Matt’s Bats Chat with Washington Post’s James Wagner

Until the past couple of weeks, it had been a quiet offseason for the Washington Nationals.  1 jwwpThen, they made a couple of big splashes with the Tyler Clippard-for-Yunel Escobar deal and the Max Scherzer signing. That also meant a lot of work for the newspaper writers on the Nationals beat–although not as much as once the season starts in and they start writing about the games every night.

Before these two big headlines broke, I got a chance to speak with James Wagner, the head beat writer for the Washington Post about how he thought the Nationals’ offseason had been going.  He also shared a little bit about how he came to the Post and what it’s like covering a professional baseball team for 162 games.  This was another chance to go behind the scenes to see how baseball works off the field.

So, here is my Matt’s Bats Chat with the Washington Post’s own James Wagner.

Matt’s Bats: Tell me a little bit more about yourself and how you got to be the Washington Post’s Nationals reporter?

James Wagner: I grew up in Northern Virginia, but my dad used to work for the State Department so we moved around a lot when I was growing up. I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, lived in Springfield, Virginia, and then moved to the Philippines, Venezuela, Peru, Belgium and then back to the States. I finished high school at Lake Braddock. I went to the University of Virginia and studied Sociology.

During college I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I worked at the school paper and had internships in news and sports. My first job was with the LA Times and I worked there for a few months before getting laid off. Then I worked for a small local newspaper in Los Angeles County for a year covering local news. I then moved to the Washington Post and covered high school sports for two years. I moved to cover the Nats in 2012 and I’ve been covering them ever since.

MB: You spent a lot of time growing up overseas, how did you get interested in baseball? Was it the influence of Latin American sports?

JW: The two most popular sports in Latin America are baseball and soccer. My mom is from Nicaragua, which is a baseball playing country, so I had that baseball influence from my grandfather. Baseball was also always a connection to home for me. Living overseas I was exposed a lot to baseball, but I would feel American when I watched and read about baseball, the NFL, and college sports. Naturally I think I gravitated more to baseball because I played Little League overseas and back home and it was supported by my family and my culture.  I speak Spanish, which helps a lot when covering baseball.

MB: So you played Little League and I notice your Twitter picture is of you in a uniform? Did you play for a lot of teams?

JW: I played little league. I wouldn’t write home about it, but I played third base, caught, a little bit of outfield. Overseas it could be a little tougher to find leagues to play in, but every time I moved back to the United States in elementary school I would find a league to play in. I played little league and in high school. I even played for my high school team in Belgium, which played other international schools. I don’t think I was that good and I only had one career high school home run. But it was fun to play overseas.

MB: So you’ve been covering the Nats since 2012 after covering high school sports before that. How did you get up to speed on the team and the issues they were facing?

JW: While I was covering high school sports at the Post, I would always read up on the Nats and I watched games. I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I am now, but I had a general sense of what was going on. Sometimes while I was covering high school sports they would send me over to Nats Park to help out, maybe Opening Day or help out when someone took some days off. I would also sometimes get sent over to Nats Park to speak to a Spanish speaking player. So I was a little familiar with the team when I was added to the Nats beat with the great Adam Kilgore mid-way through the 2012 season. It’s not easy getting up to speed on a team, but if you ask questions people can help you out. It also helps to be around it every day.

MB: Chelsea Janes, the new Nats reporter, also covered high school sports before joining the Nats beat. Is that something reporters need to do before they go to the Nats?

JW: That’s a good observation. No, I don’t think you have to start out covering high school sports, but many people in the sports journalism world start there. It’s just the way you move your way up. You start somewhere, show your talent and ability and then move your way up. You don’t have to do it, but I bet most sports reporters started covering high school sports at the beginning of their careers.

MB: What’s the hardest part of your job, being the beat reporter for the Nationals?

JW: It’s hard to have enough time for the job – it’s a lot of work. It’s a huge time commitment, 162 games and 30 spring training games, plus the playoffs.   Baseball is a grind and everyone knows it, for the players, the coaches, and the people around it every day. No other pro sports team has that many games. On a personal level, it’s tough to manage the stress, but that’s the nature of the job. There’s a lot of things that happen during the baseball season, you try to make sure you don’t get beat on a story, you make sure you write something well. You get pulled in a lot of different directions and there’s a lot to keep track of. As you get more experience you learn how to deal with it better, but there’s a lot to keep track of. But that’s the beauty of the sport: the everyday nature of baseball.

MB: Can you explain your normal day as a reporter during the season?

JW: During a normal regular season, 7pm game, I try to get to the stadium at 2:30pm to see the lineup go up, catch up on what I’m going to write for the day, get interviews, talk about what’s going well or not going so well with the team. Then I go down to the clubhouse and talk to the players for 30 or 40 minutes. We talk to Matt Williams around 4pm for his press conference – he talks to reporters before every game except on Sundays. Then we go to the field to watch batting practice and talk to some players there and watch the guys hit. There we talk to team officials. I then go up to the press box around 5:30pm to write the pre-game post. After that I watch and cover the game. I write the game story as it’s going on, so I can send it in to my editor right when the game ends, obviously without any quotes or anything. Then I go back down to the clubhouse and talk to the players and get some quotes. Then after that, it might be 11pm or midnight, I write a morning post too. The next morning I work on the longer feature story ideas, maybe transcribe interviews or work on some other longer form stories. I also take advantage of the mornings to keep in touch with the wide range of baseball contacts, everyone from agents to other people affiliated with the team, and things going on with other teams. Some days are really long, especially when we are traveling from city to city.

