduled many of its games at Griffith Stadium. Many historians report that their games often pulled larger crowds than the Senators, especially when the rival — and equally successful — Kansas City Monarchs came to town.
When World War II began to rage in Europe and the Pacific, many ballplayers, Major League and Negro leagues alike, traded in their baseball uniforms for that of the Army, Navy and Marines. The Negro leagues flourished during the war, however, due to the Kansas City Monarchs’ Satchel Paige and the Homestead Grays’ Josh Gibson being considered “4-F,” or unfit for service. Paige’s flat feet and Gibson’s creaky knees may have kept them from serving in the war efforts, but did not tarnish their baseball skills. With more employment opportunities in war-related industries and disposable income, black fans flocked to watch the Negro league stars. The Negro league franchises began bringing in revenues of more than $2 million a year, making them one of the largest black-owned and operated businesses in the country.
Although Jackie Robinson’s success in the Major Leagues in 1947 changed the course of baseball, his success also spelled the end of the Negro leagues. Due to financial difficulties and the collapse of the Negro leagues, the Homestead Grays franchise disbanded after the 1950 season.
DID YOU KNOW? When the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington after the 2004 season, “Grays” was one of the three finalists for the team’s new name along with the “Senators” and ultimately the winner, the “Nationals.”
Grays’ Spotlight: Josh Gibson
Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states that he is considered the “greatest slugger in Negro Baseball Leagues,” but many feel that he is one of the best hitters to ever play the game. Also known as “The Black Babe Ruth,” the Grays catcher hit for average and power and finished his 17-year career with a .350 batting average. While the final total is unclear, Gibson hit more than 800 homers, taking home nine home run titles and four batting championships along the way. Although Negro league statistics were not well kept, research has said that Gibson had a home run rate of one every 15.9 times at bats. This rate compares to the top nine home run hitters in Major League Baseball history. These didn’t just clear the fence either. Tales of Gibson’s long balls — and where they landed — only add to the myths surrounding this legend.
While he occasionally played against MLB competition, Gibson unfortunately never got a chance to play in a Major League Baseball game. On New Year’s Day 1943, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, but refused operations fearing that he would suffer permanent brain damage. He did not reveal his condition to the Homestead Grays and continued to play for the team for four more seasons. Although he suffered from reoccurring headaches, those years were among the best of his career. He won the Negro league home run titles in 1942 and 1943, won the batting title in 1943 with an average of .517, and hit 10 home runs in Griffith’s Stadium in 1943 — more than the entire American League hit in Washington that year. His supreme batting also led the Grays to win the Negro World Series in 1943. In Gibson’s last season, in 1946, he batted .379 and led the league with 16 home runs.
In 1947, at the age of 35, Gibson died of a cerebral hemorrhage. This was just three months before Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s contributions to the game are colossal, but many feel that the honor of breaking the color barrier should have been Gibson’s. But his efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1972, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gibson, behind Satchel Paige, became the second player inducted for their tremendous Negro league careers.
DID YOU KNOW? Clark Griffith, longtime Senators owner, attempted to sign Gibson and Leonard to play for the Senators in the early 1940s. Baseball officials intervened and forced Griffith to break off contract negotiations. The Senators would not become integrated until seven years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, signing Carlos Paulz in 1954.
Breaking Barriers: Sam Lacy
Before there was television, fans who weren’t in attendance at the games were left to read all about it in the next morning’s newspapers. African American sportswriters not only played an integral role in the success of the Negro leagues, but Samuel Harold “Sam” Lucy wrote continuously about the injustice in segregated D.C. and the Homestead Grays. A Washingtonian and former Howard University student, Lacy covered sports for the Washington Tribune and the Chicago Defender before taking up a post at the Baltimore Afro-American. He constantly pushed for Senators’ owner Clark Griffith to integrate Grays players into Major League Baseball.
Encouraging others to not be satisfied with the segregated game, Lacy challenged racist standards while capturing the stars of the Negro leagues. Appropriately, it was Lacy who followed Jackie Robinson in the early days of integrated Major League Baseball, often sharing a room with the baseball legend.
Although Lacy wrote about African American success stories, he was a success story himself. In 1948, he became the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In 1997, he was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the BBWAA for outstanding baseball writing, which placed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s writers’ and broadcasters’ section.
DID YOU KNOW? Sam Lacy’s love of sports started at a young age. Early in his life he worked in Griffith Stadium selling peanuts and popcorn in the black seating section of the park.