In a team sport like baseball, chemistry on and off the field, specifically how each teammate treats the other, how they motivate and help each other, regardless of age or experience, goes a long way in how good the overall club can be in a highly competitive professional atmosphere.
The Nationals enjoy a double-digit lead in their division due in large part to the talent they have on the field. But with all the injuries they have endured through the first 4 1/2 months of the season it might be expected that the substitutes or callups would miss a beat, or have a drop off in production.
That has not happened with the Nationals. Players like Wilmer Difo, Adrián Sanchez, Brian Goodwin, A.J. Cole, Matt Grace and Andrew Stevenson, who are all currently on the club’s 25-man roster, have allowed the Nats to maintain their big league in the National League East by playing well and providing a spark to an already very good team.
Newcomer Ryan Madson, acquired in a trade with the Oakland A’s in mid-July alongside Sean Doolittle, says the chemistry he has noticed in the Nats clubhouse has allowed these young players to come in and shine because they feel comfortable and valued. He said the veterans have welcomed the new players and that builds a coveted camaraderie.
“Number one, it needs to be first class (clubhouse). Meaning very professional but also (young players) need to show their other side as well at the right times and in the right spaces,” Madson said. “That starts with leadership and the leadership is here. You got guys that have played for a long time and played very well and they are here in this clubhouse and they provide that leadership. It should allow for the younger guys to go ahead and expand and get the feel when they can and go ahead and do it.”
Madson said letting the young players reveal their own unique personalities helps the whole team grow. It’s an important sign that the already established players are not a selfish bunch. “My advice would be to let that out to young guys, young players don’t hold back,” he said. “It makes it feel like family. All the good teams I’ve played for it’s like a family in the clubhouse.
“There are some selfless individuals, not in this clubhouse per se, but in the game. That’s always going to happen. That’s human beings. But for the most part, as far as good teams go and teams that win world championships, I haven’t experienced guys like that on those teams.”
Left fielder Andrew Stevenson said he sees it in his Nats teammates the way they get along, the way they treat each other so well on and off the field.
“If you’re on a team that has good team chemistry and guys that kind of want to hang out together and kind of mess with each other but in a good way I think that definitely helps in the field,” Stevenson said. “Guys are pulling for each other and guys want to win. I think that’s a good combination. I think that’s something we definitely have in this clubhouse.”
Madson pointed out an important element for the Nationals success and another reason they have been consistently good: there is not a feeling they must win. That’s a significant psychological element of winning teams.
“What makes it comfortable is not a pressing feeling of we have to win here,” he said. “That happens even in clubhouses that are winning and way ahead. I think the atmosphere here and the feelings are go out there be yourself, play the game right, play the game hard and do all the right things. When you have that kind of atmosphere that allows for guys to come in and feel like they can go ahead and excel.”
Madson has noticed in his first month with the club that the Nationals have set goals in mind that occur at different stages. But he also had that feeling about the Nats as he observed them from afar the past two seasons.
“There’s no extra pressure and there’s also not a lack of goals either,” Madson said of the distinction. “Some teams have the lack of direction and goals. They just say let’s go out and play a game. Here there is definitely a short-term goal of winning the game today and then there’s a mid-term goal of going to the playoffs, winning the World Series and then also making it a year-to-year thing, a longer-term goal of this is going to be a winning team for a long time.
“That’s set up here. I felt it right away. I’ve known it for the last couple years. I know they know it. Being in the minor league system they know what’s expected of them, so that’s what I think breeds that success when they get here.”
Stevenson believes one reason he and his young counterparts like Sanchez and others feel comfortable when they hit the ground with the Nats is because of the relationships they cultivated before the season with the veterans that started way back in February and March at the West Palm Beach facility.
“I got a chance in spring training to be around the guys so coming up it wasn’t really a shock,” Stevenson said. “Guys kind of knew who I was so it was definitely an easier transition. Definitely the guys in this clubhouse kind of welcome you in. They know we are only trying to help so if they bring us along we’re only going to make the team better.”
Manager Dusty Baker agreed a measure of the team’s dominance in the division this late in the season is because of players like Goodwin, Difo, Stevenson and Sanchez subbing so well for Jayson Werth, Trea Turner, Stephen Drew and Michael Taylor.
“It says a lot for our system, because the average team that would lose players of that quality and magnitude there’d be a serious drop off,” Baker said. “It starts basically with pitching and then goes to defense. Those guys have played outstanding defense, and then it goes to offense. They are still learning, we’re still teaching as we go. But they have the ability to learn very quickly, to apply upon command what they’re taught. This is what you like to see out of young players. Generally, they’ve not made many mistakes and if they have then we’ve addressed it. You hope that the next mistake is not the same mistake or if it’s the same mistake it’s months down the line.”
Madson mentioned the importance of clubhouse chemistry and how he noticed the positive relationship between the veterans and the new guys. Baker said Madson noticing that about the Nats clubhouse gives him a sense of pride for this group.
“Well, it’s very important that they feel welcome and that they feel that they’re important to contribute when they’re called upon,” Baker said. “Just like in Asian culture, which I studied, the greater is equal to the lesser or else the circle is not complete. So, therefore everybody has to feel like they’re one of the greater and not one of the lesser.
“The environment, especially for a guy from the outside, he can see it more than the guys that have been here all year. That’s just like I can notice the growth in your kid if I haven’t seen him in months, where you’re with your kid every day and you really don’t notice the growth. That’s a tremendous compliment from a guy that came from another organization. These guys they genuinely like each other.
“They’re very tolerant of each other and they trust each other which is a winning formula. I try to put them in situations where they are most likely to succeed and try to not ask them to do things that they aren’t capable of doing even though I wasn’t really sure what they’re capabilities were or weren’t. They’ve responded well. They stay ready. Our coaches try to prepare them. They’re rookies but we don’t treat them like rookies, which is big as far as being accepted by the other members of the team. Which is very, very, very important. Because as a former rookie myself, you have to feel that you’re accepted as one of the men and not the boys.”
And in light of the tragic events Saturday that took place in Charlottesville, Va., Baker’s last thought on team chemistry is the most powerful and poignant.
“[C]lubhouse chemistry is very, very important. You have to have leaders in different segments and different environments in order to have a circle,” Baker concluded. “You need a cast of characters where you have some guys that are loud, some guys quiet, some guys that are introverted, some guys that are extroverted, some guys that are very spiritual, some guys that are very religious, some guys that possibly aren’t. You got to have the right formula of guys. You don’t all ‘wow’ guys or you don’t want all guys that are a mean, or guys that are all nice.
“You need a complement of each segment which is similar to our society. You need guys that get along. You can tell by the clubhouse music which I invite: sometimes latin music, sometimes country music, sometimes it’s rap music, sometimes it’s rhythm and blues, sometimes it’s whatever, everybody seems to take their share, whether they like it or dislike it, they give everybody their time.”