- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Manny Acta spoke earlier this season about “changing the culture” around the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, a veiled reference to what he believed was an aspect of the organization’s rebuilding effort just as important as drafting top prospects and making smart trades.

The Nationals’ clubhouse the last two seasons boasted too many players who, while possessing talent, didn’t stack up in the character department. Plenty of people in the organization said that has been a significant factor in Washington’s losing record and poor reputation around the sport.

Slowly but surely, though, the Nationals are attempting to fix that problem. And two major transactions this week underscored that.

On Tuesday, the Nationals traded Class AAA Syracuse outfielder Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Nyjer Morgan and left-hander Sean Burnett. The deal made sense because Washington needed a good defensive center fielder and a reliable reliever, but both Acta and acting general manager Mike Rizzo went out of their way to laud Morgan and Burnett as “good character” guys who would have a positive influence in the clubhouse.

“We did a lot of background work on Nyjer and on Sean,” Rizzo said. “We heard nothing but good things about them, how they conduct themselves like professionals, their character and the way they are in the clubhouse.”

Speaking specifically of Morgan, a speedster who plays the game with hustle and an effervescent smile, Acta said: “It’s something that we lack here, speed and athleticism. And from what I understand, his character and personality is going to be good to have on our club. It’s nice to have people like that.”

Contrast that with Milledge, who had been sent to Syracuse only a week into the season in large part because of immaturity and attitude issues, having worn out his welcome after reporting to work late more than once.

Then on Wednesday, the Nationals optioned outfielder Elijah Dukes to Syracuse, a move that was officially labeled “strictly a baseball move” by Acta but had other undertones. Dukes, whose history of legal and off-the-field troubles are well-known, also had annoyed plenty of people in the clubhouse with his laziness and attitude issues.

In fact, the 25-year-old outfielder reported late to Land Shark Stadium in Miami on Wednesday morning, according to club sources, forcing Acta and Rizzo to delay their meeting with him. Once he finally arrived at Acta’s office, Dukes was informed not only that he was being sent to Class AAA but that he was being fined for tardiness as well.

In the wake of that development, there are some within the organization who question whether Dukes will play for the Nationals again at the major league level, just as they questioned the same fate for Milledge when he was sent down in April.

With the Nationals languishing in last place again and the July 31 trade deadline fast approaching, Rizzo will spend considerable time the next few weeks trying to orchestrate trades that improve the roster for the long haul while also addressing the character issue.

Asked about the importance of character when evaluating players who could be acquired, Rizzo said: “It’s a vital ingredient to a championship club in my view. All the players that I look at, it’s a big part of the package that a player brings to the ballclub.”

That wasn’t necessarily a philosophy shared by former GM Jim Bowden, who had a reputation for giving players with troubled pasts a second chance. In a handful of cases, those risks paid off, but more often than not the player didn’t live up to his end of the bargain and wasn’t well received in the Washington clubhouse.

The importance of character and clubhouse chemistry is a constant debate around the game. There are team executives and managers who believe winning breeds good chemistry and losing breeds bad chemistry. A roster full of the nicest guys in the world also doesn’t guarantee on-field success.

The Nationals, though, believe it can’t hurt. Which may explain why some players no longer wear the Washington uniform while others are on their way to town.

“It’s a huge part of the puzzle,” Rizzo said. “It’s a huge part of the makeup of a championship-caliber club. I’ve been on several championship clubs in the big leagues, and you don’t win unless you have guys in the clubhouse that have character, that stick together and that play as a unit.”

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