By Erika C. @
“There are only two seasons – winter and baseball.” – Bill Veeck
The baseball off-season, also known as the Dark Times, is a horrible, long, black abyss of awful. Admittedly, I really like baseball. When the season ends and the Dark Times begin, I wander around aimlessly, experience heart palpitations, and I feel like my skin is going to crawl off. (That’s normal, right?) My entire focus is the number of minutes until next season, and figuring out ways to fill my time until first pitch.
Enter Winterfest. (Cue twinkling lights and angels singing.) Two days filled with coaches, players, and family centered activity. Two days of baseball.
I attended this year’s event on Saturday, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. My day started off with an autograph session 15 minutes after I was allowed into the venue. We won’t talk much about this because I’m mildly upset. Let’s just say that my station had a coach and a guy who spent most of the year in the minors. The other station? The guy who finished 2nd in MVP voting and a starting pitcher. Yeah.
Next we ran over to the main stage and caught the second half of the State of the Nats, which I have enjoyed the last two years. Charlie and Dave asked Rizzo, Valerie, and Dusty prepared questions about the upcoming season. (For those of yall that don’t know, Valerie is literally in charge of your entire game day experience and everything that generates money for the team. Big position.) We learned that Dusty has no idea how he’s ordering the guys in the lineup yet, Rizzo continues to have lines in the water and irons in the fire, and Valerie let us in on one promo item for next season. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are for sure getting a Trea Turner bobblehead. (Insert praise hands emoji.) She’s also working on improving the wifi at Nats Park. (Insert more praise hands emoji.) We also learned there’s a new uniform in town, and all the guys were sporting it. A take on the blue patriotic jersey we’ve known and loved for years, there’s now a white version. This, of course, comes with a matching red hat with the patriotic curly W, and they are available for purchase.
We then tried our hand at the MASN claw machine, and failed miserably numerous times. No suite tickets for me. We eventually gave up and started bouncing between various photo stations to see who was around posing for pictures, and shamelessly trying to snag an autograph when we saw the guys walking around with their handlers. My friend managed to get Dusty. I got Rizzo and new guy on the block Adam Eaton. I also had an amazing, albeit brief, exchange with Rizzo.
Me: Great trade, Rizzo. Don’t listen to people. That was a great trade.
Rizzo: You think I listen to people?
We learned that Eaton is not the tallest of fellas, Derek Norris does indeed rival Jayson in beard epic-ness, and Stras decided to jump on the facial hair bandwagon. Strasbeard, anyone?
After grabbing a quick bite, catching part of name that tune based on the electric bat and organ (it’s really hard, yall), buying raffle tickets to win autographed jerseys, and a realization that after extensively laboring to pick out the perfect gift to bring as a donation, I left it in my car (whomp whomp), we settled in to watch the coach Q & A. This was by far my most favorite part of the day.
Bob and FP lead an audience Q & A with Chris Speier, Mike Maddux, Dusty, Jacque Jones, and Dan Firova. Special guest Max joined them on stage for a bit as his lost mother and sister attempted to find him. Max was a pretty awesome kid. FP Santangelo ran around the audience taking questions, and the coaches gave interesting and entertaining answers. Highlights from this segment:
- Max from Missouri had the first question. He said some clubs were batting their pitchers 8th and wanted to know what Dusty thought of that. Max from Missouri was posing for photos with fans right next to the main stage and was easily accessible for this moment of awesome.
- Dusty has done his butt and stomach tapping, and he thinks the guys are staying in pretty good shape, but he doesn’t want them to know that. His goal is to be the best team that’s also in the best shape.
- Chris Speier hates replay because it reduces the chances of Dusty getting into an argument with the umps and getting tossed, thus allowing him to take over for the rest of the game.
- Dusty thinks fans in the house need to be positive in important moments. He says he sees people cheering, looking up towards the heavens, and otherwise wishing good things in big spots. He thinks this positive energy makes a difference. He also sees people cringing because they’re scared about what is about to happen. He feels this cringing affects the baseball universe in a bad way. Don’t be the fan that affects the baseball universe in a bad way.
- The coaches and the team were real unhappy to exit postseason in the NLDS. They were upset because they want more, and they were upset because they knew they disappointed the fans. Yall – I know a lot of people give lip service like this, but it sounded extremely genuine from Dusty. Our boys want to win, for them, for us, and for DC.
- Maddox has ideas to change the off day routine to help keep Stras healthy throughout the season.
