Saturday was the first Blogger Day of the year so I get to go once again to the stadium and act like I belonged in the back rooms and media areas. Brian, who has gone in the past, once again went with me and this time he brought a really nice camera. He took a bunch of high quality pics that can be seen here. I also took some lower quality pics, that aren’t as good. I’ll put some of them here. We had great access, as evidence by the group talking with the Director of Baseball Media Relations, Mike Gazda, down on the field behind home plate during Nationals’ batting practice:

But let’s save that part of the story for later. First of all, the new person in the new position, Chad Kurz, Senior Manager of New Media, was either kind enough to or forced into babysitting the blogging crew all day. He was fully accessible to us the entire time, and escorted us all over the park, including the press room, where we started out. We got a chance to talk to Josh Willingham, Jim Riggleman, Director of Community Relations Israel Negrom, and a group known as the People All Stars Among Us. But first, we started off with a press conference with rookie bullpen ace Drew Storen.

One of the first questions Storen got was regarding a year ago today – he was still undrafted at the time, and didn’t even know if he was going to go back to school. He mentioned that it really has only NOW sunk in, on the eve of this years draft as he saw guys doing their pre-draft workouts at the park this weekend, how far he’s come. He was grilled with many Strasburg questions of course, all of which he answered with patience and thoughtfulness. I asked him about the adrenaline rush of going out there in the majors the first few times this year, and if it felt different. He said that his body actually felt more sore after his first few outings, which surprised him, and he thinks it was that somehow he pitched even harder than he ever had (not velocity, just putting his whole body into each pitch). He really had to calm himself down those first few outings, but stressed that was just the first 2 or 3 times out there, and since then he’s been much more his usual calm self out there.

During the chat with Storen, Josh Willingham came out and sat next to him. He was asked, with what appears to be better defense on his part, if he gets upset when he gets pulled late. He said no, he’s not as fast as other guys, so he understood why a Willie Harris should go in late for him. He said he didn’t remember a season where he has hit so many dramatic home runs, and attributed the success of this club to improved defense and bullpen, noting that the offense is similar to last years’.

After the players left, Israel Negron, the Director of Community Relations came out to speak with us. He mentioned that the team is starting to do alot more with the Pentagon and DoD, and that they are focusing more on military families. They continue to push efforts in youth baseball and softball, as well as efforts from the past years such as Toys for Tots and food drives. He brought in the Nats’ three All Star Among Us finalists, who were all impressive. All three very impressive people deserve a mention of their groups:

  • Mark Burgel from A Wider Circle – They provide furniture to about a dozen homes a day, as well as educational programs and tutoring. On a personal note, I have a special attachment to A Wider Circle. My wife is a social worker at a local high school and raves about this group. Many of her kids don’t have furniture, and sleep on the floor or on things like lawn chairs or just pillows. This group provides an invaluable service, and all of their furniture is donated. They also come in to her school once a week, and provide educational parenting services to the pregnant girls in the school, many of whom have little parenting themselves. Of all the people I met on Saturday, my wife may have been most excited about Mark Burgel!
  • Kat Lanigan from A Thousand Thanks to Military Children – They send thank you letters to children of military families from celebrities, sports stars, and since they have a deal with Warner Bros, Looney Tunes characters
  • Joe Mornini from Team River Runner – A group that teaches kayaking and river sports to wounded and disabled veterans. It helps get the vets outside, working out, being healthy and confident

After that reminder of how little most of us do to help others, we our last press conference was with Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman, who was as always funny, insightful and great to talk to.

He was asked first about memories of growing up here, and waxed poetic about going to the Hot Shoppes on Rockville Pike after high school football games. Also asked about Strasburg, he said the young phenom’s preparation was off the charts. As for the recent umpiring issues, the day after Joe West inserted himself into another play, he said he was surprised that the first base umpire made the call at third base, but conceded that West had run much closer to third base by the time the call was made. He also wondered if the umpires could huddle up to make that call, why couldn’t they huddle up to make the correct call on the near-perfect game last week?

I asked him about the defense – referring to my charge last week that despite all the recent errors, the team doesn’t strike anybody out, has to field more balls, and is still playing well. He said that up until about 3 weeks ago, he thought the defense was playing very well, ranked around 6th in the league, but probably playing better than that. But while he said the ball is in play more with the Nats, they still need to cut down the errors and make all the plays, without excuses.

Someone said that Ian Desmond looks amazing to fans, but how does he look to someone with a trained, experienced eye? Riggleman said “just like that” – amazing, and that he’s a real treasure for the team. He said he wasn’t sure of the numbers, but he had to assume that their 3B/SS combo had to get to more baseballs than anyone else in the league.

As for Tuesday’s game and the draft, he was asked if he just wanted to get through it all. Not so for the draft. He mentioned that he’s always been a player development guy, he said “I love the draft” and he was very interested in it. As for the Tuesday game, he was anxious for Strasburg to get his first game behind him so it’s “normal” and “the hype is behind us.”

