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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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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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