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How Nationals bobbleheads go from concept to collectible

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NBCSW

How Nationals bobbleheads go from concept to collectible

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto is currently headless on Adam Eaton’s kitchen counter.

Not the real-life Soto. He’s fine, still doing his day job in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup. But Bobblehead Juan Soto is having a tough go after Eaton’s three-year-old son, Brayden, dislodged his oversized cranium from his polyresin body.

“Juan Soto’s head’s off at home,” Eaton said.

Soto’s bobblehead was part of a giveaway April 12. Trea Turner followed May 15. Ryan Zimmerman as  “Captain America” was next on May 25. Saturday is Star Wars Day at Nationals Park, a glove-in-hand fit for closer Sean Doolittle, an obsessive fan of the series who will be wearing a cape and handling a blue lightsaber when distributed to 10,000 fans.

The path from idea to boxed giveaway within an interactive back is long. The Nationals begin planning their upcoming bobblehead promotions in July of the previous year. Talks with their vendor, BDA Inc., pick up in November. Conversations with players can begin around then, too, as they did with Doolittle. The Nationals knew Star Wars day was coming again through a league agreement. They also knew Doolittle was a connoisseur of all things Star Wars. So, when they approached him about the “Obi-Sean Kanobi” bobblehead, Doolittle asked for more time to research the proper color for his lightsaber (blue) and focused on movie-specific details in order not to be called out during his mid-June emergence from boxes.

“I think the biggest thing we had to make sure we had the lightsaber the right color blue because that’s what Obi-Wan uses in a New Hope against Darth Vader,” Doolittle said. “So I was happy about that.”

What else?

“The hood thing I think is really cool, too,” Doolittle said. “The hood is cloth, so you can put the hood up and down. It’s pretty sick.”

Doolittle’s high level of nerdom is rare when it comes to mapping out details. Washington’s promotional staff was thankful for Star Wars tutorials he was more than happy to provide. But, his involvement is not an outlier. When conversations move from the inside the organization to the players, they often end up with significant involvement. Juan Soto wanted his bobblehead changed to have a smile. Typically, an “in-action” bobblehead -- swinging, fielding, running -- would not come with a grinning player. Soto felt the smile reflected his personality. So, smile it was.

Players can go back-and-forth on facial hair, hairstyle, wearing wrist bands, jersey color and a large swath of other details. Meanwhile, the team’s promotions and events department, headed by director Lindsey Norris, is watching the calendar. A bobblehead takes about 150 days from idea to box in Nationals Park. Norris retrieves a flood of photos to provide BDA positioning options, player details and all-around visual clues. They use computer-aided design software to work mockups. The drafts are bounced between team, player and vendor in the early stages. Norris said the Nationals’ creative team sometimes gets “very creative” in ways BDA has to reign back (for instance, the bobblehead would have trouble remaining upright if the original design went forward).

“Once we get that mold exactly right, everyone’s happy internally, the player’s happy, the vendor’s happy, we’ll move to that paint stage,” Norris said. “There, we’re typically in the final steps. Sometimes in the paint stages we’ll catch things like, the Nationals, we have the tiny blue and red stripes. We get those details. That’s where we paint those on. Literally. The fine details of the paint. Getting the skin tone right. I sit there with my pantone book and I’m matching colors all day. People think I’m painting walls, I’m painting bobbleheads. It’s just getting it just right. We want to make sure our players are happy with the piece as well as the fans.”

Bobbleheads were originally made of paper mache and held upright by a single metal rod. They were take-offs on porcelain figurines of the 1800s with movable parts. Howie Kendrick collects those hard-to-find versions.

The more modern, and stable, bobbleheads re-entered the market with fervor in 1999. Steve Avanessian, Vice President of Client Services at BDA Inc., says they are the top promotional driver at baseball parks. Distribute a bobblehead, and people show up, including those who may not be actual baseball fans.

“You’re creating basically a three-dimensional trading card,” Avanessian said.

As much as all factions are concerned about fans being satisfied, they’re more worried about the players being pleased. Eaton has hundreds of bobbleheads at his home (he compared his desk to that of the MLB Network show “Intentional Talk” which is surrounded by bobbleheads). He’ll ask clubhouse attendants on the road to gather the last five years’ worth of bobblehead promotions and ship them out to him. Often, players ask for extras of their personal bobblehead to send to family and friends. The prevailing point is a simple one: you don’t want your prime advocate to be dissatisfied, particularly in the age of social media.

“It’s a really critical thing because the last thing you want to do is produce and distribute a collectible bobblehead and not have the player behind it,” Avanessian said.

That’s not an issue for Doolittle. A full-sized version of his Star Wars bobblehead arrived at the park a couple weeks ago, almost seven months after he began talking to the team about it. The removable hood is a first for the developer, one Avanessian said they may not make again. Doolittle was thrilled -- at least until he had to give it back. “I got to hold it for like five minutes,” Doolittle said.

Overall, this is the third figurine of his likeness in the major leagues. In Oakland, a Sean Doolittle Gnome was distributed. Last year, the Nationals produced a more standard Doolittle bobblehead. Friday morning, his Star Wars bobblehead was already on eBay for up to $69.99, a full day before the handout at the park. And eagerly awaiting its arrival was Doolittle, who has been thinking about this since November.

“I seriously think it’s like one of the highlights of my career,” Doolittle said. “I’m pumped.”

