PHILADELPHIA -- Most days from May to August in 2006 Jayson Werth pushed his boat off shore, aimlessly floated and dropped a hook into Lake Springfield, bottom fishing for carp and the occasional bass.
"There's not a whole lot to catch in that lake," admits Werth, now the Phillies' starting right fielder. "I was just killing time, really."
Such a schedule would be a dream for the hobbyist fisherman, but these were summer months and, at 27, Werth should have been in the middle of his baseball prime. The Orioles' first-round pick in 1997 out of Glenwood High in Chatham, Ill., he made his major league debut in 2002 with the Blue Jays and started to hit his stride in '04 with the Dodgers, belting 16 home runs in just 89 games.
Werth was slated to open the '05 season as the Dodgers' everyday right fielder, only to be hit by a tailing A.J. Burnett fastball in the spring training opener, breaking the radius bone in his left wrist. He returned to play 102 games but batted just .234 with only seven home runs. Further examination of his wrist after the season found two torn ligaments, shelving Werth for all of '06 and sending him home to his native Springfield, Ill.
"I was in a weird place," recalls Werth. "I was given two and a half months to contemplate life. It wasn't like I was depressed. I was just really unsure about what was going to happen. My wrist was not capable of playing in the big leagues. I felt like my mind and my body were very capable, but I had an injury that no one at the time knew what was wrong."
One day at home, while checking the mailbox, Werth was approached by a family friend, who was an orthopedic surgeon. The doctor asked how the wrist was doing, heard Werth explain his futile attempts for second and third opinions and suggested he travel to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. There, Werth met a wrist specialist and pioneer in the field, Dr. Richard Berger, who made a new diagnosis -- a "split tear" of the ulnotriquetal ligament -- and operated on Werth.
The Dodgers, however, were unconvinced their outfielder would return to form and did not tender him a contract, but the next morning Phillies general manager Pat Gillick -- who was Baltimore's general manager when Werth was drafted -- called to offer an $850,000 free-agent deal.
Werth's playing time and production have improved almost exponentially in his three seasons in South Philly. Though he lacks the star power of teammates Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and didn't have a scorching, attention-grabbing hot streak to start the season like Raul Ibañez, Werth has gone from batting .298 with eight homers, 49 RBIs and seven stolen bases as a part-time player in 2007 to hitting .273 with 24 homers, 67 RBIs and 20 steals as the primary right fielder on the '08 World Series champions to hitting .268 with 36 homers, 99 RBIs and 20 steals this season. A season when, at age 30, he became an All-Star for the first time.
Jayson Werth is a patient man. In the batter's box, as he takes pitch after pitch, "I always feel like I have something better coming," he says.
In the first inning of last Wednesday's NLCS Game 5, Werth batted with two on and two out. Los Angeles had taken the early lead on an Andre Ethier homer in the top of the first, but Werth was in no rush to strike back. Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla started him with five straight fastballs, the first three barely off the outside corner, but the next two decidedly in the strike zone. Werth swung at none of them.
Only when he was good, ready and facing a full count did he deign to swing his maple MaxBat. The sixth pitch, also a fastball, Werth fouled out of play. And when Padilla's seventh straight four-seam fastball caught the middle of the plate, Werth pounded it deep into the bleachers beyond right-center field to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead.
Again in the seventh, facing reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, Werth took a slider for a strike and then a fastball for a strike. Down 0-2, he fouled off a tough high, inside fastball on the third pitch, and on Kuo's fourth pitch, the pitcher made his mistake, leaving a knee-high fastball down the middle of the plate. Werth pulled the ball just left of center field for another home run, his fifth of the playoffs.
That's the patience Werth has shown throughout his career, particularly this season when he led the majors in seeing 4.51 pitches per plate appearance.
Selectivity was reinforced by one of his hitting coaches in the Dodgers' minor-league system, former pro Tim Wallach, who really emphasized making the starting pitcher work hard. To Wallach, the goal was always to face the soft spot of the bullpen, usually that sixth- or seventh-inning reliever who served as a bridge from starter to setup man and closer.
"I may have always just had it," Werth says of his plate discipline. "I can remember being a kid -- and I come from a baseball family -- and my grandfather, stepdad and everybody were always saying to be more aggressive and to look for a pitch early in the count and drive it. That's never been what I've done."
Three of his close family members -- his stepfather, Dennis Werth, his grandfather, Ducky Schofield, and his uncle, Dick Schofield, all played in the majors -- and so Jayson Werth was inundated by baseball stories and afforded opportunities at an early age. His stepfather built him a backyard batting cage with a pitching machine when he was eight years old. Werth would hit and hit and hit some more.
