An old coach and a young Braves infield - the perfect combo

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The firm of Freeman, Albies, Swanson and Riley is now a leader in its field - the infield. And as it rises to eminence in the National League, so, too, it’s fervently believed, will the Braves. It’s kind of a package deal.

From his executive office – neither wood-paneled nor leather-upholstered; mostly grass, clay and spit – Ron Washington soaks in the success.

“That’s what’s most gratifying – the growth,” the Braves third base/infield defense coach said, “seeing them from the first time I arrived here in Atlanta and seeing where they are today.”

There’s more. Washington never lacks for more to say: “They have grown tremendously, not only physically, but mentally. That’s the joy, when the game starts, to sit back and watch ‘em play. They make mistakes like anybody else, but I tell you what, they get after it. They believe in defense. It’s a part of them. It’s so much a part of them. That’s what you try to build, and that’s the joy I get just watching them play.”

It is one of the great cross-generational partnerships in baseball. A still young infield – only first baseman Freddie Freeman is on the other side of 30, with second baseman Ozzie Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley at third averaging out at 25 years old – and the 69-year-old coach who has connected with them in a joyful, productive, almost familial way.

Their bond is built upon the daily ritual of brief, concentrated fielding drills of Washington’s invention. Individually, each player pops out pregame to a patch of foul-ground grass, where “Wash,” as he’s known in these quarters, feeds him about 100 ground balls, some by hand, some off the narrow barrel of his surgical fungo bat. Using a variety of gloves ranging from what looks like a small, round throw pillow to their game-day leather, taking hops from their knees and while on their feet, each infielder builds upon various skills. Refining hand-eye coordination. Catching the ball in the palm of the glove rather than the webbing. Pairing athletic ability with proper positioning and the best angles from which to wrangle a bounding hardball. Growing closer around the pursuit of a shared goal.

“There is no perfection in baseball,” the shaman of infield play said. “Sometimes the ball is going to beat us. But the majority of the time we’re going to beat the ball before it has a chance to beat us. That’s what that’s about on the side every single day.”

Two traits define these drills.

First, the running commentary/banter supplied by the chatty Washington, rated as it is a hard R. “He is one of those baseball guys you can’t bring your kids around, but it’s just fun,” Freeman said as he chuckled. “He goes at it with Ozzie all day long – one thing after another.”

Secondly, there’s the devotion the players show them. This is the secular baseball version of daily Mass.

The drills aren’t mandatory. “I’ll be at a spot from 2 o’clock to 4:30, or in the mornings during spring training, I’m there from 7:30 to 9:30. If they want something, come get it. If they don’t come, I’m not upset,” Washington said. “Someone is going to show up, and that someone who shows up, if he’s coming to get something, he’s going to get it, and everybody else is going to see it and everybody is going to want some of it.”

No day goes by with Washington idle. A guy may take a pass here or there over the season’s long haul. Although he can’t recall the last session missed by Freeman or Albies, with whom Washington formed a particularly strong bond when he began with the Braves in 2017 and the then-prospect was coming back from a fractured elbow with little else to do but drill.

What would seem to be the height of monotony has become a trademark of an infield that is coming together like a sturdy brick wall. With Washington as the mason.

“It can get repetitive,” Freeman said. “There are day games where you think, ‘Aw, I can take a day off.’ But you don’t want to because it’s actually fun, and you’ve made it a part of your routine. When you have a guy who is almost 70 who brings that kind of energy every single day – who is working pretty much as hard as we are on a daily basis, well, it’s just amazing what he does and what he means to us.”

At the plate, what this Braves infield is doing now hardly meshes with Washington’s experience. All four have more home runs thus far this season than Washington hit over parts of 10 seasons as a utility infielder with five teams through the 1980s (20). He’ll tell you there’s a good reason for this: Players are bigger and stronger, and pitching is watered down. “That’s just my opinion,” he said. And he’ll run out of opinions when Vidalia runs out of onions.

From the confines of his third-base box, it’s Washington’s job to keep waving Braves base runners home. Defensively is where he has a more personal connection to his guys. And when any of them make a play like Riley did Sunday to secure a one-run win over Washington – a diving, game-ending stab of a ground ball up the line – Washington shares in a healthy slice of satisfaction. “What makes me so proud of every one of those guys is how they apply the things they work on every single day,” he said.

The secret to relationship he has built? Pay attention CEOs, you might learn something.

“Listening and learning, those are the two qualities any teacher/coach has to have,” he said.

“You have to listen. And when you’re learning, it’s not just one-way, it’s two ways. The only way you can know what they need and be able to give it to them all the time is to listen to what they’re talking about. And when you listen, you learn about the people. Then as a coach, you know how to approach them.”

Furthermore, “Players want to be led. They want to be responsible. You make them responsible by not forcing them to do things but letting them know the availability is there. There is some wisdom, some knowledge, some experience, some growth – all of that is available if you want to come get it.”

There is something of Washington that has rubbed off on this unit. Yes, there are all his mechanics and theories for catching a ball. But also, there’s the constancy of his love for the game and the ageless service he has given it.

God knows Washington has had his trials. His imperfections have been run up the flagpole more than once. As the only manager who has taken the Texas Rangers to the World Series (in 2010 and ‘11), he tested positive for cocaine in 2010. He worked through that only to abruptly resign the job in 2014 to repair a marriage damaged by his infidelity, he said.

His disappointment in not being able to get another managing job remains to this day. “I have no doubt that if the opportunity presents itself, I can lead a club where it needs to go. I have no doubt about that,” Washington said last week.

Yet he never hesitated to take lesser jobs after leaving Texas, first with Oakland and then with the Braves. He couldn’t imagine not sharing himself with the next-generation ballplayer. Even now, with a 70th birthday tottering just ahead of him, he can’t see a day when he’s not out leading a drill.

“My body aches just like any 69-year-old guy’s body aches,” he said. “But I have a purpose every day. My purpose is to come to the ballpark for a game I dearly love. I never stopped loving the game of baseball. I’m on this earth right now – just like the guys who preceded me and taught me – to make a difference and try to help.”

“Right now, my mind is still working. As far as my body goes, my body does what I tell it to,” Washington said.

The coach continues to coach himself up, too – ultimately some of his best work yet.