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A quick inside look at the Nationals Circle of Trust, which jumpstarts each day

A quick inside look at the Nationals Circle of Trust, which jumpstarts each day

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Flitting around to work on your own ended last Thursday, the first organized day of workouts for Nationals pitchers and catchers.

Several arrived in advance of their mandated report date. Some came to Florida weeks before they needed to. Max Scherzer was happy to abandon the chill-ridden District winter in favor of Florida heat. Anibal Sanchez, displaying his veteran smarts, lives in Florida throughout the offseason. He drove up.

Every pitcher and catcher in big-league camp assembled at 9:30 a.m. for what has become a Davey Martinez staple: The Circle of Trust, a daily gathering which Martinez uses to set the tone for the day. It’s on daily schedules the same way stretching and fielding drills are, an import that came with Martinez’s hiring.  

Martinez provided the first tones of camp by stressing an importance of improving each day. Basic. Straight forward. Steady. Not long after, he turned center stage over to 46-year-old Robert Clifton Henley, better known as Bob Henley, the Nationals’ spirit animal and third base coach.

Henley was born in Mobile, Alabama, and continues to reside in the state during the offseason. When asked, he’ll say he’s from “LA,” in his southern twang, which stands for “Lower Alabama” delivering one of his favorite jokes. Recent home improvements at the Henley homestead include a man-made pond which provided a perfect landing spot for one of his sons following a self-launch off a backyard trampoline. Henley determined the process meant he had a “good redneck” kid on his hands.

What follows is an oral history -- as much as one can be divulged and was audible to those nearby -- of Henley’s rambunctious first-day Circle of Trust speech this spring. Martinez told him to bring the energy. The initial speech subsequently included Henley making fun of himself, claiming to be irritated with a theft of his coffee, as well as a surprise delivery of Valentine’s Day balloons “from” newcomer Patrick Corbin.

Davey Martinez: “As you know, Bobby has an unique personality. He gets the guys fired up in the morning. It’s spring training. It’s early. It’s 9:30 [a.m.]. I told him it’s his job to get the guys up, get them ready for the day and bring that energy. Man, he does it every day. I know when I talk to him I get fired up. The players love it. Last year when I told him what I wanted him to do, he said, ‘Are you sure you want me to do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ It’s your job to get these guys fired up.”

Reliever Aaron Barrett: “Bobby was actually our [minor league] field coordinator when I first got drafted, so Sammy [Solis] would have been there, Matt Grace would have been there. Stras was probably there the year before. He’s kind of always been that way. There were days when he would come in, he’d be real soft spoken and he would mean business. There were other days where he would fire you up. His personality is fantastic. He’s like family.”

Erick Fedde: “Oh, I mean, he’s the man. Every time he talks, you really don’t know what to expect.”

Koda Glover: “I can’t keep a straight face with him. He cracks me up. He’s hilarious. He gets to going and going and going. I can’t help it. I start laughing.”

[Henley steps into the circle, begins to howl, yelling, gesturing, moving around. He claims he had three coffees and someone stole one. Making this incident all the more egregious in his view is it being Day 1.]

Patrick Corbin: “At first... I haven’t met him yet, so I wasn’t really sure who it was there.”

Matt Grace: “You come to expect it year after year, so it wasn’t anything surprising. I still know he’s going to do stuff like that and I still find myself laughing the entire time. And he called me out, too. Yeah. He called me out.”

[Grace is dinged with faux outrage for selecting tea in the morning as opposed to coffee.]

Grace: “He didn’t like that. I try to go the healthier route.”

[Henley pivots to get an authentic point across, telling the pitchers to speak up if they have a “burner” or soreness during workouts.]

Austen Williams: “He was trying to keep it light. But at the same time, he was making points and trying to get everything squared away for camp. The message was all serious. The delivery, he added a little humor to it.”

[Henley, always slathered in sunscreen for personal health reasons, screams, “You might wonder why is he wearing SPF 1000?!” He goes on to announce, “If I can’t see it, I don’t trust it!”]

Fedde: “It’s always good to laugh at yourself. It makes all the guys know that’s the good mentality of joking around. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself, but come together as a team.” 

Trevor Rosenthal: “He was getting after it.”

Corbin: “I was trying to figure out what was going on. Davey spoke. Then [Henley] stepped up and gave his little spiel there. When he said my name at the end, I thought I was going to have some lines or something to say. I thought he missed coming up to me before that and didn’t give me a heads up.”

[Lurking in the background throughout Henley’s speech is “Bob the security guard”, a short, gray-haired Massachusetts native who winters in West Palm Beach and is stationed outside the Nationals clubhouse door. He is holding five balloons.]

[Henley goes on to claim someone stole one of his three air horns, which makes him as enraged as he was with the theft of his coffee, and, presumably, Grace’s tea consumption.]

[Bob approaches, balloons in hand, receives a stare down from Henley.]

Corbin: “[The balloons] were from Patrick Corbin and the pitching staff and [Henley complained about] how I didn’t spend some money to get him a real card.” 

[The gift is enough for Henley to forgive all prior transgressions; he announces it’s 10:03 and apologizes for getting “a little long-winded there.”]

Grace: “He’s awesome. They never get old.”

Williams: “I thought the balloons was a good mix. I didn’t even know what was going on. I thought it was hilarious.”

