- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — One of the best things the New York Yankees do in spring training is invite former players to camp, living symbols of the team’s legacy and purveyors of valuable baseball wisdom.

The Washington Nationals don’t have any such legacy.

They no longer are the Montreal Expos, so they can’t bring Gary Carter or Tim Raines to Viera. And while everyone wants to embrace Washington’s baseball past, the Senators haven’t been around for 34 years, before nearly all the players on the Nationals roster were born. So it would be difficult to bring back old Senators, although former Washington player Tom McCraw fits that role as the hitting coach.

General manager Jim Bowden instead has looked to his own past — in Cincinnati — bringing in four former members of the Reds organization to give the young Nationals players a sense of legacy and baseball knowledge, even if by osmosis.

Jose Cardenal, Bob Boone, Barry Larkin and Jose Rijo bring 80 years of major league playing experience to their roles as spring training instructors at the Carl Barger Baseball Complex — though Rijo and Larkin, who are special assistants to Bowden with Boone, have been in and out of camp working on other scouting projects. The four are helping Frank Robinson’s staff instruct the Nationals on the art of winning.

Not that Robinson, one of the game’s all-time great players with 15 years of managing experience, isn’t a university of baseball knowledge unto himself. But Bowden believes that the more teachers involved, the better the chance of the lesson being learned.

“I don’t think you can bring too much wisdom or knowledge to an organization,” he said. “They all bring a lot of baseball knowledge to the table that helps the players.”

Robinson said this is by far the most help he has had in spring training, and he welcomes it.

“It’s a lot more instructors than I ever had in camp,” he said. “There is a lot of baseball knowledge here. Players are a little reluctant today to reach out. I don’t know why, but I told the players that at all positions — catchers, pitchers, infielders, outfielders — those guys have been through it and have been successful. Pick their brains. Talk to them. Get as much as you can from them while they are here. I try to involve those guys with the players and take advantage of it. I think if they can pass on their expertise and knowledge, it can only help.”

Boone, a seven-time Gold Glove catcher, knows the challenge of getting a team ready in spring training. He managed six years in Kansas City and Cincinnati.

“There are 60 guys here, and the manager and coaches can’t be with them all,” he said. “So you would have some of them on their own with a lot of little things. This is a detail game, and when you have a lot of sets of eyes, they can help you with all those little details, to get the individuals ready to build a team.”

The presence of qualified special instructors like these four could cause conflicting messages or fears about job security. Bowden insists that is not the case in Viera. After all, Boone, Larkin, Rijo and Cardenal either worked or played for Bowden when he was the general manager for the Reds.

“They are not here to take anyone’s job,” Bowden said. “They are all here to make us a better organization, a winning organization.”

Robinson said his only concern was to make sure fundamentals are taught his way with consistency.

“I don’t tell them this is the way it should be said or anything like that,” he said. “The only time I do that is when we do our fundamentals because we do them a certain way here, and I don’t want other instructors coming in here and doing them the way they want done. But sometimes it is better to have different views in camp to get through to the players. It is the same message but said in a little different way.”

Cardenal, who played in the major leagues from 1963 to 1980 and has coached for several teams, including the Yankees, said the players have been willing to listen.

“So far it has been good,” he said. “They have been asking questions, and that is why we are here. The Yankees bring guys in every year, and they teach them how to win ball games. We can talk about doing the things to win ball games, the things you need besides your talent. They are hungry and want to be successful.”

As a result of the added braintrust, the former Expos are enjoying plenty of extra attention on so many different levels, from the fans in Washington to the playing field.

“It’s good to have these guys here,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “They have been around the game for a long time and know what they are talking about. It gives you more one-on-one work, something we haven’t had in the past.”

And something to build on for the future.

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