- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Jim Bowden took plenty of calls this winter from other general managers inquiring about the availability of some of his players. While the Washington Nationals’ interim GM was perfectly willing to listen to whatever offer came his way, the conversations invariably worked their way toward two names: Brad Wilkerson and Brian Schneider.

Bowden’s response every time: Thanks, but no thanks.

There may be bigger names on the Nationals’ roster this spring — Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Livan Hernandez — but there are no two players more important to Washington’s long-term plans than Wilkerson and Schneider.

They are the foundation of the franchise, and it’s no surprise they are the two players club officials want to become the face of this new-look organization.

“These are the people you keep and build from and build with,” manager Frank Robinson said.

Two of the organization’s longest-tenured members — Schneider was the Expos’ fifth-round draft pick in 1995, Wilkerson the first-round pick in 1998 — they have been teammates and close friends for the last six years.

They first met in 1999, helping lead the Class AA Harrisburg Senators to the Eastern League title. Schneider was the scrappy catcher from Northampton, Pa., who spent four years in the lower reaches of the Expos’ farm system before making it to Harrisburg. Wilkerson was the highly touted outfielder from Owensboro, Ky., via the University of Florida, a player so advanced he completely bypassed the rookie and Class A levels of the system after being drafted.

Six years later, they’re still teammates, only now they have established themselves as emerging young stars. Schneider has led all catchers in caught-stealing percentage the last two seasons and set career highs in homers (12) and RBI (49) in 2004. Wilkerson is coming off a breakout season in which he hit 32 homers, scored 112 runs and reached base at an impressive .374 clip.

The big numbers in production led to big paydays for both players in their first years of arbitration. Schneider saw his salary jump from $350,000 to $2 million and Wilkerson from $375,000 to $3.05 million.

And with each still at the ripe age of 27, they appear to be hitting the peaks of their careers.

“They’ve just scratched the surface, but they’ve shown what they’re capable of doing over a career already,” Robinson said. “Those are the gems. They’re already pretty well polished. We’re just going to continue to polish them, and someday they’re going to be super players.”

Talent and stats aside, Wilkerson and Schneider set themselves apart with their no-nonsense approach to the game and their attention to detail. Wilkerson calls Schneider the best catcher in the game; Schneider calls Wilkerson the best defensive player on the team and the best player he has seen at breaking up double plays.

Above all, both players have an intense desire to win.

“We’re both real young, and we both have a lot to prove,” Schneider said. “We haven’t been on that playoff-type team our whole careers. We want to get to the playoffs real bad, and we’ll both do whatever it takes to win.”

Said Wilkerson: “When it comes down to being on the line, with a chance to win the game, we both want to be there for our team. We think it’s fun playing the game of baseball, and I think that’s where we’re very similar.”

There are some differences between the two. Wilkerson is the power hitter (though Schneider actually outhomered him 17-8 that first season in Harrisburg). Schneider is the better contact hitter, having struck out 89 fewer times than Wilkerson last year.

Then there’s golf, the duo’s biggest passion off the baseball field. Longtime playing partners, they regularly join pitchers Hernandez and T.J. Tucker on the course on off-days during the season.

Who’s the better golfer?

“I’d say I am,” Wilkerson said. “But you’d have to ask him that question.”

“Oh, he’s tops on the team,” Schneider acknowledges. “Every now and then I get him, but he usually gets me every time.”

The two spend plenty of time together away from baseball. They both own homes in the same part of West Palm Beach, Fla., and they both looked for places around Washington this winter during a trip to sign autographs and tour RFK Stadium.

The two know each other so well now, sometimes it feels like they can communicate telepathically.

“He doesn’t always need to say certain things that I know he’s trying to get across,” Schneider said. “When you spend as much time together as we do, you just know those kind of things.”

Of course, there have been some bad times along the way. Wilkerson and Schneider’s first three full seasons in the majors were spent playing for a nomad franchise owned by Major League Baseball, with sparse crowds at home and few opportunities to showcase their abilities in front of American television audiences.

Like the rest of their teammates, the two endured through the rough times and are ready to reap the benefits of the club’s relocation to the District. With 35,000-plus expected every night at RFK and thousands more watching on television, Wilkerson and Schneider appear poised to become household names in Washington.

And there’s good news for local fans: Neither is eligible to become a free agent until 2008, so both will be wearing Nationals uniforms for at least three more seasons.

If Wilkerson and Schneider have their way, they still will be wearing those uniforms when the club moves into its new ballpark. As much as they have been through over the last six years, they can’t imagine not being a part of the franchise’s crowning moment.

“We’ve been on the same team every year,” Wilkerson said. “That’s not the way the business of this game usually works. You usually switch guys in and out. So to have guys who have been through the organization together and still be playing together, it says something about us.”

Added Schneider: “I know we’re both real happy with what’s going on and the direction we’re going. Who doesn’t want to be here when that new stadium opens? We’re lucky that we get to be a part of this team right now. No doubt about it: This team’s going to be top-notch, and I’d love to be a part of it.”

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