- FP said fans in postseason were pretty much the most awesome thing ever. Ya know, because we were. A+ for us.
Also sprinkled throughout the day were pieces of player radio interviews with 106.7 The Fan hosts Danny Rouhier (pictured center below) and Grant Paulsen (pictured on the right below), which were also extremely enjoyable. Joe Ross talked about getting recognized around town (yall – apparently he doesn’t always wear his jersey when he’s out and about. Who knew?), and how he’s still in awe anytime he sees someone in his jersey. Pro tip – if he sees it, he feels compelled to sign it for you. You’re welcome.
We rounded off the day with some shopping at the pop up team store and at the authentics stand, which is always a favorite of mine. If yall don’t take advantage of that at the park, you’re missing out.
The biggest downer of the day was the players who were notably MIA. Bryce, Anthony, Jayson which the TalkNats Twitter feed had warned us ahead of time that they were not going to be attending (why, Jayson, why?? WHY DID YOU FORESAKE US??? [insert sobbing emoji]), Gio, Espi (well, I guess we know now why he wasn’t around), and Clint (?) were all guys I didn’t see. Despite their absence, it was a tremendous amount of fun seeing all the guys who were there.
Missing from my recap is a lot of the family and kid friendly activities, which is what takes up the most real estate inside the convention center. There are games (stealing home where you’re timed running 90 ft, pitching games, cornhole, etc.), we saw Heisey reading a book to a group of captivated kids, there’s a giant slide, there’s a mini baseball field from the Nats Youth Academy, and, of course, there’s Santa. Players pop up in the various areas throughout the day, and will pose for pictures, help run the games, and at the mini field will give some baseball instruction.
All in all, Winterfest was a lot of fun. In addition to the player and coach interactions, I got a bunch of Nats stuff. Woo! Take that, horrible black abyss of the Dark Times. Most importantly, I got to enjoy time with a bunch of people in my Nats Family that I haven’t had a chance to see for a while. Not much can be better than that.
By Laura P. aka ArVaFan
My overall observation is that there were prominent absences showed (Gio, Harper, Werth, Rendon, Espi, even Clint, Kelley, Treinen), and TalkNats had discussed days before some of these absences, but no Gio, Clint, Kelley and Treinen also? I heard one rumor that “they wanted to showcase the new players” and another that Valerie Camillo was upset that there were so many no-shows. Pick your explanation, or just go with various date conflicts and coincidences. Werth seemed to have had such a good time last year, so it seemed odd that he was not there, but maybe the training schedule took precedence. But I’m sure what Max said about him will get back to him somehow.
As expected, lots of kid-oriented stuff, as last year. I missed the human-sized hamster balls they had last year, but they did at least have the huge slide. I don’t think they had quite as much variety in the store as last year, but the grab bags (we bought two) were worth the price (although I suspect they all had MAT stuff in them as that wasn’t selling.) I didn’t go crazy with the Authentics, but did pick up Bronson Arroyo’s ST locker tag as a souvenir, as I think we saw the last game he pitched. Ever. I stood in line with someone who got an Arroyo signed ball in their grab bag. Food was pretty good, beer was Meh or worse (but that may be a problem with the Convention Center contract).
Walk-in music provided by the Nats organist and the Bat-o-lin. They also played for the Name that Jingle contest.
They had an invitation only Social Fan party. I know that I’m too old for the demographic that they’re looking for, so I tried tweeting just my hat (saying that I should attend because I had the coolest hat at Winterfest). Didn’t work.
By the way, the hat is even cooler now, since the brim is completely full of signatures. I’ll retire it when I get my new WPB cap this spring.
Now to the specifics:
Opening State of the Nats (Sat):
No audience questions.
Valerie swore that there would be better WiFi in the Park. She noted that during the playoffs, she hoped that Mark Lerner didn’t try to get ahold of her because the call probably wouldn’t have gotten through to her. They are having some technology issues that she said she didn’t want to bore us with (I suspect those are the same that have been reported elsewhere). So, do I think we’ll get better WiFi? Yes, because if it’s an issue that would affect Mark Lerner, it probably gets fixed. YMMV.
Mike lauded Dusty’s in-game management and giving rest days to the players to keep everyone fresh. And he said how good Eaton was going to be for us, and that he would become a fan favorite based on his gritty style of play: 100% all the time.
