Spring in their step

Nats and new cen­ter fielder De­nard Span get ready to open camp

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM KIL­GORE IN TAMPA

One morn­ing last month, De­nard Span was in­side a yoga stu­dio, talk­ing about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions. As he un­rolled a pur­ple mat over the lac­quered wooden floor, his in­struc­tor told him about all the peo­ple who sign up in Jan­uary and drop the prac­tice a month later. Stand­ing in bare feet, black mesh shorts and a white T-shirt, Span shook his head. “Con­sis­tency, man,” he said.

He had driven from his home — high ceil­ings ev­ery­where, framed base­ball jer­seys around a pool ta­ble up­stairs, a bat­ting cage in the back yard, and two chirp­ing Yorkies run­ning around — and parked his white Range Rover on the gravel drive­way at the Lo­tus Pond stu­dio as sched­uled: ev­ery Wed­nes­day at 8:30 a.m. Yoga has be­come part of Span’s rou­tine since a friend rec­om­mended it a year ago. It keeps his mus­cles flex­i­ble over the long base­ball sea­son and it cen­ters his fo­cus, he said, “away from the trauma” — the con­cus­sion that briefly threat­ened his ca­reer.

Span, 28, con­quered that hur­dle, and now the re­minders of his next base­ball phase are all around him. The Washington Na­tion­als traded their best prospect, pitcher Alex Meyer, to pry Span from the Min­nesota Twins in late Novem­ber. Span moved from the only fran­chise he had ever known, a team cur­rently at the bot­tom of the Amer­i­can League, to be­come the lead­off hit­ter and cen­ter fielder for a World Se­ries con­tender. In De­cem­ber, he looked at ren­tal houses around Crys­tal City and Na­tion­als Park. He got lost in Ge­orge­town with his girl­friend, Shadonna, look­ing for new sneak­ers. When his fam­ily came to his house for din­ner one night, they scooped grilled chicken breast and salmon onto their plates us­ing a spat­ula with a curly W etched into it.

Play­ing along­side Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, Span may not be­come the big­gest base­ball star in Washington. Odds are he will come to be adored, and not just be­cause he gives the Na­tion­als an un­fa­mil­iar lead­off threat and cov­ers ground in cen­ter field with the speed that once earned him a schol­ar­ship of­fer from Florida — as a wide re­ceiver.

The Twins gave Span an award this win­ter for his com­mu­nity ser­vice work, par­tic­u­larly the time he spent with chil­dren who, like him, are prod­ucts of sin­gle-mother homes. In high school, he spent so much time in­side the bat­ting cage he made his weary coach re­gret in­stalling lights. He speaks with his mother ev­ery day, he said, or else “it will feel like we haven’t talked to each other in two weeks.” He does not smoke, drink, curse or swing at bad pitches.

“They’re not go­ing to have to worry about him,” said Henry Allen, Span’s un­cle. ‘He wanted the ball in his hands’

Span be­gan his prepa­ra­tion for his first sea­son in Washington in De­cem­ber, and it brought him here, to the yoga stu­dio de­signed like a log cabin, tucked into the woods. He sat cross-legged, fore­arms on his knees, his thumb and in­dex fin­ger form­ing a cir­cle. The in­struc­tor told Span and his friend, Toronto Blue Jays mi­nor lea­guer Kenny Wil­son, to fo­cus and ex­pel neg­a­tive en­ergy with their ex­hales. Wil­son re­mained mostly quiet. Span, over and over, re­sponded with a force­ful, throaty “Hah!” The in­struc­tor com­pli­mented him on his breath­ing.

Span has al­ways wanted to please peo­ple, he says, which did not al­ways serve him well as he climbed the rungs of his ca­reer lad­der. Af­ter the Twins se­lected him in the first round in 2002, the hit­ting in­struc­tion he re­ceived felt like a bar­rage. They wanted to change the way he hit, the swing he had taught him­self.

Span learned to hit in­side the bat­ting cages at the Grand Prix Fam­ily Fun Cen­ter here on North Ne­braska Av­enue. The place boasts, in bright red let­ters on a yel­low sign, the “FASTEST GO-KARTS IN TAMPA!” It also has a full ar­cade, mini golf and nine bat­ting cages. The sign on the fence reads, “Can you hit a 95 MPH fast­ball? Try it here!!!!!”

Span learned, trial and er­ror, one to­ken at a time. He still calls it by its former name, the Mal­ibu. His mother, Wanda Wil­son, worked 12-hour days, first as an in­surance claims ad­jus­tor and then op­er­at­ing a day-care cen­ter, to raise Span and Ray, his older brother. He has a re­la­tion­ship with his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, but he lived in Fort Laud­erdale, largely out of De­nard’s life. Span grew up in a mid­dle-class part of Tampa want­ing for noth­ing. “We were blessed,” he said. But his mother did not have the time or money for camps, per­sonal in­struc­tion or pri­vate coaches.

