VIERA, Fla. — For all of Denard Span’s professional life, by the time early February rolls around, he hops on I-75 and takes the straight shot down to Fort Myers. But this year, Span’s trek from his hometown of Tampa was east, not south. And that presented a few problems for him.
Even by Wednesday morning, Span couldn’t figure out how things had gone so wrong. But the roughly two-hour and 20-minute drive took him well over three hours. And by the time he got to his spring home, he felt like a little kid preparing for his first day of school.
“I didn’t sleep much,” the Nationals’ new center fielder said on his first day in camp. “I think I went to sleep about 12:30 but kept waking up every couple of hours. I already had my clothes set out last night. Had my shoes at the end of the bed, just ready to go.”
Span comes to the Nationals with a reputation as an affable, outgoing player who is easy to get along with. On his first day with his new team, he was all of that. Span arrived extremely early on Wednesday — and combined with the fact that most players who’d already reported were busy getting their physicals taken offsite — found himself largely alone in the team’s clubhouse.
He unpacked his big travel bag, the one with the Twins logo on the side, and made himself at home.
Eventually, his new teammates filtered in. And by the end of the day, Span admitted it was setting in that he was in a new place and a part of a new team. “I think it’s starting to hit me that I’m a Washington National!” Span tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
“It seems like spring training took a little bit longer to come (this year),” Span said. “I’m so excited about just, everything, a new chapter, coming to a new team.”
Span will assume the role of the Nationals’ leadoff hitter. Much as manager Davey Johnson admired the job that Jayson Werth did in the second half of the 2012 season, Span was brought here, in part, because of his skills atop a lineup.
“It’s good to have him,” Johnson said Wednesday. “He was chirping about how he liked playing against us a few years ago and he liked hitting one over the center field wall against (Tyler) Clippard. I said ‘How can you remember?’ He said ‘I didn’t hit that many.’ But he looks awful good. All the reports I’ve got on him, I like. (Hitting coach Rick Eckstein) has had several conversations with him, likes where he’s at mentally.”
The one area of his game that Span said he’d like most to improve on this season is his stolen base totals. In his first five major league seasons, Span has averaged 25 stolen bases per season, but he feels it can be more.
“Stolen bases is something that in my 11th professional year I’m still striving to get better at,” he said. “And I’ve worked a lot on it over the years, especially this offseason, so that’s first and foremost.”
How he’ll do that, he said, is by studying pitchers more. By knowing his opponents so well that his natural speed will be combined with better instincts so that those stolen bases can trend upward.
“Base stealing is an art,” he said. “It’s not all about speed. I get it all the time. As fast as I am, people are like, ‘Man you should have 50 stolen bases every year. You get on-base a lot.’ But base stealing is all about reading pitchers and reactions. All base stealers aren’t the fastest either. There’s a lot that goes into base stealing. I’m striving to be better.”