Mrs. Baker may be giving Dusty more flashlight batteries for Christmas. Dusty talked about lineup construction, saying that (1) he wants to listen to the players about where they want to bat in the lineup, (2) he needs to see them in ST before making any final decisions, (3) as soon as he gets a new player he starts making up lineups—primary, then the “what if someone’s out, what if someone gets hurt” lineups. So how is that about the batteries? Well, he keeps a notepad and pencil by the bed, and if one strikes him in the middle of the night, he writes it down. Mrs. B got tired of him turning on the light to do that, so she gave him a flashlight and said “or take it to the bathroom.” Soooo, with the new players he has (and minus Danny), I think that flashlight is going to be getting a lot of work over the next 63 days or so.
Dusty also mentioned that he didn’t like to hit cleanup: he found that he’d try too hard to drive in runs and end up overswinging. So he understands that some hitters feel more comfortable, or less comfortable, in different spots.
Other Saturday observations:
Trea is still looking about 16 years old, but trying to grow a beard. I didn’t realize he was trying until I was 2 feet from him getting his autograph. He does have fuzz, but it’s light and wouldn’t even make a 5 o’clock shadow for Espi (thank you to the tweet that responded “that was 5 a.m, right?) Trea wanted to stop and give autographs to everyone who wanted one, even when the “handlers” were trying to get him to go someplace else. At one point I overheard one of the motherly types saying (out of Trea’s earshot) “we need to put Trea in a time-out.”
Since Eaton and Norris were (of course) wearing their jerseys, I did see a lot of people saying “welcome” to them. Plenty of the players would stop on the way back to the back rooms and give autographs. The exception would be Stras: apparently he has a “no signing stuff” contract, so he wouldn’t sign anything except the photo that he gave each person at his autograph session. Since I don’t need a signed photo of Stras, I gave it to a kid and absolutely made his day (and his mom’s, too). Apparently a signed photo of Stras trumps Severino and Kieboom’s signatures on balls. Kid said that he would take his Bryce Harper photo out of the frame to put in Stras. Mom allowed as how they might just get another frame.
Other players may have participated, too, but I did see both Heisey and Scherzer working in the kids clinic. Scherzer hit the ball out of the park, completely over the back of the field. No one screamed, so probably just someone kept it as a souvenir. Joe Ross was doing the timing for the baserunning contest.
Nats Roundtable (Sunday a.m.):
Mark Scialabba (Director of Player Development); Bob Miller, Assistant General Manager & Vice President (35 years in baseball); Adam Cromie, Assistant General Manager & Vice President; Rizzo & Dusty.
Rizzo was all smiles: I guess having the Espinosa trade done and announced was a good feeling (or he just had eggnog pancakes for breakfast—who knows with Rizzo). But he was definitely happy. As has been reported elsewhere, he lauded Espi as someone who left it all on the field, every day.
This time they did take questions from the audience.
Asked what Assistant GM & VP’s do: mostly whatever Rizzo says to do. Seriously, they have a lot of budgeting work (not their favorite), as well as player decision analysis and input. Bob Miller is the guy who knows all the rules—he reminded everyone that sometimes when the fans are clamoring for something to be done, it can’t be because the baseball rules don’t permit it. Mark S says that he has about 225 players under his jurisdiction, including Domincan through AAA.
Rizzo was asked about the other side of the Espi trade. Said that Austin Adams is just beginning to figure it out, and could definitely help the team down the road. Reading between the lines, that sounded like McGowin is what we usually call “organizational depth.”
On Eaton, he said that the consensus on that trade happened during the Winter Meetings, when the scouts and the analytical people were together in the same room—and miracle of miracles, they both agreed that this was the right move for the Nats. Apparently they don’t always agree . . . or, as one of the panelists said, “each brings their own perspective to the discussion.”
On closer, they’re not set on one person yet. Of course Mike and Dusty say that there are people on the roster who have the right pitching stuff, but that the ability to get the last three outs is as much mental as physical. So stay tuned on that one. (Hey, at least Mike didn’t say “we’re always looking to improve the team.” Can’t believe he missed that. Or maybe I forgot to write it down because it went in one ear and out the other).
On the clubhouse, Mike said that was the best clubhouse he’d ever seen last year, and he’s seen a lot of good ones.
Dusty said the best part of his job is when the National Anthem is over, and he knows there will be a baseball game for three hours (Charlie Slowes inserted “or 4-1/2, come September”).