He also said he wasn’t sure whether Ivan Rodriguez would catch Tuesday night, and that he would probably need a rehab start, but wasn’t sure when that would happen. With that, we had to leave the press room as Riggleman had to give another press conference, this time for the paid reporters. We walked out of the room and were greeted by Bob Carpenter who was walking by and was nice enough to say hi for a minute to a few of us.

After that we toured the stadium a bit, and in the Red Porch, I asked Chad an extremely important question. I noted that the same few bottles and draft beer are at almost every bar in the stadium, and was wondering where to get some more unique stuff. He said for the most part, downstairs at the Red Porch was the place to do it, and he didn’t know of any specific places around the stadium to get non-standard beers, other than in the suite areas.

From there, we went down to the tunnel and walked out on the field, right behind home plate, for batting practice. While we didn’t get to take any swings, we were out there in time to watch the big guys take some, and they were impressive.

We were close enough to take some pretty good photos, and I found myself leaning against a wall at some point with Dusty Baker and Jim Riggleman about 3 feet to my left.

The Reds and the Nats players were very friendly, saying hello before the game. Orlando Cabrera went over and chatted with the Nats’ guys for a bit.

As some point Johnny Cueto came out with two friends or family members, and pulled Zimmerman aside. Cueto pulled out a camera and took a picture with Zim and his two buddies. When Zim left he pulled Pudge in. Funny to see even the ballplayers’ buddies trying to get photos. Lots of players were milling about getting prepared to do what they get paid for, but I saw Ryan Zimmerman, Dusty Baker, Pudge, Matt Capps and Josh Willingham all take the time to sign autographs for the dozen or so kids that were given access to the area. And those were just the few guys I saw in a 30 minute period.

Dusty Baker, only letting the kids who don’t take walks get his autograph.

Nyjer examining what looked to be a pink bat leftover from Mother’s Day

Pudge spent much of the time out on the field, happy to be back in uniform, ready to possibly catch on Tuesday.

When Adam Dunn emerged from the clubhouse, I literally had to zoom the camera lens back out, something I didn’t find necessary in any other part of the day. He’s a large man.

Ryan Zimmerman came out put the gloves on,

and proceeded to hit the ball a mile and a half.

There were guys just hanging out, talking, and probably discussing either the way they were gonna hit that night, the game before, or maybe just the incredible heat and humidity of the day.

When Desmond came up to hit, he was pretty impressive, showing a ton of raw power. Every time I see him play, I understand more and more why the team likes him so much.

Mike Rizzo even made an appearance, probably taking a short break from his draft planning. We all think we know what’s gonna happen with that first pick, but there’s 49 more rounds after that. There’s 17 sandwich round picks this year, so the Nats also get to pick at #50.

Of course I got the obligatory photo of myself right on the field.

And of Brian, too. Hey, it’s pretty exciting to be down there.

Note Brian’s camera, way better than the one I used to take these pics. As we were getting ready to head up to the booth, Livo made his way out there, although he didn’t take any swings, unfortunately, he was joking around and laughing the whole time.

And he brought Desmond out, who had taken his cleats off, to meet Dusty Baker. Desmond pulls off the Saturday afternoon college kid look pretty well here.

We also had a chance to speak with Mark Scialabba, the Director of Minor League Operations. You could name the most obscure player in the farm system, he’d be able to give you 5 minutes on that guy. After 30-45 minutes out on the field, we went up to the media floor, in the booth reserved for the bloggers. We watched a few innings and were then invited up to the MASN booth on the floor above. That was a hotbed of activity, with a ton of computing power.

Then we went to an empty room next to the MASN room, where although we were high up, the view was pretty sweet.

After that, back down to our media room for another inning or two. At about 9 pm, Chad asked if anyone would like to see the MASN truck outside. Maybe because we were going on hour 6, maybe because some people had already seen TV trucks, but only Brian, me and 3 others went. It was like the MASN Control Room only much tighter, with more yelling of instructions. At some point there was a single and Zimmerman scored. The bloggers did a quiet cheer, not trying to disturb, while the MASN team did yelling of their own – things like “Zimmerman on Camera 7!” and “show the left fielder!” It was pretty intense down there.

While that was cool, the real treat was the to get to the truck, we had to walk through the bowels of the stadium. And that brought us right by the bullpen, from the often unseen back entrance.

As we were there, bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo saw us taking pictures and starting hamming it up. I also was able to see Drew Storen getting ready to come in, stretching with bands attached to the fence and throwing a medicine ball against a net.

Of course, after the great day at the stadium, it was unfortunate that the Nats’ couldn’t pull out the win. There was definitely a buzz about the stadium for the upcoming few days. The draft is looming, and while people are excited about the possibility of Bryce Harper, the debut of Strasburg was definitely front and center.

Thanks again to the Nationals, Chad Kurz and Mike Gazda for letting us do of all this. It is truly one of the highlights of my baseball year.

By Charlie