“What clinic?” Wil­son said, laugh­ing. “He and Ray was the clinic.”

Once foot­ball sea­son ended or af­ter bad games dur­ing base­ball sea­son, Wil­son took Span to the Mal­ibu. One dol­lar bought 20 pitches, yel­low, rub­ber balls flung at him by a me­chan­i­cal arm. Af­ter he fed $4 or $5 into the ma­chine, Span had ironed out the flaws in his swing.

Wil­son signed Span up for T-ball when he was 4. By the time he was 9, he would me­an­der over to Ray’s games at the se­nior field and stand be­hind the back­stop, bark­ing in­struc­tions: Choke up! Line your knuck­les up! Stretch your legs! Ray al­ways hit bet­ter when his kid brother came.

“I knew he was some­thing spe­cial in base­ball,” Ray Span said. “I’m not say­ing that be­cause he’s my brother. He wanted to be that lead­off hit­ter. He wanted to be the cen­ter fielder. He wanted the ball in his hands. He wanted to win.”

As De­nard grew older, he tog­gled from one sea­son to the next, never spe­cial­iz­ing in base­ball. He re­ceived at­ten­tion from col­lege foot­ball coaches, and his base­ball tal­ent led him to trans­fer from Hills­bor­ough to Tampa Catholic, a lo­cal pow­er­house.

“To be a great player and make good, ma­ture de­ci­sions — as coaches, you’re al­ways try­ing to get your best ath­letes to do that,” said Chuck Yin­gling, Span’s coach at Tampa Catholic. “That was some­thing that was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to him. He’s def­i­nitely a rare case to have the tools you want your kids to have and was also a great team player to go with it.” ‘Base­ball is the sport for me’

Span still thought of him­self as a foot­ball player first un­til late in high school, when he re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to a tryout for a na­tional youth team that in­cluded the coun­try’s top prospects, fu­ture top draft picks such as B. J. Up­ton and Scott Kazmir.

“I was ex­pect­ing them to be like God, 7-foot tall,” Span said. “I got there, and they were great play­ers. But I said, ‘ They’re no bet­ter than I am. Th­ese guys are go­ing to be top-five picks. I’m right there. Base­ball is the sport for me.’ Be­fore that, I thought I was go­ing to go to col­lege and play foot­ball.”

Span did not re­al­ize how fre­quently high school play­ers were cho­sen in the draft, but as scouts be­gan hang­ing around him, he came to un­der­stand he could turn pro­fes­sional. Af­ter the Twins took him with the 20th pick in 2002, he turned down his schol­ar­ship of­fer to Florida.

He still had so much to learn. The Twins al­tered his me­chan­ics, tak­ing away his nat­u­ral ath­leti­cism and try­ing to give him a more tra­di­tional ap­proach. He had never thought much about his swing, and the tin­ker­ing wore on him. He wanted to fol­low ev­ery in­struc­tion, to make his coaches happy, and he thought too much.

“I had a hard time,” Span said. “My nat­u­ral abil­ity wasn’t do­ing what it needed to be do­ing, be­cause I’m think­ing too much. I’m think­ing about ev­ery­thing that I’ve never thought about.”

He leaned, as he al­ways did, on fam­ily. “I’m def­i­nitely a mama’s boy,” Span said. At his first pro­fes­sional games in the Gulf Coast League, Wil­son and Allen, his un­cle, would some­times be the only two peo­ple in the stands, Wil­son’s voice echo­ing through the empty ball­park.

“She knows what I need to hear men­tally,” Span said. “If I’m go­ing through a strug­gle or what­ever, she knows when to con­sole me. And then she knows when to say some­thing to get me ticked off or fired up, to push me. She knows best.”

He reached the ma­jors in 2008, al­most six years af­ter the Twins drafted him, and quickly es­tab­lished him­self as their cen­ter fielder with a .387 on-base per­cent­age. Given the chance, he en­trenched him­self in the com­mu­nity. He as­sisted at the lo­cal RBI Pro­gram, MLB’s ini­tia­tive to pro­mote base­ball in the in­ner city.

Span de­voted time and do­na­tions to the Jeremiah Pro­gram, a char­ity de­signed to sup­port sin­gle moth­ers. He held a bowl­ing event to raise money. On mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions he vis­ited the lo­cal chap­ter, where he would spend an hour or two play­ing with the kids.