Rosenthal: “I figured it was kind of his alter ego.”

Wander Suero: [Just starts laughing]

Jeremy Hellickson: [Just starts laughing]

Suero: “A lot of the young guys who don’t know or new guys who don’t know him are probably going to think he’s a clown for what he did. But they’re going to realize the kind of person he really is and they’re going to embrace him because it’s just part of his act to get them to relax and feel welcome.”

Corbin: “The guys were just saying he’s kind of like that a lot. I’m looking forward to more moments like that.”

Joe Ross: “I wouldn’t even say he recycles jokes. He comes up with something new it seems like every year.” 

Hellickson: “It was all my favorite.”


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Mike Trout raised the red flag about free agency, and Nationals players took notice

Mike Trout raised the red flag about free agency, and Nationals players took notice

WASHINGTON -- Mike Trout was everywhere, especially for the supposedly tough-to-market star of the game. 

Anaheim made Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million extension official Sunday. Trout was the center of a large press conference in California, hopped on MLB Network, made the rounds expected of someone who signed the largest deal in American sports history.

Trout made a telling remark at each stop: He noted watching Manny Machado and Bryce Harper slog through last winter as free agents. He then talked to both. The conversations and visual prompted him to label their situations a “red flag” when he thought about free agency.  

That term, from that player, is eye-popping, despite the heft of his current extension and others being struck around the league. It holds force even after Harper set a record with a new contract that was summarily crushed three weeks later by Trout. It also turned heads when read to players in the clubhouse before the Nationals played the New York Yankees on Monday in the final exhibition game of spring training.

“To me, that’s the red flag,” Sean Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “We’re not talking about a veteran guy that’s, you know...we’re talking about the face of our game. If he doesn’t want to go through the free agency process the way it’s been going for guys these past few years, like if he doesn’t think the process could benefit him and he could recognize his full value on the open market, that’s really tell you everything you need to know, right?”

Free agency, once referred to by Max Scherzer as the players’ “golden egg,” has pivoted. Players previously groused about the veteran player who was left jobless. Teams moved away from paying players 30-plus for past performance, both learning a more efficient way to run their team and more financially viable one. Younger players -- unproven players in the eyes of many major leaguers -- were receiving jobs based more on market forces and perceived value than actual value. The process rankled those already in a clubhouse.

“It’s not about players,” Ryan Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s about the valuation or the way that they use it to say it’s going to change their organization. I’ve always said you have to have young guys come up and play. I get it. But my whole thing is to not sign legit big-league players, who you know what they’re going to do at the big-league level, because you have the best farm system in the league, two of those kids might be something. The other eight you’re never going to hear about them again once they leave Baseball America. I just think the percentage of people who become real big leaguers is not very high, and they hold it at a very high value.”

That portion of the debate is receding. What free agency has become is at the forefront. The recent cluster of extensions suggested players realized their best path under this collective bargaining agreement was to stay. The plight of Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel -- who remain unemployed just days before the season begins -- shows that premise is correct.

“[I do] recognize the free agent process has changed,” Scherzer said. “Teams used to covet players, marquee players, and be aggressive trying to bid on them -- don’t feel like that’s the case. That’s what I’ll say.”

Doolittle continued to churn through how the idea related to Trout. If he entered free agency, what could be the possible knock on him? 

It’s not on-field skill. It’s not how he interacts with fans. It’s not how he conducts himself off the field. 

“It would have been really fun to see him go through the free agency process,” Doolittle said.

Instead of finding out, Trout decided to take a lifetime deal to stay in Anaheim. The cash haul was enormous. The terms record-setting. The process? Not so good.

“We need to make some adjustments to the system,” Doolittle said. “Because, yeah, it’s good Manny and Bryce got those deals. It’s unfortunate it took so long. I think it’s very concerning and very notable the face of the game, one of the best players in the history of the game, didn’t want to have to go through that because of the way it’s been going.”



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Bryce Harper's old locker will go to Howie Kendrick (when he gets back)

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Bryce Harper's old locker will go to Howie Kendrick (when he gets back)

With Bryce Harper no longer in town, his locker was open for a new tenant this season. Fans speculated on which veteran would take over his spot, and now we know.

It’s Howie Kendrick.

As every Nationals fan knows by now, after a long, arduous offseason, Harper took his talents to Philadelphia. The Phillies gave him a record-breaking contract, and Harper will be spending the next 13 years of his career in the City of Brotherly Love.

Down in Florida, it wasn’t clear who might take over his locker once the team returned to the nation’s capital. Now that the team is back for an exhibition game and Opening Day this week, media members can see the new locker layout.

Kendrick, of course, is still in Florida rehabbing his hamstring. He’ll begin the season on the Injured List and will play in extended spring training while working to get back to 100 percent. The team expects him to be ready to go sooner rather than later, and even though he’s injured, he’ll still come up to be with the team for Opening Day.

Kendrick makes sense as the choice to fill Harper’s vacated locker. As a veteran entering his 14th season in the Major Leagues, Kendrick is a well-respected voice in the Nationals locker room. He’s only been with the team since midway through 2017, but at 35, he has plenty of experience in the sport.

Entering 2019, Kendrick is set to be a valuable piece for the roster as a quality bench bat who can play multiple positions. Much of his value will also come in the form of his leadership and presence in the locker room, which will now resonate from the same place it had from Harper the previous several seasons.