Commentary

Jayson Werth 'welcomed' back to Philly

Now with Nationals, $126 million man returns to plenty of boos and a few cheers

Updated: May 4, 2011, 9:53 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Jayson Werth bounded up the visiting clubhouse steps at precisely 5 p.m. ET Tuesday, with enthusiasm to spare and an Ed Rendell-like sense of how to work the room. Werth might look like a California surfer behind that beard and those expensive shades. But at heart, he's just a Springfield, Ill.-born, flesh-pressing everyman.

Before stretching and after batting practice, Werth shook hands and exchanged hugs and/or smiles with security people, grounds crew members and the assorted bat boy at Citizens Bank Park. He said hello to broadcaster Gary Matthews and spent some time chatting up general manager Ruben Amaro, the guy who chose to invest $120 million in Cliff Lee and let the chips fall where they may in right field. During an eight-minute question-and-answer session with reporters in the dugout, he addressed old media friends by their first names and chuckled when it was noted that he happened to be returning to Philadelphia on Dollar Dog Night.

"I wonder how many hot dogs I'll get," Werth said, apparently giving serious thought to the arm strength of the patrons in the right-field stands.

Hey, when J.D. Drew came to Veterans Stadium in 1999, fans threw D-cell batteries and the Phillie Phanatic stacked bags of money in front of the St. Louis Cardinals' dugout, earning a reprimand from Drew's agent, Scott Boras. Compared to that display, Werth's reception was your basic love tap.

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
AP Photo/H. Rumph JrJayson Werth heard a few cheers in his return to Philly. But let's be real; it's Philly. So he heard a lot more boos.
It's been a busy week for homecomings in baseball. First Lance Berkman returned to his old haunts in Houston to a standing ovation and some barbed criticism from Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton. And Tuesday it was Werth's turn to come back to Philadelphia as the new No. 3 hitter for the Washington Nationals. For the record, he walked and stole a base, was robbed of a double on a sweet play by Placido Polanco, fouled out to first base and struck out swinging on a Cole Hamels changeup in the ninth inning of a 4-1 Philadelphia victory. A month into his new career adventure with the Nationals, Werth is hitting .226 with four homers and seven RBIs.

And now, mercifully, he can get on with his life.

"I enjoyed every second of it," Werth said. "I was glad to be back here. I loved playing here. Always have. Always will. No matter what."

Phillies fans seemed genuinely conflicted upon Werth's return. They watched him blossom from a star-crossed former No. 1 draft pick into an All-Star in his four seasons with the club, and they respected him for his attention to the subtleties of the game -- from his prolonged, discerning at-bats to his stellar defense to a brand of toughness that allowed him to thrive in big situations.

Beyond that, no Phillies fans with a grasp of reality or a capitalist spirit could begrudge him the opportunity to sign a deal so mind-boggling for a player with 684 career hits. Werth loved his teammates in Philly, felt comfortable in the clubhouse, and regarded Phillies manager Charlie Manuel as his benefactor and "father figure," as he put it. But the Phillies were never going to come close to the seven-year, $126 million deal he received from Washington, so he rode I-95 South to a new and more prominent chapter in his career.

Still, Phillies fans have a moral obligation to uphold the city's reputation for toughness, so they had to bust Werth's chops if only for sport. When he stepped to the plate against Hamels in the first inning, fans behind the third-base dugout waved signs bearing the messages "Welcome Back Loser,'' "Hippie Sellout,'' "Nice Beard Stupid'' and the succinct yet pithy "$tiff.'' Boos abounded when public address announcer Dan Baker introduced Werth, but they were gradually drowned out by applause. And as Werth tipped his cap in acknowledgement, more and more fans came to their feet.

"I wasn't too sure what I was going to get, so I was very grateful,'' Werth said. "For them to welcome me back like that, it meant a lot. After the four seasons I spent here and what we accomplished, it's definitely something I'll remember for a long time.''

When Werth took up residence in his old place of business in the bottom of the first, he acknowledged the fans in right field to mixed reviews. In the top of the second inning, they chanted, "Sell-out! Sell-out!''

Werth I enjoyed every second of it. I was glad to be back here. I loved playing here. Always have. Always will. No matter what.

-- Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth

In the stands and along the railings, assorted supporters still wore Werth jerseys. Douglas Blake, a 25-year-old Phillies fan from Woodbury, N.J., personified the mixed feelings toward Werth.

"It sucks that he took the money, and it sucks that he switched teams and we're without a five-hole hitter, but you gotta do what you gotta do,'' Blake said. "He put himself in that hole. He's on a horrible team, and they might be four or five years from actually contending. He dug his own grave.''

At the same time, Blake is like most Phillies fans: He has a terminal soft spot for anyone who played a part in that 2008 parade down Broad Street.

"He's been drafted on my fantasy team so many years,'' Blake said. "I loved him when he was here. And you know what? If I was in his place, I would have taken $126 million, too. Hands down.''

While the Phillies are 19-9 post-Werth on the strength of their amazing starting pitching, the Nationals are 14-15 and struggling to put runs on the board most nights. Ryan Zimmerman is out until at least mid-June with an abdominal injury, and Adam LaRoche, a notorious slow starter, has a balky shoulder and is hitting .181, so Werth isn't getting a lot of help in the middle of the lineup.

Until the bat comes around, Werth will contribute in other ways. He's provided the Nationals with a dose of aggressiveness on the bases, and he's not hesitant to speak up when he sees something he doesn't like. He's exhibiting some of the leadership qualities that were under wraps when he shared a clubhouse with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and a constellation of stars in Philadelphia.

"It's a pleasure to manage him,'' Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's athletic. He plays his position well out there and runs the bases, and he sets the tone for us. I don't see anything in his actions that indicates he's under pressure [because of his contract]. But it's a natural question to ask.''

As Tuesday's homecoming moved forward and the sense of anticipation waned, Werth heard more and more garden-variety boos with each at-bat. He has six years and lots more visits to Citizens Bank Park in his future. If he comes close to fulfilling the expectations of his mega-deal, maybe he'll get the Chipper Jones-David Wright treatment and the Philly fans will ride him strictly on merit.

"If I'm booed every day for the rest of my career here, I'll take that as a compliment,'' Werth said.

And if they want to mix in a few cheers for old time's sake, that's fine, too.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer