Acta looking for clubhouse leaders
Nationals vets, Zimmerman among those doing dirty work
VIERA, Fla. -- During his five years as manager of the Nationals/Expos, Frank Robinson was always looking for leaders on and off the field, but they never surfaced.
Robinson had no one who could police the clubhouse or get into a player's face whenever something went wrong on the field, so Robinson had to do all of the dirty work.
Robinson is no longer the manager, replaced by Manny Acta, who has a different approach when it comes to leadership.
After being named the Nationals' skipper in November, Acta placed calls to right fielder Austin Kearns, second baseman Felipe Lopez and catcher Brian Schneider, asking them to be the leaders on the field and in the clubhouse. Soon thereafter, Ryan Zimmerman asked Acta if he could be part of this special committee. Acta didn't hesitate and agreed to let Zimmerman, just 22, be one of the leaders.
"This is a perfect opportunity for these guys," Acta said. "[With the exception of Zimmerman], they have been the big leagues about the same time -- four or five years. This is good time to have three or four guys to take care of that clubhouse and not me have to sprint out of the office to take care of the music or anything else."
None of the four players are known to be vocal, but they vowed that the atmosphere in the clubhouse and play on the field would be vastly different than in the previous two years.
"It's not hard being in the clubhouse," Schneider said. "You have to make sure you are doing the right things. No one is higher than anyone. It's like a circle. Everyone is equal. We are policing each other."
Schneider is the elder statesman of the Nationals. He has been in the Major Leagues since 2000. In the past, Schneider was reluctant to voice his opinions because the team had its share of strong personalities. Now, his voice is needed more than ever because he is being asked to guide a starting staff that is considered by many to be suspect. After right-hander John Patterson, it's anybody's guess who will be in the rotation.
"I'm very comfortable moving into the leadership role. I look forward to it," Schneider said. "We had older guys, and when you go and speak up, somebody would shut it down and they feel like they had to. Now, I'm getting more experience and it's time for me to step up and do the role."
Kearns joined the Nationals after being traded from the Reds last July. He noticed there were a lot of team meetings, but because he was a new member of the team, Kearns felt it wasn't right to say anything.
But after signing a new three-year deal, Kearns feels comfortable saying what's on his mind.
"I like the new role," he said. "We have a core group of guys that can take over that responsibility. If something needs to be said or done, we can do that."
This offseason, Lopez, who also arrived from Cincinnati last July, has already led by example by making the switch from shortstop to second base in order to make room for Cristian Guzman, who missed all of 2006 with a shoulder injury.
Lopez made the decision to switch last December after talking to general manager Jim Bowden on the phone and Acta in a face-to-face meeting. Lopez has played 12 games at second base during his career.
"Being a leader, I just play hard, doing the things the right way, running balls out, going about my business the right way," Lopez said. "People see that and they are going to follow automatically."
Zimmerman is coming off a phenomenal rookie season in which he drove in 110 runs, and Acts feels that teammates will listen to the young third baseman because of his success on the field. Zimmerman volunteered his services to become a leader after watching players fear they would lose friendships if they spoke up.
"I feel the group we have this year, people can say stuff to each other," Zimmerman said. "They are not going to get upset and be mad at them. We have a bunch of guys that get along and kind of know each other pretty well."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.