NEW YORK - Ask Jayson Werth about his memories from his time in Philadelphia, ask him to compare the experience of winning a World Series there to his first days with a team that lost a combined 205 games in the Phillies’ two World Series years and, for a while, he will indulge you.
It’s not so much out of a desire to throw open his personal scrapbook for mass consumption - Werth isn’t the type to do that. But he seems intrigued by the discussion, the parry-and-thrust with reporters from Philadelphia in Washington about the effects of baseball’s most surprising offseason move. As much as anything, he’s curious about what you’re saying about it.
“You guys want to talk about old things? You guys want to talk about what’s going on now, talk about the Nationals?” he asks, changing the subject after he’s drained the reserve of Phillies memories.
Again, that’s not directly because Werth is preoccupied with what the media thinks of his choice; everything with the Nationals’ new right fielder is several layers deeper than it seems to be. But he is aware of the perception about the Nationals, one he’s devoted the next seven years of his life to changing, and he wants to be sure that the culture change he’s trying to enact won’t run into any unnecessary interference.
“Unfortunately, I feel like (negative things are) the expectations of this team,” he said Saturday. “I feel like that’s very typical from, not the guys in here, but I feel like that’s the expectations of the fans and of the media.”
Then, he pauses for the slightest bit of emphasis, like a politician before laying out the thesis of his platform, before saying, “And that is something I want to change.”
Twice in the next three weeks, Werth’s Philadelphia-to-Washington move will command regional, and probably national, attention. The first round begins on Tuesday, when the Phillies visit Washington for the first time this year. The second meeting starts on May 3, when the bearded outfielder, whose gritty style of play made him a fan favorite in Philadelphia, returns to Citizens Bank Park for the first time as an adversary.
The logistics of his return to Philadelphia will probably be strange for Werth, said outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who’s played for seven teams in his 14-year career. He’ll be in the visitors’ clubhouse, which he’s seldom seen, instead of the home clubhouse where he sprayed champagne on his teammates in 2008. But how will the return feel, beyond the travel arrangements?
“That depends on how you go back,” Hairston said.
It’s unclear how Phillies fans - who will probably show up this week at Nationals Park, as well - will receive Werth. He helped the club win its first World Series in 25 years, going from an unheralded free agent to an All-Star in just three years. But it seemed clear by the end of last season that Werth’s time in Philadelphia would be coming to an end, as the club dropped hints it wouldn’t be able to afford the outfielder’s salary demands.
And when Werth signed the seven-year, $126 million deal with Washington last Dec. 5, shocking the baseball world and guaranteeing he’d be getting paid $18 million a season to try and beat the Phillies 18 times a year through 2017 ... well, that added a new wrinkle to things.
“They’re the division champs,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “They’re what we’re trying to be. They’re on top of the mountain, and we’re trying to knock them off the mountain.”
Werth’s path to doing that began this spring in Viera, Fla., where he and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman arrived a week early to camp. The move quickly had some drawbacks - “There’s nowhere to eat (in Viera) versus quite a few places to eat (in Clearwater, Fla., where the Phillies train),” - but it did send an early message that whatever complacency had existed in the Nationals’ clubhouse in the past wouldn’t be tolerated any more.
Rizzo, whose ruthless competitive streak might match Werth’s, quickly knew he’d gotten what he wanted.
“We live with the guy 24-7, so I see it in so many different ways,” Rizzo said. “At times, he’ll be a vocal leader and take a teammate aside, give him some advice or let him know his feelings on some things. When your two most talented players - Jayson and Ryan - it really makes it much easier for the rest of the guys.”
He saw it again on Wednesday night when Werth hit his first homer as a member of the Nationals in Florida. The ball bounced off the top of the fence before ricocheting back onto the field, and Werth, not knowing if it was a homer or a live ball, slid headfirst into third base for what he assumed was a triple, until umpire Tim Tschida told him it was a homer.
Werth said the play was “not so memorable.” To Rizzo, it meant something.
“There’s one of the real good players in Major League Baseball that is not taking anything for granted,” Rizzo said. “He went hard into third base, slides headfirst to try and get a triple, just in case the ball wasn’t out of the ballpark. That’s what I expect out of him, because that’s the guy we brought in.”
But influencing teammates and changing culture is only an abstract piece of what Werth is trying to do in Washington. The concrete, irrefutable way to stop the jokes and snide remarks about the Nationals is to win, and Werth probably needs more help than he has now to do that on the level he enjoyed in Philadelphia.
When he signed with the team, he mentioned several times how he’d been given assurances by the Lerner family that the ownership group would spend money and try to win, though it will likely take another year, at least, to add enough pieces to contend. It’s not lost on Rizzo, though, that the Nationals took a step toward that goal not only by adding Werth, but by subtracting a piece of the Phillies’ core. “It’s a byproduct (of the signing),” Rizzo said. “The fact that they’re the Phillies isn’t going to change Jayson’s preparation or our preparation. But it’s a ballclub we aspire to overtake someday, and this is our first crack at it this year.”
The reverberations of Werth’s move down Interstate-95 won’t stop this week, and probably won’t end this year. In fact, if Werth is doing what he’s planned, the rivalry will only intensify as the Nationals gain ground on the Phillies. That might sully how he’s remembered in Philadelphia, but it would also change the discussion about his new team in Washington.
In the end, he’s more after that than anything else.
“I care about my teammates. And I care, period,” Werth said. “But perception doesn’t change overnight. I hope this team will be the team that can change in Washington DC and around the league and around the country. It’s going to take winning to change that.”