Bob Miller talked about going down to WPB frequently to inspect the progress on the fields. He won’t let the players on the fields until they are really ready and safe for play. He’s not too focused on the rest of the facilities, but he did imply that maybe the paint might be a bit damp, and said outright that certain things may not be finished until after the Nats leave in April.
There was a question about retaining J-Dub after this year on or off the field. Mike and Dusty both raved about how well he takes care of himself, but noted that there have been no discussions with him about “post-2017”. Dusty pointed out there are several leaders on a team: clubhouse, bullpen, rotation, lineup. He said that so many players come to MLB having been leaders as they made their way to the majors, putting their leadership skills in abeyance as they move up (and that included J-Dub in Philly). So when turnover occurs, leaders re-emerge.
Dusty was all-in on Zim. Great shape, not old (emphasized that), expects “Comeback Player of the Year.” Because he finished strong: said it’s often how you finish that determines the next year (my immediate thought went to Ian. Oopsy).
Dusty said that he talked to Trea, asked him if he missed playing SS. Trea said, yes, he really missed that.
Mark S. was asked about up-and-coming players to watch. He mentioned Cole, Voth, Fedde, Robles (specifically mentioned his determination) and Soto. Mike mentioned Raudy Read when talking catcher depth.
Detour now to one of the games. News flash: Rizzo does not know everything. In New School/Old School, he ended up recruiting Sarah (about 9 years old) from the audience (Sarah had helped one of the teams win yesterday as well). He had to do that because Trea (who was on the other team, and had lost to her team the day before) was getting her to help from the audience. So Rizzo/Spier pulled rank and just brought her up on stage and sat her in one of their chairs. Sarah gave him the right answer (Greenland is the biggest island), but he overruled her and wrote Australia. At the end of the game, Rizzo took the mike and told the audience what happened with Sarah, which got a big laugh. Also, there was a lot of teasing going on between Rizzo and Trea/Ross during the game. Not at a Werth or Scherzer level, but still good to see.
Going now to the Kid’s Press Conference (based on past experience, this is where the real fun is. This one exceeded expectations). Roark and Scherzer.
Question: Toughest hitter they’ve faced?
Both answered Freddy Freeman. No matter what the scouting report, they never seem to be able to get much by him. Max asked everyone to boo him really loud next time he comes to Nats Park.
Question: Worst game, worst moment:
Max: 2011 playoffs when he gave up all those runs. But he learned from it and became a better pitcher, so in that sense it wasn’t the worst moment. Or, from a different perspective, the last pre-season game a few years ago in Baltimore. He gave up about 7 runs in the first inning, and it went downhill from there. About 3 innings in, Jim Leyland came out and said “Max, I think you’ve had enough.”
Roark: Giving up that HR to Brandon Belt. Or, from a different perspective, the game he pitched in Syracuse when the wind was blowing 50 mph, and he gave up about 14 runs in 3 innings.
Question: Max, did you get teased about different colored eyes?
Yes, in 3rd grade, but when I got to college the girls loved it.
Question: What’s great about playing for the Nationals?
Max: the fans. Seriously, every player always says they have the greatest fans, but Games, 1,2 and 5: the energy from the fans was the best playoff experience he’s ever had.
Question: How are the playoffs different?
Max: in a regular season game, when you’re not pitching and you’re just watching, your mind might wander a bit. In the playoffs, you’re on every pitch, and ready to go out and choke the umpire on every close call.
Question: Hardest place to pitch?
Max: Oakland in the playoffs. Those fans are tough!
Favorite away stadium:
Max: SF. Because there’s such a big outfield, hard hit balls are outs, not home runs.
Question: When will the first woman be in MLB?
Roark: pretty soon. The pitcher in the Little League WS was getting boys out, so it’s coming.
Question: Best game this year?
Max: the 20 K game. That was great.
Roark: (sheepishly): I only had 15 K’s.
Question: Were there any fights last year on-field?
Answer: (Max) Yes, in Pittsburgh. Werth was egging them on by yelling stuff, and each team was kind of throwing at each other. Roark continued that on his first day in the majors, he was in the bullpen and there was a benches clearing scrum, so he had to run in with everyone else, even though he had no idea what he was doing. No, he didn’t throw a punch.
Question: Tanner, are you trying to grow a beard like Jayson’s?
Roark: Well, Jayson has a lot of hair.
Max: You know, Jayson has back hair, and we tease him about it.
Editorial note: to which Jayson would have replied, had he been there . . .