“He un­der­stood the chal­lenges sin­gle moms have, and he took it very per­son­ally,” said An­gela Wood­house, the di­rec­tor of ma­jor events at Jeremiah Pro­gram. “It was just him and the kids. Moms were tak­ing pic­tures. It wasn’t an op­por­tu­nity to get at­ten­tion for him­self. He was do­ing it for the kids.” ‘I want to be an all-star’

Span’s ca­reer changed on June 5, 2011, at Kauf­mann Sta­dium in Kansas City. He ripped a line drive down the left field line, and as the ball rat­tled around the cor­ner, he be­gan think­ing in­side-the-park home run. Af­ter Span sped around the bases, he col­lided with Brayan Pena, a catcher built like a bull. Span’s head smacked Pena’s shoul­der. His neck snapped back vi­o­lently.

“I wasn’t un­con­scious,” Span said. “I re­mem­ber get­ting up and feel­ing winded. I thought it was nor­mal.”

Span fin­ished the game, but the haze hadn’t lifted. He sat two days and went 0 for 4 in his re­turn. The room moved as he sat still. A fog filled his mind. He was scared.

Tests re­vealed Span had a con­cus­sion. It was hard for him to ex­plain symp­toms to train­ers and team­mates. Af­ter a month, Span still could not play. The Twins started los­ing more, and he be­gan see­ing his name sur­face in trade ru­mors. He had never been a pub­lic trade tar­get, and the stress from the ru­mors com­pounded the stress from try­ing to re­turn from his con­cus­sion.

It all be­come too much: The fast pace of his team­mates buzzing around the club­house and play­ing mu­sic. The ca­coph­ony of loud crowds and sta­dium speak­ers. The sour mood af­ter losses. The re­porters ask­ing when he would play.

“I’m just sit­ting in my chair feel­ing worth­less,” Span said. “When you go through con­cus­sions, I later found your emo­tions [change]. I feel like I had es­tro­gen in me or some­thing. Ev­ery­thing lit­tle thing both­ered me. I was moody all the time. There were just a lot of com­po­nents that had en­tered into my body I had never felt.”

Span missed all of July and played nine games in Au­gust be­fore he was side­lined for an­other 34 games. Af­ter his con­cus­sion, Span mus­tered seven hits and three walks in 60 plate ap­pear­ances. He needed to move past the or­deal and con­vince

“It’s al­most like the sea­son is fast­for­ward­ing in my mind. I want to be the best I can be.”

De­nard Span, Na­tion­als cen­ter fielder

him­self his ca­reer would not be de­railed.

A friend in­sisted he try yoga. He started af­ter the 2011 sea­son, and he found the prac­tice help­ful. He eased back into spring train­ing be­fore the 2012 sea­son, and by open­ing day he felt nor­mal.

“When you have a con­cus­sion, men­tally ev­ery­thing is dis­traught,” Span said. “Your mind is psy­cho­log­i­cally, men­tally, you’re all over the place. It was good for me last year to find yoga, just to bring all that back to that cen­tered place.”

On that re­cent morn­ing ear­lier this month, Span’s in­struc­tor con­cluded his class with shavasana, or “corpse pose.” The in­struc­tor re­minded him and Wil­son to lie on their backs and re­lax as much as pos­si­ble: Close your eyes. Make your bones heavy. Fo­cus on your breath­ing. Think about the one thing you want to change.

As he rested on the ground, his breaths mea­sured and loud, Span vi­su­al­ized him­self at the Home Run Derby, sit­ting in foul ground, en­joy­ing the spec­ta­cle at his first all-star game. He pic­tured him­self smil­ing and jog­ging down the first base line as the pub­lic ad­dress an­nouncer bel­lowed his name dur­ing in­tro­duc­tions. He en­vi­sioned slid­ing into home with the win­ning run of an Oc­to­ber game, then high-fiv­ing a pack of Na­tion­als team­mates in the dugout.

“It’s al­most like the sea­son is fast-for­ward­ing in my mind,” Span said. “I want to be the best I can be. I want to be an all-star.”

The faces of his team­mates are hazy. The de­tails of the home dugout at Na­tion­als Park do not come. They will have to be filled in dur­ing the coming months, as he gets to know Washington and Washington gets to know him.

There is one other thing he thinks about, the one thing that lets him know he has, again, achieved con­sis­tency.

“Be­liev­ing that I’m okay,” Span said, “and ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be all right.”

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

VI­SION QUEST: De­nard Span in the bat­ting cages last month in Florida. “I want to be an all-star,” says the cen­ter fielder.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MCDON­NELL/ THE WASHINGTON POST

MEET THE NEW GUY: De­nard Span, shown here work­ing out last month in Wes­ley Chapel, Fla., doesn’t drink, smoke or swing at bad pitches. He cov­ers plenty of ground in cen­ter field and speaks to his mother ev­ery day. “He’s def­i­nitely a rare case to have the tools you want your kids to have and was also a great team player to go with it,” says Chuck Yin­gling, his high school coach.

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