"You've got to train the eye by seeing pitches," Werth says. "Because I had a pitching machine when I was eight years old, maybe the amount of looks that I got at an early age gave me some kind of training that I've been able to see pitches well."
Werth's surfer blond hair and soft-spoken demeanor can be deceptive, seemingly portraying a very cool, laid-back customer, because in actuality he's a fiery competitor at gametime.
"He's a very intense, extremely competitive teammate," says utilityman Greg Dobbs.
In addition to his baseball-playing men of the family, Werth's mother, Kim Schofield Werth, competed in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials in the long jump and 100 meters, and his younger sisters have played or are playing Division I college sports (track at UCLA and volleyball at Nebraska). He enjoys joking that, in his family, "It's not how you play the game -- it's whether you win or lose." Werth even seems to take exception to the stereotypical parents who coddle their children.
"You see those parents who are like, 'Oh that's OK' -- but it's not OK to lose," he says. "I never felt like it was OK to lose."
That's why he wasn't upset when -- in the midst of a torrid World Series last year in which he batted .444, with a homer, three steals and a .583 on-base percentage -- Philadelphia fans booed him when he got picked off second base in Game 3.
"I should have gotten booed," he says, "and I expected to."
When he was 11 and competing in a national tournament, his team's catcher got sick with a migraine before the semifinals. Facing an elimination game without a catcher -- the team didn't have a backup catcher because, as Werth says, "we were 11 years old, he caught every game" -- Werth volunteered despite never having done it before. In the semifinal victory he threw out a few runners trying to steal bases and blocked some balls in the dirt.
"My stepfather came up as a catcher in the minor leagues and said, 'You're a natural,' " says Werth. "From then on, I was a catcher until Double-A, when I made the move to the outfield."
He became Glenwood High's starting catcher as a sophomore, and as old high school coach, Pat Moomey, remembers it, he didn't call another pitch for three years.
"We let him call his own game," Moomey says. "He had a great understanding of pitching to hitters and how to get the most of pitchers."
As a junior, Werth led Glenwood to its only state championship in school history, and as a senior he batted .652 with 15 home runs in 31 games.
"It's such a tough thing for high school kids, when you're at a small field somewhere, and 15 scouts are standing behind home plate watching every move you make," Moomey says. "I've seen a lot of kids in that situation really let that get to them their senior year. He was just the opposite. I felt nervous as a coach with all the scouts there, I can't imagine what he felt like as a player."
During one of the Phillies' first spring training meetings of this year, Davey Lopes, the first-base and outfield coach, proclaimed that Jayson Werth would be a 30-30 player soon in his career. Werth had just assembled a 24-homer, 20-steal campaign in '08.
"You're looking at a really tremendous athlete," Lopes says. "All phases of the game he plays very well. He has plus speed, plus arm, plus defense and plus-plus power."
Werth was nine when Jose Canseco went 40-40 in 1988, but he remembers pledging at the time, "One day, I'm going to go 40-40." He went 36-20 this year, though Lopes says Werth was slowed early in the season by a "hernia-type pull, kind of similar to what Raul had." Werth will need to be more aggressive in attempting steals, but at least 30-30 is not unreasonable.
"At that time I hadn't really had someone like that back me," Werth says of Lopes' spring training proclamation, "and for him to have the confidence in my ability to put that out there was big."
At 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, Werth has practical strength, developed from constant repetition in the nearly two-dozen years since his stepfather built that batting cage. Werth stands tall in the box, with an especially upright torso over gently bent knees, cocking his arms back as the pitch approaches. Dobbs compared his long stance to that of a former teammate.
"He reminds me a lot of Richie Sexson, whom I played with in Seattle," Dobbs said of Werth. "They're able to create extreme leverage on the ball, and that's why the balls they hit just take off and fly."
To Frank Coppenbarger, the Phillies' director of travel and clubhouse services and a native of Decatur, Ill., Werth resembles someone else.
"He thinks it's funny that I'm a tall, skinny fellow from Springfield," says Werth.
So as a gift from the traveling secretary, a large doll of Abe Lincoln sits in Werth's locker in Citizens Bank Park. When Werth returned to his hometown this offseason, it was under very different circumstances than in 2006. Rather than killing time adrift on a lake, Werth lent his own newfound fame as a world champion to support Springfield's most famous son, promoting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's annual fund-raising efforts. And so, at long last, Werth received a hero's welcome upon his hometown return.