VIERA, Fla. -- I'll try not to gush.
The Washington Nationals are just about the coolest team since . . .
Stop. It's unbecoming to gush.
If I could play for one Major League team, I would choose the Wash- . . .
Come on. Journalism teachers from way back condemned gushing.
I'd accept league minimum . . .
Maybe there's a coolheaded way to say this: The fans of the 2013 Washington Nationals are uncommonly lucky. Not only do they support a clear contender. Not only do they get to bask in newness with only one gaudy season in stash. Not only do they witness the blooming of thrilling young players. Not only do they have a pitching staff that figures to go easy on their nerve endings. Not only do they get one of those do-it-the-right-way organizations with a pretty emphatic no-jerks policy.
No, they also get one of the last kernels we'll always be able to pluck from sports no matter how cynical things get. They get to study healthy collaboration, and except for a few scattered malcontents here and there, we all love some healthy collaboration.
The shortstop Ian Desmond said it might sound weird, but then he said, "We all have kind of a special place in our hearts for each other." It did not sound weird. It sounded ideal. Wouldn't you want to root for a special-place-in-our-hearts team? And if not, what's wrong with you?
Because it's a right-way organization that emphasizes the organic, Desmond can point around the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse and dole snippets.
"Ryan," he said, and that must mean third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, because apparently "Ryan" stayed on Desmond's couch during A ball which, looking at the records, must have been with the Savannah Sand Gnats circa 2005. "Craig," he said, pointing again, and that must have meant pitcher Craig Stammen, because Desmond said, "He and I played every level together."
"Danny," he said, and that's Danny Espinosa, who Desmond said "was on my heels through the whole minor leagues," until the organization finally moved Espinosa from shortstop to second base. "And Solano," which must mean the Colombian catcher Jhonatan Solano . . . They had the same host family somewhere along the way, as Desmond rifles off the names.
Said he, "I could look around the room and probably almost every guy, there's a story for everybody."
They've ridden minor league buses together, and apparently there's nothing like riding minor league buses together. They've played cards at a time when, Desmond said, "You're just boys." By now, he said, "Just watching the guys go through an arbitration process, or seeing guys get married, or having kids," it means more. So in a clubhouse with a good energy you can pick up in about five minutes, the shortstop said, "It's not like you're in here walking on eggshells," and, "We can be frank with each other," and, "If you go to a team dinner, sometimes there's going to be 20 of us."
The Washington Nationals are just about the coolest . . .
Cut it out.
Espinosa says, without a droplet of my-team arrogance, "It's an easy clubhouse. There are certain teams that are good, maybe, that don't have this team chemistry. We have good team chemistry, and we all respect each other." As to whether that's unique, he says, "It is, because professional sports can be a selfish thing, and I think everybody knows that," but here, that's just not the ethic.
In some way, these are pretty much the San Diego State Nationals, as the marquee pitcher Stephen Strasburg leads us to believe. "I think we have a lot of good guys in the clubhouse and it does have a lot of similarities to the college team I was on," he volunteered. "Guys that mesh well and don't really think they're bigger than the game. College was the best time of my life. I have friends I still keep in contact with, a couple of the guys in my wedding, and I'm starting to develop the same kind of relationships here."
It helps, Espinosa said, that "a lot of us are young," with Bryce Harper at 20, Strasburg at 24, Espinosa and Drew Storen 25, Jordan Zimmermann 26, Gio Gonzalez and Desmond 27, Zimmerman 28 and so on. "Jayson is our veteran-veteran," Espinosa said of Jayson Werth, "and he's not an old guy by any means [at 33]. It's a team full of energy."
"They've got a good thing going," said Houston Astros manager Bo Porter, who should know, having manned Washington's third-base coaching box until last September, and still belonging to a book club with many of the Nationals. Later he said, "That's one of the things when you start talking about championship teams, you start talking about how they're feeling that togetherness. One for all and all for one, and they definitely have that."
Into this mix drops a 29-year-old centerfielder, Denard Span, another engaging personality, imported in winter after 10 years with another right-way organization of longer standing, the Minnesota Twins. He finds it "definitely a little more loose compared with what I'm used to," with the Minnesotan atmosphere positive but just "a different tone," not so unchained. Here, "There's a lot of energy on this team. A lot of youth. Coming off last year" -- and the galling Division Series loss to St. Louis -- "it's like everybody's excited about this season, looking forward to going further and doing more."
And, he said, "I think it starts from the manager, and I think he makes us feel comfortable. He's very approachable."
So on out to the dugout to Mr. Davey Johnson, manager, aged freshly 70, and he starts by saying he spent a day off upon ladders replacing light bulbs. And of Brian Cashman's skydiving accident, he cracks, "I guess he's being a good example for what players shouldn't be doing." Everybody laughs, and at the end when a reporter asks how long he has been married, he shares that he can remember it because the late Marge Schott spurred it when he managed in Cincinnati (1993-95). She told him he had to stop living in sin. ("I can't wait to meet her," Schott said at the time. "I'll be like her mother.")
"She never talked to me," Johnson says. "It was always the dog."
Really, now. Could anybody seriously hate on this team? If you're not careful, this bunch can make you start gushing.