- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — There were times last year when Brian Schneider, Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez wanted to speak up about problems in the Washington Nationals clubhouse but didn’t.

Their reasons varied. Zimmerman was a rookie, and rookies just don’t do that sort of thing. Kearns and Lopez were newcomers, acquired in midseason from Cincinnati, and didn’t yet feel comfortable enough. Schneider was something of a veteran with the franchise but still was outranked by several teammates with more service time, so he kept quiet.

“When you’ve got older guys, sometimes you go to speak and someone else shuts you down,” Schneider said. “Now I feel better. I’m starting to get more experienced and older, and it’s time for me to step up into that role.”

He’ll have help this year. Manager Manny Acta decided this winter to appoint a four-member “committee” of leaders in the Washington clubhouse — Schneider, Zimmerman, Kearns and Lopez — hoping this quartet can grow together and form the sort of internal police force this club so desperately needs.

“This is a perfect opportunity for these guys,” Acta said. “They’ve been in the big leagues just about the same time, four or five years. And right now we lack those guys that we had in the past. … It’s time for those guys to take care of that clubhouse and take care of this team.”

Acta said this yesterday morning, only a few minutes before those four joined 67 others in taking to the field for the Nationals’ first full-squad workout. With so many players in camp, there are plenty of opportunities for problems to arise.

That’s where Schneider, Zimmerman, Kearns and Lopez come in. If any of them sees or hears something he doesn’t like, it’s now his job to take care of things.

“I don’t see too many problems right now, but if there is, you have to be one of those people who steps in and stops it right away,” Schneider said. “I’m very comfortable doing it. I look forward to it.”

When Jose Vidro was traded to Seattle in December, Schneider became the senior player on the Washington roster, having made his debut with the Montreal Expos in 2000. But with less than six years of major league service time, the 30-year-old catcher isn’t exactly a time-tested veteran.

But on this young team, service time practically counts double, so Schneider seemed a natural choice for clubhouse leader. Acta certainly thought so, even as far back as October when he and Schneider traveled to Japan together as part of a touring American all-star team.

Acta didn’t even have the Nationals job yet, but he and Schneider started talking about the catcher’s increased role with the club in 2007. The future manager also had pegged Zimmerman, Kearns and Lopez as potential clubhouse leaders and made contact with all three during the offseason.

“It’s something I’ve never really had, someone telling me I’m going to be a leader,” said Kearns, who recently signed a three-year contract extension. “I’ve always just done it by example. But I like it. I don’t say a whole lot, but I think if something needs to be said, I can step in and do it.”

Said Lopez: “It’s a young team. Probably on another team, it would have been a different story. But it feels good.”

Both former Reds admitted they had a tough time adjusting to their new team following their trade last July, and both generally kept to themselves throughout the second half of the season. But Kearns knew inside he needed to start opening up. So upon arriving to camp this spring, the maturing outfielder set out to take on some added responsibility.

“I know last year we had team meetings where guys said some things, and I just didn’t feel comfortable at the time, having just gotten here,” he said. “Now I’ve got some more experience and I’m starting to feel comfortable here.”

Lopez, an All-Star with the Reds in 2005, isn’t quite as vocal on the field or in the clubhouse. But the 26-year-old believes he can set an example for his teammates without raising his voice.

“I just play hard. To me, that’s being a leader,” he said. “Doing things the right way, running balls out and going about your business the right way. People see that and they will follow.”

On the field yesterday, there was no way to distinguish between the four designated leaders and the rest of the 71 players in Nationals uniforms. They simply went about their business and set an example for their teammates.

Perhaps someday, they’ll be appointed with the kind of leadership designation occasionally found on other ballclubs. Not yet, though. These four don’t want to think of themselves in those terms.

“I won’t use the word captains,” Schneider said. “I won’t use that because no one’s higher than anyone [else]. It’s like a circle. Everyone’s equal and just policing each other to make sure everything’s done right. I think that’s the best way to do it.”

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