- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — A batting cage is set up in the backyard of Jayson Werth’s Northern Virginia manse, a cage much like one in his own yard during his Springfield, Ill., youth. If Werth’s two sons, ages 10 and 7, feel so inclined, they can duck inside the netting and take some hacks - and maybe become the fourth generation in the family to play in the major leagues.

“It’ll be up to them just like it was up to me,” the Washington Nationals’ right fielder said after Tuesday’s workout at Space Coast Stadium. “My 10-year-old wants to play, loves the game. The 7-year-old, he’s coming around. If that’s what they want to do, great. If they want to do something else, I’m fine with that, too.”

It’s Season 2 for Werth in a Nats uniform and, really, who wants to talk any more about Season 1? There’s been enough obsessing about his struggles at the plate after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract, enough analysis - and psycholanalysis - of his .230 average, .389 slugging percentage and general uncommunicativeness. Time to turn the page, maybe even go back a few chapters, back to that batting cage in Springfield, Ill.

Springfield is the home of the Schofield clan. It’s where his grandfather and uncle, former big-leaguers Ducky and Dick Schofield, were born and raised; where Werth’s mother, Kim, settled with her second husband, Dennis Werth, the erstwhile New York Yankee (from nearby Lincoln, Ill.); and where Jayson began the process of becoming a National League All-Star.

“My stepdad built me a batting cage when I was 8 years old,” he said. “And I was told to hit. If I didn’t hit, I got in trouble. But they didn’t have to tell me to hit too often. I’ve loved the game for as long as I can remember. I was out there every day hitting.”

This is what it’s like to grow up among baseball folk - or at least, how it was for Jayson. When he was even younger, he lived with his grandparents for a time while his single mom went back to school. Ducky had one of those big ol’ satellite dishes, and everybody would gather in front of the TV set and watch game after game - the ones Dick Schofield played for the (then) California Angels, of course, but also the Chicago Cubs’ adventures on WGN.

Ducky is barely remembered today, but he was younger than Bryce Harper, a mere 18, when he broke into the bigs as a bonus baby with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953. Though he hit just .227 for his career - and mostly was a bench player - he made himself useful enough to last 19 seasons and play in two World Series. (Ever see that clip of Bill Mazeroski belting a homer to win the ‘60 Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates? Little-known fact: The No. 11 taking part in the celebration at the plate is none other than Ducky Schofield.)

“Every time I see that, it makes me smile,” Jayson said. “My grandfather, he was a pisser. When I talk to all the old guys [who played with him], they laugh because he was always mad, always intense.”

Sound like anybody we know?

Grandad never gave him much baseball advice, though. He left that to Dennis Werth, who coached Jayson’s travel teams and taught them to play the right way, the big-league way. Looking back, Jayson said, “it was brilliant” how Ducky left him to his own devices, “because a lot of times when people tell you stuff [as a kid], it just gets in the way of you being yourself. But he wouldn’t fill my head with anything. Just a constant, ‘Get in there and fight. Be tough.’ And grandma would add, ‘Kick the snot out of ‘em.’ That was the mentality.”

What Ducky was telling him, though not in so many words, was that baseball can beat you down. “It’s a daily grind,” was how Jayson put it. And in an environment like that, only the strongest survive, the guys who can fight off all the curve balls - literal and figurative - the game throws at you.

Last season was an ordeal for Werth, one that tested his confidence, his mettle and probably his sanity at certain points. But he got through it because, well, he’s a Schofield, because he had a grandfather who never ceased telling him: If you’re going to play this game, you have to be able to just Take It - and come back for more the next day and the day after that and the day after that.

This spring, in his second go-round with the Nationals, Werth is less of a media focal point, what with Stephen Strasburg back at full strength following Tommy John surgery and Gio Gonzalez joining him in the rotation after the big trade with Oakland. Not to get too Freudian, but maybe this suits Jayson’s personality better. He was never, after all, the face of the franchise in Philadelphia, just a very productive player on a championship team.

“I’m feeling good, feeling healthy,” he said. “It’s going to be a big year.” One way Davey Johnson hopes to facilitate that is by sparing Werth the rigors of center field, where he played 19 games last season - and where Johnson was thinking about moving him to make room for Harper in right.

But Davey has had a change of heart. He now sees Bryce, who’s been sent to Triple-A for further ripening, as the Nats’ center fielder of tomorrow. As a result, Jayson will remain in right, where he’s more comfortable - and where he figures to put up better numbers. “I want his bat more than I want his defense,” the manager said.

Meanwhile, in Northern Virginia, the batting cage in Werth’s backyard prepares for some heavy use this season by his two boys. “I’m such a late bloomer,” he says. “I played a lot of ball, but I wasn’t really that good until I got older and more developed. I was athletic, but skinny and gangly. My 10-year-old is the same way. We’ll see what he turns out to be.”

Clearly, the kid isn’t lacking in the genes department. It’s more a question, really, of how badly he wants to “kick the snot out of ‘em,” as his great-grandma might say.

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