Washington Nationals coach Mark Weidemaier talks his beginnings with Waynesboro Generals
Mark Weidemaier talks with Matt Williams every day at 2 p.m. sharp. Pitchers and catchers don’t report for a couple more weeks, but the Washington Nationals aren’t a favorite to win the 2015 World Series because of lack of planning.
“There’s no question that in this day and age, any edge that you can gain during the course of a nine-inning game, with the amount of money involved and everything that goes into it, you put that work in,” said Weidemaier, whose 35-year odyssey to the big leagues included a two-year stint as the coach of the Waynesboro Generals in the Valley League.
Then a junior-college coach at Montreat-Anderson in North Carolina, Weidemaier was hired by former Generals owner Charlie Jones in 1981. It was a big step up for Weidemaier that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would open some important doors.
All he could think at the time, though, was how to score more runs. His first team failed to make the VBL playoffs, and he remembers specifically that the Generals lost 14 one-run games that summer as being a key reason.
The 1982 season went a lot better, with the Generals advancing to the Valley League championship series.
“When I came back in ’82, I think I did a considerably better job recruiting, broadened my net, so to speak, and brought in some players that were better suited to playing summer college baseball,” Weidemaier said.
After the 1982 Valley League season, Weidemaier was hired by the Kansas City Royals organization, a step up the ladder that he attributes directly to connections made in Waynesboro.
“I really don’t think you can put a value on how great the experience was, and really what a tremendous opportunity it was to get to meet some of the scouts that were covering the league personally, for them to get an idea of the kind of work ethic that I had, the job that I was going to do,” Weidemaier said.
The road to The Show included literally millions of miles on buses that started on buses taking the Generals to games up and down I-81. Weidemaier worked as a coach, scout and minor-league manager for the Royals, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations before Matt Williams tapped him last season to join his staff in Washington.
Williams hired Weidemaier to serve as the staff’s defensive positioning coach. Think defensive coordinator in football, and you’re close to what Weidemaier does on a daily basis, starting before each game and actually each series with the development of game plans that go into detail on how the Nats plan to defense each individual hitter in the opponent’s lineup and on their bench.
The strategy includes close coordination with pitching coach Steve McCatty and the pitching staff on what their approach is hitter by hitter, with adjustments thought out based on game situations.
Weidemaier also needs to coordinate with the club’s advance scouts who travel ahead of the team to provide detailed reports on what hitters are doing.
“There’s so much more going on in the game now analytically with spray charts and shaded charts that show probabilities of where balls are hit. There’s an awful lot to look at,” Weidemaier said. “It’s still a game played by human beings, and once the first pitch is thrown, you have to make adjustments in-game, obviously. But I think the preparation in today’s game is obviously greater than it’s ever been.”
The stakes have been raised for the Nationals heading into 2015. After posting the best regular-season record in the National League in 2014, Washington added prize free-agent pitcher Max Scherzer to an already deep starting rotation featuring Steven Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister, making the Nats a trendy early World Series favorite.
How is that impacting Weidemaier’s job?
“There’s no question that we have one of the better pitching staffs not only in the National League, but in all of baseball,” said Weidemaier, who values the input of Nats pichers in the defensive game-planning.
“Guys like Doug Fister, for example, will actually sit in on our meetings, and he has a lot of input into where he would like to see our guys positioned based on how he’s going to approach pitching every hitter. Once it works in unison, it’s really good,” Weidemaier said.
“When you have that kind of pitching staff, it’s certainly an advantage, but let’s face it, once the ball is put into play, you have to play defense. So along with great pitching, you need to have good defense. We did it pretty well last year, and I think we’re going to do even better this year.”
It’s not lost on Weidemaier that he shows up for work every day not all that far from where he got his big break in baseball. He also keeps close to the front of his mind the time spent on buses in the Valley and in the minors, though that’s not all that hard to do, considering that after more than 30 years in pro baseball, it was just last year that he finally found himself in uniform in a major-league dugout.
For Weidemaier, his first game in uniform, an exhibition game against the New York Mets last March, will be a day that he will never forget.
“I’d been to the Port St. Lucie stadium many times as a scout, but to put the uniform on and actually, OK, it’s game time, even though it was an exhibition game, it was like, Wow, I finally made it,” Weidemaier said. “It was surreal, to a certain extent. It was a long road. I’ve never really had a job in professional baseball that I didn’t enjoy, but to make it to the big leagues as a uniformed coach is kind of the pinnacle. To get to that position was overwhelming, to a degree.
“You don’t really realize it until the end of the year and you think about it, because during the season you’re so involved in the daily work,” Weidemaier said. “It hit me that first exhibition game, and then at the end of the year, when everything was said and done, we actually had a marvelous year, 96 wins, the best record in the National League, unfortunately a quick end to the postseason to the world champion San Francisco Giants, but looking back and taking it all in, it’s just wonderful. To have the opportunity to go to work every day and spend every day at the great baseball cathedral, it’s just wonderful. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue.”
Taking a break from getting ready for spring training, the regular season, a run at a World Series, Weidemaier took a moment to reflect on where it all started for him.
“The support shown by the community was tremendous,” Weidemaier said. “Mr. Jones was a wonderful owner to work for. Some of the characters in the league, from Jim Lineweaver, who was the owner and general manager of the Harrisonburg Turks, I can remember going to Harrisonburg at midnight for a coin-flip regarding the playoffs, and it was almost like something you’d see on I Spy or something, like a covert operation. Mr. Lineweaver was a character. Chick Crawford, who was an umpire for years, what a character.
“Some of these guys are just legends, and it’s a tribute to the league. When you look at some of the players who came through the Valley League that went on to have tremendous professional and major-league careers, from Denny Walling right on down the line, the league has a tremendous history,” Weidemaier said.
The memories are fond memories.
“Back in the day, I thought the Valley League, with the bus rides and everything, as I got into professional baseball, managing in the minor leagues, was a real true experience for any young man wanting to get into professional baseball, because it was a very, very similar experience to what they would go through in the minor leagues,” Weidemaier said.
“The league has stayed strong, and it continues to provide a tremendous opportunity for young players who are looking to further develop as a player and to be seen by scouts. I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer.”
– Story by Chris Graham