- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — It’s often used as a description for a miscarriage of justice, when some poor defendant is railroaded by a corrupt judicial system.

Webster’s Dictionary describes “kangaroo court” as “a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted; a court characterized by irresponsible, unauthorized, or irregular status or procedures; judgment or punishment given outside of legal procedure.”

Well, the Washington Nationals yesterday engaged in this practice, with principles of law and justice disregarded, with irregular procedures and judgments that certainly were outside of legal procedure.

And they had a blast doing it.

The Nationals resurrected a baseball tradition before yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Space Coast Stadium by holding a closed-door clubhouse “kangaroo court,” in which players are judged by a teammate or teammates usually best equipped to carry out the kangaroo court practices. And from the laughter down the hall from the clubhouse, the proceedings accomplished some of their main goals — having fun and bringing the team together.

For a roster with a number of young players, journeymen and veterans that likely faces some difficult times ahead, this was a good sign.

“It was fun,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “The whole idea is to keep a check on each other to make sure that we are doing the right things on and off the field. You don’t take it to heart; it’s all in fun.”

The fun lies in the fines and judgments levied for what are seen as transgressions in baseball protocol. They can be for anything from missing a cutoff man or failing to move a runner in a game to dressing inappropriately or some other social infraction. Players are constantly watching each other for these miscues and called out for them, with small fines handed out by the judge or judges. At the end of the year, the money is either used for a team party, donated to a charity or both.

Austin Kearns said they had a kangaroo court in Cincinnati.

“We always had it, back to the minor leagues,” Kearns said. “It is a fun time in the clubhouse, and you try to have as much fun as possible in the game. It helps get everybody together and have a few laughs.”

This was the first Washington Nationals kangaroo court. Schneider said they held them when the team was in Montreal, but “we didn’t have it for the first two years in Washington.”

Remarkably, the manager for those two years is probably the most famous kangaroo court judge in baseball history — Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

Part of the lore of Robinson’s impact on the Baltimore Orioles upon his arrival in 1966 was his creation of a kangaroo court there. There is a well-known photo of Robinson, wearing a mophead for a justice’s wig, meting out judgments on his teammates. That court was credited for helping to create a strong clubhouse chemistry on the Orioles teams that won four American League pennants and two World Series championships during Robinson’s tenure in Baltimore from 1966 to 1971.

Robinson once fined third baseman Brooks Robinson after his legendary fielding performance against the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970 World Series for “showboating.”

“He was the man,” Don Baylor told USA Today in an interview about his experience with Robinson as the kangaroo court judge. “You did what you were told. He challenged you, and he taught the young guys how to play the game. If you messed up, you answered to him. I learned more in my first spring with the Orioles than I did in my entire career.”

So it is a little bit surprising the tradition did not carry on after the team moved from Montreal to Washington. It is not the sort of thing a manager can put in place, though he can certainly encourage it.

Nationals manager Manny Acta said he didn’t encourage it, but he certainly welcomes it.

“That’s part of the fun of the game,” he said. “You have to keep things loose. The way we are trying to structure this team, a lot of these guys are the same age. Whether we pull it together or go south, it can make for a long year. Those are the type of things that keep things loose. Most of the teams I’ve been on have had it before. In New York [where Acta was a coach with the Mets], we had a good clubhouse, and they had it there.”

So far, it has been a good clubhouse, with all the different personalities coming together well this spring. But come August, if this team indeed is as bad as expected and on its way to a 100-loss season, players will need all the laughs they can get. That might be the biggest value of the kangaroo court — trying to keep the clubhouse together when there might be plenty of reasons for it to come apart. And then, at the end, one heck of a party.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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