CLEARWATER, Fla. — As wind whipped the smell of grilled hot dogs through empty Bright House Field on Wednesday morning, a tall man in a red Philadelphia Phillies pullover ambled toward the visitors dugout.
John Lannan grinned.
The onetime Washington Nationals left-hander thought the first reunion with his old team would be awkward.
Instead, Lannan hugged Chris Marrero. Fist-bumped Tyler Moore. Got a thumbs-up from Sandy Leon. Handshakes and good-natured ribbing followed Lannan’s long strides.
Davey Johnson told Lannan, in a verbiage unsuited for family consumption, he didn’t look good in the Phillies’ uniform. The manager, of course, was joking.
“He’s going to have to get used to that,” Lannan said.
But the series of events that changed his view of baseball lurked nearby. Two days before last year’s regular season started, the Nationals unexpectedly demoted Lannan to Triple-A Syracuse. The personable two-time Opening Day starter coming off his best professional season expected to be the team’s fifth starter. Days earlier, Johnson backed Lannan.
“John’s my guy,” he said.
That changed in a third-inning conversation during the Nationals’ final exhibition game that exiled their second-highest-paid pitcher and reduced him to an afterthought as they rolled up baseball’s best record.
“It was a tough situation for him,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It was the toughest decision.”
Johnson paused and searched for the correct word.
“The toughest part for me was talking to John,” he said. “He was a big part of the growth of this organization getting to where it’s at.”
Lannan professes no bitterness, but the situation’s sting is evident almost a year later.
“Baseball is not everything,” he said. “It’s an important part of life, but you can’t control it. You can only control what you do. I did everything I could out of spring training and they made a baseball decision. … Anytime you have an obstacle, that’s when your character is being judged.”
Lannan made six spot starts for the Nationals last year. Those included four in September after Stephen Strasburg was shut down for the season.
At Syracuse, Lannan honed his mechanics with pitching coach Greg Booker and, eventually, emerged believing he bettered himself as a person, too.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience going down there,” Lannan said. “The first couple weeks were rough. … Just because last year didn’t work out doesn’t mean my career is over. You’ve got to look past it.”
That started when the Nationals, as expected, non-tendered Lannan after the season. In December, he followed a gut feeling and signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal to compete for a job at the back end of the Phillies’ rotation. They get a pitcher backed by 134 starts over six seasons who once cracked that his best pitch is anything that’s a strike.
As the 28-year-old adjusts to his first spring training with a team other than the Nationals, he’s also learning about changing diapers after he and his wife, Maryanne, welcomed their first child a month ago.
Lannan holds no grudges against the Nationals and insists baseball decisions can’t be taken personally. Time has made those words easier. But there’s a wariness, too.
“Never assume anything coming to spring,” Lannan said. “Last year is definitely an example of that.
“No one knows what the future holds.”