Span on time in D.C.: "I had a lot of fun there"

His career did not start off the way he wanted. As a matter of fact, he was surprised he didn't make the team out of spring training back in 2008.

Outfielder Denard Span had already spent five seasons in the minor leagues. In spring training with the Twins in 2008, he felt he had done enough to make the squad after hitting .282. The spring prior, Span had hit .302.

"My rookie year was a special one to me because I got sent down after spring training," Span said. "I didn't make the team. I felt like I should have made the team. I felt like I had earned the spot and I think I got screwed because of the numbers/politics of what was going on at the time.

"I had to nut up in a lot of ways. I had to gut check myself. I went to Triple-A and had to get my stuff together and just continue to grind and continue to work and just make sure I was ready for the time I got called up. And when I finally got my opportunity, it couldn't have gone any better than I could have ever dreamed. That was the defining year of my career."

One of the teammates who helped him that first season was Darnell McDonald. The journeyman was also at Triple-A Rochester in 2008, but his career was in a different spot. McDonald had already gotten a taste of the big leagues with the Orioles and the Twins, but the veteran outfielder had been grinding for 10 seasons, mostly in the minors. He spoke to Span about remaining focused on his ultimate goal.

"That year I got sent down to Triple-A (2008), he's four years older than me, so at that time, he had gone through a lot," Span said. "He went from being super prospect to getting a shot and then kind of not making the most of that opportunity. I was 24 years old and he's 28 in Triple-A.

"He was the guy telling me not to make the same mistakes he made when he was my age. He said, 'This is pivotal for you that you come down here and don't pout. This is no time to feel sorry for yourself or be mad at the world. Just attack every day. Just keep going, keep going, keep going.' Just keeping me in that right mindset was everything that I needed at that time because I was devastated, I didn't want to be in Triple-A. I had been in the minor leagues going on six years, so I was over it."

Then Span got his shot and blossomed out of the gates with the Twins, getting enough votes to finish sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, slashing .294/.387/.432 in 93 games.

Span spent five outstanding seasons with the Twins, but in late 2012, he was traded to the Nationals for right-hander Alex Meyer. The outfielder admitted to me at the time he was nervous and surprised at the move.

But the move altered his career forever in the most positive of ways.

span-gatorade-shower-close-sidebar.jpg"My three years in D.C. were probably the best three years of my career and my life," Span said. "I had a lot of fun there. I didn't know what to expect once I got traded over from Minnesota. Minnesota holds a special place in my heart as well. It was the team that drafted me. I was there for 10 years. So when I first came over, I felt like a fish out of water my first year. But by year two, I believed that I was a Washington National through and through."

And that year, the Nats were firing on all cylinders. The club won 96 games and the National League East crown, rolling past the Braves by 17 games and reaching the NL Division Series against the Giants.

"That season, I feel like we went back and forth all year with Atlanta," Span said. "Atlanta was the favorite to win the division. They won it the year before and they had a stacked team. I felt like the second half of the season we went on a hot streak. I think we won 11 or 12 games straight (10 in a row from August 12-21, 2014). We kind of hit our stride as a ballclub that second half. You saw guys like Anthony Rendon break onto the scene and be the superstar that we all know he is now. Ian Desmond was in his prime. We had an unbelievable staff in Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, Gio González, Tanner Roark and Doug Fister. I feel like we were a complete team. We had it all.

"Of course, Jayson Werth as the general out there keeping us where we needed to be. It was an all-around good team, good season. It was just unfortunate that we ran into the team that ended up winning the World Series."

Span announced his retirement from baseball earlier this month in what was not an easy decision for the former Nationals center fielder. But the offers Span had received in 2019 and this offseason were not close to what he felt was his value.

"I've grinded all these years," Span said. "It's part of the process. The minor league process, having to grind. Just close your mouth when it furthers your career. You always have to take the high road in order to sacrifice for the betterment of your career. So for me, I'm at this point in my life and career (where) I've already done the things that a rookie is supposed to do. Now I can't jump through these hoops that I did when I was 25. I'm 35 now, I can't do that. I don't have the energy to do it. My life is different. I got a wife, I got a kid.

"Every time I think about when I'm playing good that I am getting paid for half of what I deserve. It's probably going to tick me off. Going to the field every day, it's not going to be enjoyable."

And it could be argued that his situation was somewhat relatable to the state of baseball right now as the owners and players have a very public tug of war of how much money should be paid and how many games should be played in an abbreviated 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Span believes these heated negotiations will impact the future of the game.

"I think it's bigger than this season," Span said. "You got the collective bargaining agreement coming up in another year. Both sides are kind of squaring off. It's like that first round in a heavyweight boxing match where both sides are just trying to feel each other's power, trying to feel what type of styles they are going to do. I think that's what this is. Players realize over the last couple of CBAs we've kind of given in on some areas where we probably shouldn't have gave in. I think now it's we have to set a tone now. Look, you guys have been pushing us around the last few years here. We have to put our foot down."

The 2019 campaign was the best season in Nationals history. But for Span, last season was a bitter pill to swallow because he did not play one game as he searched for the right deal.

"For me, personally, it was very difficult," Span said. "I worked out throughout that whole season in hopes that a fair offer would come. My phone was ringing mid-July. I had a team or two calling. It was just weird. For 17 straight years during the months of April, May, June, July, August, I've been on a baseball field. In my heart and my mind, I hadn't retired yet and it just didn't make sense that I was not on a baseball field. It was my first time being home for Fourth of July and Memorial Day (and) Labor Day. I kind of had a little resentment towards the game. I didn't watch much baseball during the regular season."

But when the regular season was over and the postseason began, Span found himself rooting for his old team.

"I think once the playoffs came and the Nationals started to go on their run, then that's when I began to pay a little bit more attention to the game," Span said. "From the standpoint of watching them do what they did, it was a lot of fun to watch. I felt like all the heartbreak seasons that the team had experienced from years before that, it seemed all of the luck and all of the clutch (plays went) in the Nats' favor. Every time it seemed like they were about to lose or they were done, they found a way, somebody came up with a big hit or a big play. It was just awesome to watch."

Span now spends a lot of time with his family and focus on the Denard Span Foundation, which helps provide food for underprivileged families.

"My foundation probably grew tremendously once I got to D.C.," Span said. "I credit D.C. and the Nationals as well for helping out. With the COVID-19 (going on), about two or three months ago, we came up with the idea of raising money so that we could give groceries. Basically, it's a grocery program where we could help multiple families in the Tampa Bay area with groceries. We realized a lot of people were getting furloughed and laid off and kids were not in school. We knew that the grocery bill was going to be higher for a lot of people."

Span said he is working every day on making the foundation reach as many families as it can. He is now "being the best father and husband I can be," but also is seriously considering finishing his bachelor's degree and fulfilling a promise he made to his mom before he started his pro career.

Span ended up playing in 365 games with the Nationals. He filled a critical need for the Nats at the top of the order and on defense in center field. That spot had lacked a consistent player for the Nats for a while and Span was the answer. He was a big part of the Nats' run of successful baseball that has now spanned eight seasons.

And when Span made that decision a few weeks ago to leave the game he played for most of his life, Nats fans took to Twitter with an outpouring of respect and adulation, remembering fondly those three thrilling seasons from 2013 to 2015.

"Any time you work your butt off and you give so much to a game/organization and in return, when it's all said and done, when that body of work is over and somebody appreciates that body of work, it definitely is a good feeling," Span said. "It was definitely gratifying to see all the love on social media from all my Nationals fans."

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