WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — So when does Elijah Dukes arrive at spring training?
For a moment, it felt like the bad, old motorcycle-gang days of former Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, when news broke Monday that left-handed hurler Seth Romero, the team’s No. 1 draft choice last year, was sent home from spring training for violating club rules.
But there is one big difference from those Bowden “Boys Town” Nats — Romero was sent home by the team.
Back then, Romero likely would have been given a “Hey, Dawg,” speech by Bowden, along with a pass for his behavior.
That doesn’t happen under GM Mike Rizzo.
Rizzo would not reveal what Romero did that resulted in the disciplinary measure. “It’s a family matter,” he said. “We don’t talk about family business. He’s part of the family. Actions have consequences, and no one is bigger than the organization.”
Romero did not violate any Major League Baseball conduct policies, sources said. He didn’t fail a drug test or something of legal consequence. According to the Associated Press, he missed curfew.
But as far as Rizzo is concerned, he simply didn’t conduct himself in camp the way the organization expects.
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in camp, and it won’t be the last,” Rizzo said. “This is part of the player development process. We support everybody on the club, but nobody is bigger than the organization.”
He is a client of — guess who — Scott Boras, and was signed by Washington shortly after the draft for a $2.8 million bonus.
The banishment should come as no surprise. Romero was a problem child at the University of Houston, suspended twice before they kicked him off the team for good. The Houston Chronicle reported he was suspended for a failed drug test, breaking curfew and lack of conditioning.
Romero was considered damaged goods in the draft, a top-10 talent falling all the way to No. 25, when the Nationals took a chance on a pitcher who had struck out 85 batters in 48 2/3 innings in 10 games — seven starts — for Houston.
Nationals scouting director Kris Kline stood up for Romero after the club drafted the controversial young player. “I don’t see an issue with this kid,” he told reporters. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes in life. I have. It’s not like this kid committed a crime or anything like that … I think this kid’s learned his lesson, and he’s going to go out there and be a productive big leaguer.”
He apparently hasn’t quite learned that lesson yet.
But there was a lesson to be learned here, by the minor leaguers in camp here and throughout the organization. If this team is willing to send its No. 1 pick home, then the rest of the minor leaguers had better fall in line.
No one is pleased about the possibility that Romero, a hard-throwing lefthander who struck out 35 batters in 22 innings of short-season Class A and rookie league ball last year after being drafted, may not overcome the character issues that plagued him in college. This is a big moment for the 21-year-old — perhaps a career-defining moment.
He may have a long way to go. He has been difficult to communicate with since he reported to camp, sources said. He hasn’t exactly made many friends.
It was an interesting draft choice, considering these Nationals are more Boy Scout troop than the bad boys they were in the Bowden era. In fact, there have been some within the organization who believe that the clubhouse could use more “attitude” and players with more of an edge.
I know this drives Nationals fans crazy, but while Jonathan Papelbon was public enemy No. 1, he was widely respected and liked by teammates for, among other things, the toughness he brought to a team that at times has sorely needed it.
But when attitude gets in the way of production — well, that’s Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Felipe Lopez, Robert Fick — chose any of the inmates that used to run the asylum.
No more. The adults are in charge now, and they gave Romero a timeout. It’s up to him to learn from it.
⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.