MB: Now that you’ve visited all of the NL ballparks and most of the AL ballparks, what is your favorite press box to work in and why?

JW: I haven’t been to all of the ballparks, but I’ve been to most. Citizens Bank Park in Philly has a pretty great press box to work in. Nats Park is really comfortable too, but the only complaint most people say is that you’re pretty high up in the air and its tough to see the game and specific pitches some times. I like AT&T Park in San Francisco, even though the space is a little tight. Coors Field and Marlins Park are also pretty nice.

MB: The hitting in the postseason wasn’t great, other than Harper and Rendon. Have you talked to Matt Williams about why he didn’t move Harper up in the lineup to, like, where Adam LaRoche was hitting, and what do you think he’ll do this season?

JW: Based on what Matt Williams has said, I think you will see Harper this season hitting probably 3, 4, or 5, but it depends on which pitcher they are facing. Guys on the team said they felt Harper turned the corner during the playoff series, even though it was only a couple of games. It was a good jumping off point for next season.

Matt said that the reason Harper was hitting so low in the order, which was puzzling to some people, was that Harper was injured and struggling at the plate and it made more sense to put him in a lower pressure situation. You can argue with that or not, but I think that in time, based on what Matt has said, that Harper will move back up next season.

MB: The Nats traded Zach Walters, a possible second base candidate, for Asdrubal Cabrera at the deadline last season, but now since Cabrera signed with the Rays, the Nats don’t have anything left from the deal except playoff losses. Do you think the Nats would have been better off trading Ryan Mattheus or Ross Detwiler?

JW: That’s one that in hindsight the team might be thinking “shoot, we’d like to have Walters back.” They had a chance to play Walters at second, a position that wasn’t that familiar to him, but the team didn’t play him there too much. Zach was really bounced around. He played some second base at Syracuse. At one point the Nats even played Walters in left. Walters had a really strong arm, but he made a fair number of defensive errors when he was playing the middle infield in the minors. Zach’s strengths are a really strong throwing arm, power bat, and a physical player. The team gambled that at the trade deadline they needed a veteran contact hitter more than Walters in that moment. When you’re in the heat of the pennant race and you have a hole in your lineup and a need for someone to fill a position, you kind of have to make the move and then worry about the consequences later. At the time the Nats needed someone to solidify the infield with Zimmerman’s hamstring injury, especially with the playoffs looming. That trade was probably one of Mike Rizzo’s most “win now” moves. He traded for a guy for two months, where most of the time Rizzo trades for guys under control for more than just that season. In the moment you can’t really worry about it, you need someone now to win. In hindsight, the team didn’t get past the first round in the playoffs and you almost wish you still had the prospect. But at the time, that’s what you needed to do.

MB: Have you heard about any extensions of Jordan Zimmermann or Ian Desmond?

JW: Last I checked in it didn’t sound like anything was really brewing. Jordan Zimmermann’s agent and Mike Rizzo talked during the Winter Meetings, but it was more just to catch up and see where things stand, rather than working on a deal. So it doesn’t sound like anything is happening there. With Desmond it doesn’t sound like anything is happening on that front either. Reports keep mentioning Desmond’s name in trade rumors and possibilities and it’s kind of hard to imagine that extension talks are going on at the same time as they are engaging other teams in potential trades for him. It seems like there was more going on last offseason to extend Desmond than this off season.

MB: What are you expectations for the Nationals in 2015? Do you think they will win the NL East and get past the divisional series in the playoffs? {This was before the Scherzer signing}

JW: That’s tough. The playoffs are so hard to predict. And I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it really is a crapshoot, you don’t know where it’s going to go, especially in the short series first round of the playoffs. You play 162 games and then the season comes down to 5 games. The talent that got you through 162 games might not always come up in 5 games. Look at last year’s offense – they did better all season than they did during the 4 games against the Giants since it’s such a small sample size. You can’t really predict how you’re going to do in the playoffs. You need a plan, and then just hope you can get there. Once you get to the playoffs, you hope that your stars, the guys with the really stand out talent like Jordan Zimmermann and Bryce Harper, shine. You’d think the Nats are the favorite to repeat the NL East title, but nothing is a given. The Marlins are a better team. The Mets, you can be unsure about their offense, but their pitching is good. The Braves and the Phillies haven’t really gotten any better. You think the Nats have a good chance at repeating in the division but beyond that, who knows. The Cardinals got better in the off-season, with Jason Heyward. You have to think with the window they have to win, the Nats are really going to go for the World Series and try to win with this group.

Thank you again to James Wagner who spent his time during the bustling offseason to do this Matt’s Bats chat. I can’t wait to read what he and rookie Chelsea Janes have to say this season in the Washington Post about the Nats. The good news is we have less than three weeks to wait for Spring Training baseball to start!


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