Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Miguel Batista, who debuted today, believes he can help the Nats win now.
There are stranger characters in the game of baseball, but not many as diversely talented as Batista, a 38-year-old right-hander who not only has made 530 appearances in the big leagues but has also published two books. One is a collection of poetry in Spanish, titled "Sentimientos en Blanco y Negro" ("Feelings in Black and White"). The other, which just went to print in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico earlier this year, is a crime novel called "The Avenger of Blood."
Find another big-leaguer with THAT on his resume.
"We referred to him in Arizona as a 'Renaissance Man,'" said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who served as the Diamondbacks' scouting director when Batista pitched there earlier this decade. "He was in the middle of authoring a book in Spanish. And he would read poetry. He'd listen to classical music in the clubhouse. But I also remember him from those years in Game 3 of the World Series in New York pitching one heck of a game in a give-me-the-ball type of roll. Everyone remembers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling as the two horses. But Miguel was a close third as far as being valuable to that club."
Published writer or not, classical music lover or not, Batista knows his real contribution to the Nationals will come on the pitcher's mound. A non-roster invitee to spring training, he's by no means guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he's certainly going to be given a real shot to earn that job. He started today against the Braves, allowing two runs and three hits over two innings, and he'll get more opportunities to pitch out of the rotation and the bullpen this spring.
It's that versatility, the ability to either start or relieve, that makes Batista such an intriguing option for this club. In an ideal world, the Nationals would have five better starters at their disposal and use Batista as a long reliever and spot-starter who could fill in if needed. But four weeks from now, if there aren't five clearly better choices to start, Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman are perfectly comfortable putting him in the rotation.
Give Batista his choice and he'd much rather start. "It's more convenient for me, because you know when you're pitching," he said. "Being a reliever, you have to wait for the phone to ring."
But the veteran has had plenty of success in 293 career relief appearances and even saved 35 games for the Blue Jays in 2005. That track record of durability and versatility has helped keep him a sought-after commodity over the years, and it attracted the Nationals to seek his services this winter, even if Batista is a bit reticent about it all.
"Well, it has been a curse in a lot of ways," he said. "But you know, it has kept me in the mind of a lot of my coaches. Physically and mentally, I'm the guy that can take the abuse of doing that, pitching long or no rest. But mostly, I want to be able to be a reliable guy, the guy who can go out there every five days and give us a win, keep us into the game for seven or eight innings."
Batista actually hasn't started a game since Aug. 4, 2008 for the Mariners, so he was admittedly a bit anxious this morning as gametime approached. "I was looking at the clock, and we still had 45 minutes [to go]," he said.
Once on the mound, he looked a tad rusty. Though he cruised through the first inning, inducing three straight groundouts, he began falling behind Atlanta's hitters in the second and wound up allowing three hits and two walks, leading to two runs.
But Batista's velocity was there -- his fastball was consistently in the low 90s -- and he said he took more positives than negatives out of this debut.
"I see that my stuff is there," he said. "I just need to be more aggressive in the strike zone, especially early in the count."
When looking for work this winter, Batista had options. Other clubs called, some of them presenting a better chance for immediate success than a Washington franchise that has lost a combined 205 games the last two years.
But he insists he saw something special taking place here. He saw offseason additions like Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Ivan Rodriguez, and he saw homegrown talent like Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and even the lesser-known Juan Jaime, and came to the conclusion he could help this franchise win. Not down the road. Now.
"When I was contacted by this team and they told me what they were doing, I was thrilled to see the guys they were putting together," he said. "I believe we're going to turn this organization around, quick. It's not going to take years. It's going to be very quick."
Whether Batista proves to be part of that club remains to be seen. He's by no means assured of winning a roster spot, either in the rotation or in the bullpen. But the Nats do believe he could play some vital role this season.
If he does make it, Batista's mission will be clear: Use his experience to help guide his younger teammates through the travails of a 162-game season, perhaps helping lead those kids to far greater success in 2010 than most believe it possible.
"I've been in first place and I've been in last place. So I know the difference between the two sides of the rope," he said. "And there's something that I want to be able to teach some of these young kids. When you have seen the top of the mountain, you never want to go back. It's like your whole career just flips. You become an icon in society. You become an icon of pride for your community. You know, it's true what Mr. Lombardi used to say: 'Winning is not everything. It's the only thing.' That's why you go out there. You want to win."
Ballplayer or poet, pitcher or author, that's a sentiment anyone can understand.