During a light moment at spring training, Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth and general manager Mike Rizzo stood behind the batting cage and discussed the Philadelphia Phillies.
Namely, how much Rizzo hated the reigning National League East champions.
“I hate the Phillies, too,” Werth joked with his new GM, the conversation perhaps more for show than anything else.
But there was a truthful undercurrent to it: Werth is a National now, going from first to worst (based on the 2010 standings) in the NL East with one swift signature. Although no one actually expects him to hate the Phillies, it was important he acknowledge he was no longer one of them. His focus has to be in Washington.
Nine games into the 2011 season, his 4-5 Nationals are preparing to welcome those same Phillies to Nationals Park on Tuesday night. For the first time this year, Werth can allow himself to ponder his old club more than the brief thoughts a cursory glance at a SportsCenter highlight might provoke.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them all,” Werth said of his former teammates. “You can’t take away what happened. We did some great things for that organization, for that city. What happened when I was there, I’ll always remember and look back on and think fondly of my time in Philly.
“I’ll always have that, but I’m to the point now where I’m trying to build something similar here. I’ve got a job to do. I take my job serious so, of course, I look forward to seeing my old teammates and friends, but once the game starts, the game takes priority. Business as usual.”
To gloss over the time he spent in Philadelphia, however, would be a mistake.
It was where Werth not only revived a career stalled by a mysterious injury and helped to bring a formerly downtrodden franchise to the top of the baseball world, but it was also where he became Jayson Werth - the player with the tools, the presence and the attitude that the Nationals so coveted.
“The only thing I remember is when he wanted to quit,” Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’ll always remember that day when he called and said, ‘I think I’m done. I can’t recover from this wrist injury. I don’t think I’ll ever rebound.’
“Then when he signed [in Philadelphia], watching his success, it really made me happy for the guy. I’ll always remember those moments. A guy who was saying he was on the brink of retiring from baseball, to signing a seven-year, $126 million deal. I’ll always remember that conversation and the conversation on the day he agreed to that deal.”
Even Phillies manager Charlie Manuel acknowledges that Werth’s absence has left a void in their clubhouse.
“I miss seeing him,” Manuel told reporters. “I miss talking to him.”
While there’s no doubt the friendly vibes will be flowing for Werth, with Phillies fans known for traveling well, the reception for the Nationals’ right fielder in his new home stadium could be an interesting moment.
But whether they boo or cheer, it’s almost a sure thing that they’ll be there and - most likely - outnumber those in attendance rooting for Washington. That’s part of what happens when a team has never posted a winning record in its six years since arriving in town. But just as Werth helped change the culture of losing in Philadelphia and the perception of that team, he takes offense to anyone who thinks things can’t happen the same way in Washington.
When asked last weekend by a television reporter how good he felt about the Nationals’ two-game “winning streak,” Werth took the opportunity to assert his opinion on the topic.
“Two? Is that a streak?” he asked.
“For the Nationals it is,” the reporter replied.
“I don’t like your tone,” Werth said. “Unfortunately I feel like that’s the expectations of this team. Things like that. I feel like that’s a very typical answer from, not the guys in here, but I feel like that’s the expectations of the fans and of the media and that is something I want to change.”
If Werth’s experiences in Philadelphia taught him anything, though, it’s that the only thing that cures that kind of complacency is winning.
Since 2007, the Nationals are 21-51 against Philadelphia, a 30-game swing that’s more than obvious when the season totals are stacked up. The Nationals didn’t string four wins together in 2010 until Sept. 21-24 - proving significant winning streaks in Washington have been hard to come by - but expecting that to continue is what offended Werth.
“I care, period,” Werth said. “But perception isn’t changed overnight. Hopefully this team will be the team that can change the perception in Washington, D.C., and around the league and around the country. And it’s going to take winning to change that.”
“His expectations are high,” Rizzo said. “He’s not going to settle for mediocrity, and neither are we. … We see these guys as, they’ve won the division the last couple of years, they’re on the top of the mountain and our job is to knock them off.”