VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals had to turn off the U.S.-Russia Olympic hockey game Saturday morning because it was time for the first team meeting of spring training.
Instead of watching the Americans win in a shootout, they received a short inspirational speech from an anxious-to-get-going first-time major league manager who had arrived at 5 a.m. after not getting much sleep.
“He’s very deliberate in his tone,” ace Stephen Strasburg said. “And said, ‘Hey, Day 1 starts right now and it’s time to get to work.’ You can tell the intensity was there, and it got me a little fired up.”
The Matt Williams regime is underway at Space Coast Stadium, and pitchers and catchers noticed some differences immediately. Instead of walking to the distant fields for drills, it’s now mandatory to ride together in vans and carts. Pitchers will play every infield position during bunting practice — an idea Strasburg called “genius.” And, of course, there are those daily slogans Williams is listing atop every day’s schedule.
Oops. Did we say “schedule?” Williams’ coaches are already getting sick of that word. He joked that after going over the schedule “for the 5,000th time” on Friday, the reaction was such that he volunteered to put a dollar in a kitty if he used the word in their presence again. He said he already owes a couple of bucks.
“(They’re) mostly telling me, ‘Go in your office and relax. Leave us alone, let us handle it,'” Williams said.
Does he actually go into his office and relax when told that?
“Of course not. No,” he said.
It’s only one day, but the consensus among players in camp is that it’s good to have a man with a plan, instead of a new manager trying to make things up on the spot. Strasburg is particularly looking forward to the bunt drill.
“That’s something I’ve never had an opportunity to do and would like to know, like, ‘What’s the shortstop thinking in this situation?'” Strasburg said. “That’s just baseball IQ that as being only a pitcher you kind of forget all those things.”
“Especially if you mess up,” he added with a laugh, “you’ll know if it’s like, ‘Did you mess up or did somebody else mess up?'”
Williams has stockpiled 41 slogans in his computer, one for each day of spring training. He joked that he was “plagiarizing” many of them and that “most of them are not that great.” For Day 1, it was: “He who holds the ball controls the game.”
“I want them to have a conversation about that, and talk amongst themselves,” he said. “This is pitcher-catcher camp. It starts with the guy who holds the ball. So we can control tempo, we can control the game, if we do things properly on the mound. I want them to start that conversation. I want them to be reminded that that’s the way we think as a staff.”
The day went off without a hitch. Well, mostly. The horns used by third base coach Bobby Henley to signal the start of each drill didn’t sound very horn-like.
“We had a little bit of a horn malfunction. … It’s like a duck call, right? Sometimes you blow a duck call, and it doesn’t go ‘Weeerrrt!’ Sometimes it just kind of flutters,” Williams said. “So we went and got the other horn. That didn’t quite work. By the end of the day, he had six horns in his cart. He’s got it all figured out.”
Overall, though, it was a good day for the new manager. Or maybe it wasn’t.
“I was telling the coaching staff that I had a bad day today,” he joked, “because I didn’t get to pick up a fungo and I didn’t get to hit any batting practice. So it’s completely odd for me. Usually I’m out there and my hands have blisters and all that stuff. But it’s part of my adjustment process, too. But it was good. I got a chance to get in the bullpen and see the guys and watch them throw, so it was good.”
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