About The Weather
Nothing stands all that tall in Viera, Fla., which is exactly the problem. The land stretches flat and far, a quilt of baseball diamonds and golf courses, with only a few churches and strip malls on the horizon. On days when the wind whips through town, nothing is around to stop it, and in those moments, Viera becomes quite the lousy place to make a strong impression during batting practice.
Thursday, just in time for the Washington Nationals first full-squad workout, the wind went crazy. Batting practice pitchers threw balls that danced like boomerangs. Players who ran sprints into the gusts looked like fish avoiding the tug of a line. The wind grew so noisy, you couldn't even hear the clack-clack of metal cleats on concrete.
For the Nationals, the raging weather -- "Unbelievable," first baseman Brad Eldred called it -- offered just one benefit. It gave every last guy on the roster an easy thing to talk about.
On the first real day of spring training, the Nationals, as any club would, postured themselves as a team. Manny Acta addressed the group, beginning at 8:30 a.m., and explained the team rules, the expectations, the fact that effort can win you a job. Later, the team took to the field and stretched in a grid. They even formed an all-hands-in circle before splitting into smaller units for drills.
But really, the first day of spring training is too vast for unity. No day in baseball's annual calendar presents a wider experiential range. Newcomers feel like newcomers. Veterans joke. Fringe players worry. A few lucky ones don't. Destin Hood, a high school student just a year ago, shared an outfield with Adam Dunn. Pete Orr took grounders on the same field as guys named Matt Whitney and Freddie Bynum. One field over, Cristian Guzman made easy throws over to Nick Johnson.
During batting practice, when Dmitri Young started pounding balls into the corner, he shouted to nobody in particular, "Keep throwing that ball away. I'm gonna keep getting that double over there." When 6-foot-6 first baseman Brad Eldred, who hasn't had a pro at bat since 2007, hit a few slow rollers minutes later, he left the cage and blew a vibration through his closed lips. All these guys, they had one thing in common. They could talk about the weather.
Eldred, 28, found out about the wind right away. He's new to the Nationals, and at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, he's already one of the most visible monuments in Viera. But during the five-minute walk from the clubhouse to the practice field, he was very much alone, moving in silence. He wore No. 67, and carried his gear in navy bag slung over his left shoulder. When a prop plane buzzed overhead, Eldred looked up.
"For me, being in a new place, I don't really know anybody yet," Eldred said.
It was kind of like the first day of school, and when all the infielders paired up for warm-up throwing, there happened to be an uneven number. So Eldred joined the lone group of three, and wound up heaving balls 100 feet into the wind. A few of them fell short, and Whitney, No. 75, picked them up on a bounce.
"My very first spring training -- the first time I came into this clubhouse -- we had some big major league guys," said Jason Bergmann, now beginning his fifth big league season. "Livan Hernandez, all-stars, big-time players... I got my ticket to come up here, and I was like, this is a locker room of major league baseball players. This is a huge deal for me.
"When you first get here, it is incredible. But after that, you are around the same guys. There is no level higher. You know you need to work hard to stay here, but your surroundings are always going to stay the same. This is my fourth or fifth spring training, and every year we come through this clubhouse, same spread, same set-up in the locker room, same lockers being filled by the same guys, and a lot of that is just repetitive. You fall into routine."
From at least one perspective, Washington's players all looked pretty similar. Bob Henley, the goateed coach holding an airhorn, stood in a watchtower positioned in the middle of the practice complex, and from there, about 15 feet up, he could see everything: Some players took live batting practice on Field No. 1, others took live batting practice on Field No. 2. Players practiced baserunning with coach Marquis Grissom on Field No. 3 and bunting with coach Tim Foli on Field No. 4. In two batting cages, players took easy swings. In two others, they faced curveballs. Every eight minutes, Henley honked his airhorn, and the whole red world of bodies rotated in a swirl.
"It's like a fine-tuned machine," Henley said.
He blasted the horn.
"Now, watch the mass rotation! Outstanding! A fine-tuned machine!"
"I'm a little sore today," pitcher Marco Estrada said minutes before the most important part of his practice began.
For the next 16 minutes, Estrada went through the true test of his day. He spent eight minutes pitching in the bullpen. Then, an airhorn sent him to the next field, where he threw eight minutes off a mound to hitters.
Like almost a dozen pitchers in camp, Estrada is fighting for a bullpen spot. He pitched in 11 games for the Nationals in 2008 and had a 7.82 ERA. A few throws into Thursday's bullpen session, Estrada was throwing balls that danced like shuttlecocks.
"Oh, that wind," he said.
Then it was off to the mound, where two of Washington's newcomers -- Dunn and Josh Willingham -- dug in. The hitters weren't allowed to swing. They just watched. At most, they simulated an innate threat.
As Estrada walked off the mound eight minutes later, Dunn pointed to the pitcher and said, simply, "Nice job." Then he channeled his best comedic deadpan and said, "Alright, good talk." He clapped and headed off to the next field.
On a day like this, almost everybody was watching somebody. Washington, on Thursday, had 19 coaches, one manager and 68 players spread across its facility. Veterans watched how the young guys handled themselves. Some players looked for their competition. The best way to forget about all the eyes was to take comfort in the familiarity of the drills. Players took infield, shortstop to first, third to second -- baseball's primary colors. They took swings with batting practice pitcher Jose Martinez behind an L-screen.
Late in the practice, when a group featuring Willie Harris and Orr came to take some swings, hitting coach Rick Eckstein instructed the players to bunt one, hit six.
"I'm about to hit nothing but bullets," Harris said. "Nothing but bullets."
Orr found it a little more difficult.
After his first few swings, he stepped out with a new appreciation for the wind. "It took me about four swings to realize that ball was going to dive a foot to the right," he said.
Later, Orr, a 29-year-old utility infielder, was back at his locker, eating the lunch he pieced together from an aluminum tray spread of chicken, corn, meatloaf, mac and cheese. He recalled his first big league spring training in 2005, back with the Braves, when he was the silent kid in a clubhouse with Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz. That year, he made the team as a longshot. Now, he's trying to repeat that accomplishment.
"For somebody like me in my situation, I've got to do something. I can't just come into spring and do only what they expect of me," he said. "If that happens, I'm not going to make the team. To me right now it's like getting ready to fight, getting ready to do battle. I'm trying to earn a job."
Orr, a non-roster invitee, had a locker positioned five feet away from the stall belonging to Hood. They had talked earlier in the day, just a little chatting about football. Orr wanted to make the kid feel comfortable, just as Chipper Jones had done with him several years before.
"He's actually bigger than me," Orr said with a laugh. "But wide-eyed.
"Just look at his locker, though. It's a mess. He's got his spikes up top on his regular shoes. There's proof of the 18-year-old right there. Then you've got Eldred's stuff, he's all neat. He's done this before."
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