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Adam Eaton picks up where he left off in the World Series: homering off the Astros

Adam Eaton picks up where he left off in the World Series: homering off the Astros

The last time Adam Eaton faced Astros starter Justin Verlander, it was Game 6 of the World Series.

Eaton stepped into the left-handed batter’s box with one out in the top of the fifth and sent the second pitch he saw, a hanging changeup over the middle of the plate, down the rightfield line for a game-tying solo home run. Verlander hopped up as soon as the ball was hit and looked at the ball in contempt as it sailed into the deflated Houston crowd.

The future Hall of Famer was slated to start against the Nationals in their spring training contest Thursday but was scratched with groin tightness and ended up throwing a simulated game instead.

Verlander was spared from having to face Eaton again, but the Nationals’ outfielder hit his first home run of the spring anyway.

If Eaton could have it his way, he’d probably like to face the Astros every at-bat. He hit .320 with a pair of homers and six RBIs in the World Series—although it wasn’t enough to beat out Stephen Strasburg for World Series MVP honors.

In case you wanted to revisit that Game 6 bomb, the video is embedded for your viewing pleasure.

Eaton went 2-3 with a walk, double, home run and three runs scored before being lifted for prospect Luis Garcia in the sixth inning.

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Sean Doolittle credits lavender oil on his glove for calm demeanor in October

Sean Doolittle credits lavender oil on his glove for calm demeanor in October

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle moves a glove out of the way as he reaches into a shelf in his spring training locker and grabs a different one, which he then hands over with a simple, if unusual, instruction:

“Smell it.”

So, of course, you do -- getting a sweet, soothing whiff of lavender, the sort you might get from a candle or bowl of potpourri. And now you know what Doolittle sniffed each time he jutted his right elbow toward home plate and tucked his glove under his chin to get his catcher's signs during last season's World Series.

At the suggestion of Washington's director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell, Doolittle put lavender oil on the leather laces around the webbing of his glove for the postseason. It helped the lefty relax on the mound after a rocky regular season, much the way the bullpen as a whole morphed from disaster to asset in 2019, a trend of improvement the club figures will continue in 2020.

"I was so nervous during the playoffs. I was just a big ball of stress. Lavender has a lot of calming and soothing to it," Doolittle explained last week. "When I came set, I could smell it. It worked, man."

In October, he produced two saves and three holds, a 1.74 ERA and a .167 opponents' batting average as the Nationals went 8-1 in his appearances along the way to a championship.

"When you're a reliever and pitching in high-leverage situations in must-win games, and you're on-call every night for like a month, it starts to take its toll on you. And it's a challenge to stay even-keeled and to really manage that energy. That's the hardest part," Doolittle said. “(Campbell) helped me out a lot. My regular season did not go the way I wanted it to go, but I was very proud of the way I was able to get myself together and be really effective in the playoffs."

The same could be said about Washington's entire relief corps.

Doolittle wound up with his most appearances (63) since 2013, a career-worst ERA of 4.05, a 6-5 record and six blown chances -- twice as many as in 2017 and 2018 combined -- to go with a career-high 29 saves.

He was part of unit that had an ERA above 5.50, but got help at the trade deadline. Acquiring Daniel Hudson from Toronto, in particular, was key, even if additions Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland dealt with injuries.

"On paper," pitching coach Paul Menhart said, "we are a lot stronger."

General manager Mike Rizzo brought back Hudson ($11 million, two years) and brought aboard Will Harris, a free agent from Houston ($24 million, three years).

Both can take on some of the late-inning responsibilities that Doolittle bore so often, getting worn out before heading to the injured list in August with a knee issue.

Elías (14 saves for Seattle in 2019) and Strickland (14 saves for San Francisco in 2018) have closer experience. Tanner Rainey can throw 100 mph and owns a tough slider.

So Rizzo should be able to forgo his usual in-season 'pen padding.

"Definitely is a good feeling knowing that we started spring training with a bunch of guys that have competed in the back end of the bullpen," manager Dave Martinez said. "If one of the guys needs a day off -- or two -- you have another guy that can cover. To have those guys here, whew, it was definitely on our list of 'to-dos.' I'm going to like looking down at that sheet of paper, going, 'Oh we've got Harris. We've got Hudson. We've got a healthy Strickland. And 'Doo' to close it out."

Like Doolittle's special, scented postseason glove, several teammates have some sort of 2019 memento they've held onto.

In a closet at home, Hudson keeps the glove he chucked after recording the last out against the Astros in Game 7 -- the initials of his wife and two oldest daughters are stitched on there; he used a marker to write the initials of his third daughter, who was born during the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals. Yellow-tinted sunglasses worn in the dugout for good luck sit in starter Aníbal Sánchez's locker. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor stored for safekeeping the baseball he dove to catch, with Doolittle on the mound, to end the NL Division Series against the Dodgers (Taylor says a teammate unsuccessfully tried to take that ball during the on-field scrum, but wouldn't reveal who).

When Doolittle heads out for the ninth inning this year, he'll have to do so with a new piece of leather: He switched glove companies in the offseason.

Might replicate that lavender treatment, though.

"I now associate that smell with having success in high-leverage situations. And managing myself. There's really positive energy associated with that: We won the World Series. I got to contribute. And I pitched pretty well," he said. “So there's definitely a connection there for me. It's definitely been ingrained, so we'll probably stick with it.”

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