He bristles at attention, whether it's for his bushy beard or his stellar play. But ignoring Jayson Werth is not an option
Jayson Werth's beard gives the impression that a small mammal is eating his face. Unkempt, unsavory and so unruly it could be classified as an invasive species, it has been known to dangle beneath his chin, over his Adam's apple and toward the top of his chest. The beard, which currently has been semitamed into a sort of ragged goatee, seems to be leading a sinister life of its own: It looks like it's colonizing him.
The beard has its own Facebook page and its own Twitter account (@JWerthsBeard), both of which the Phillies' rightfielder disavows. "I don't post stuff on Facebook or Twitter," says Werth, otherwise known as J Dub. "It's not that I lack opinions. It's that I have no particular reason to share my opinions with the rest of the world."
J Werth's beard makes J Dub easily identifiable. Which is exactly what he doesn't want. Werth clutches privacy around him like a warmup jacket. "I'd really like to know who wrote the Wikipedia entry about me," he says, his smile masking an undertone of annoyance. "I mean, who is that person, and why does he think he knows anything about me? Why would anyone think they know anything about me?"
August 22, 2010
He leans forward, and his cheeks billow beneath his Chia Pet whiskers. Those eyes, flinty hazel and crinkled at the corners like paper twists of salt, are fit to stare down any pitcher. "A lot of ballplayers invite sportswriters into their homes or out to dinner," he says. "I'm not one of them. I don't even want to be written about. I'm happy to be ignored."
For what it's worth, this season it's been hard to ignore Werth, the player who most embodies the fortunes of the defending National League champs. The imposing 31-year-old slugger began his contract year by reaching base safely in the team's first 26 games, the longest such streak to open a season for a Phillie since 1920. After 37 games—24 of them victories—Werth was batting .336 with eight homers and 31 RBIs.
At which point he and the ball club swooned. Over the next three weeks—a stretch in which Philadelphia lost 13 of 19—Werth was 10 for 63 with 23 strikeouts. On June 8, having ended back-to-back home defeats with walk-off whiffs, he was benched. "Jayson needs to get off his feet and slow down," said manager Charlie Manuel. "Things are fast for him right now. I think this is going to be good for him."
And what's good for Werth is good for the Phils. Through Sunday, the team was 35--22 since June 13, and he had batted .329 with six homers and 21 RBIs. A "tornado-cane" is how teammate Ryan Howard describes Werth's hitting swell, which has helped Philly weather the absence of second baseman Chase Utley (who injured his right thumb on June 28 and will be out for eight weeks) and Howard (who went on the DL on Aug. 2 with a sprained ankle). "When J Dub goes on a tear," Howard says, "the whole team gets swept up with him." Werth attributes the torna-round to a more open stance. "It just kind of got me out of my ... whatever I was in," he more or less explains.
Werth is quick to deflect questions that demand introspection. He agreed to an interview only if no questions involved his wife, his two kids or any aspect of his private life. The rest of his relatives are off limits too. Asked—gingerly—if he would pass along the number of his mother, the former track star Kim Schofield Werth, he snaps, "My mom is unavailable. She just got her phone number unlisted and moved from Illinois to the Ozarks." Ditto his stepfather, the former big leaguer Dennis Werth: "I've got his number in my cell, but I'm not giving it out."
"I don't see why he has to share his thoughts about me with the rest of the world."
In a pro career full of odd disjunctions, J Dub has evolved from can't-miss purebred to hard-luck journeyman to World Series hero to redoubtable All-Star who, at week's end, led the NL in doubles (38) and was second in extra-base hits (56). Phillies third base coach Sam Perlozzo calls him a "six-tool player," which makes Werth the baseball equivalent of an amp that goes to 11.
"J Dub can run, throw, field and hit for power and average," says Perlozzo. "He's a manager's delight."
So what is Werth's sixth tool?
"He can hang in there," Perlozzo says. "Tenacity can be a tool too."
Werth is a master at wearing down pitchers by working long counts; for two seasons he has topped the league in pitches per at bat. "He's an extremely patient hitter," says former Phils general manager Pat Gillick, who signed Werth as a free agent in 2006, "and the by-product of his patience is bases on balls."
And strikeouts—last year, Werth walked 91 times and fanned 156. "Lots of players are afraid to hit with two strikes," Gillick says. "The biggest part of that approach is knowing your strengths."
Werth is an athlete who knows himself and has always been totally clear about his priorities, which begin and virtually end with baseball. "I've pretty much lived my life to play in the big leagues," he says.
When did that become a goal?
"When was it not?" he asks, ever helpfully.
A prospect's DNA can be nearly as important as his ERA or OBP, and front-office types often gush about Werth's "pedigree" as if he had just won best-in-show at Westminster. "Jayson had pretty good athletic genes going for him," says Gillick, who as Orioles G.M. scouted Werth at Glenwood High in Chatham, Ill., and picked him in the first round of the 1997 draft.
The athletic gene pool that spawned the 6'5", 220-pound Werth has spanned four generations. His great grandfather, John Schofield, played 11 seasons of bush-league ball as a shortstop and attended spring training with the Tigers before a broken leg ended his career. His grandfather, Dick (Ducky) Schofield, was a major league infielder from 1953 to '71 and won a World Series with the '60 Pirates. His mother's brother, a shortstop also named Dick Schofield, played 14 seasons in the bigs and got his own championship ring with the 1993 Blue Jays.
Werth probably gets his speed—he has 71 steals in 81 career attempts—from Kim, who still holds national records in the now defunct 55- and 100-yard dashes. She competed in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials in the 100 meters and long jump but was hampered by injuries and failed to qualify for the Montreal Games. Shortly after Jayson was born, in 1979, she broke up with his father, Jeff Gowan, a standout wide receiver at Illinois State who spent a year as an outfielder on the Cardinals' rookie league team. Werth's relationship with his dad is strained. "He doesn't deserve credit for anything I've accomplished," Werth says, pointedly.
Jayson was five when his mother married Dennis Werth, a .209 hitter in 117 games as a first baseman with the Yankees and the Royals. Dennis built Jayson a backyard batting cage and later coached his summer teams through elite tournaments around the country. At 11, Jayson took up catching. His stepfather would aim the pitching machine low so he could practice blocking pitches in the dirt.
As a high school senior Werth batted .652 with 15 home runs in 31 games. Scouts were mesmerized by his size and ability to drive balls to the opposite field, and to ensure that Werth would pass up a scholarship from Georgia, Gillick gave him an $885,000 signing bonus. Werth's career didn't progress as quickly as expected. Baltimore traded him to Toronto in 2000 after his Double A skipper, former O's catcher Andy Etchebarren, deemed him, Werth says, "uncoachable." The Blue Jays made him an outfielder. He broke into the majors in 2002 but within two years was sent to the Dodgers; he hit 16 home runs in 290 at bats for Los Angeles in '04 and was the Dodgers' starting leftfielder in the playoffs that year.
The next spring, during his first exhibition game, Werth's left wrist was shattered by a 96-mph fastball from Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett. Dodgers doctors told Werth he'd be fine in two weeks. ("I think they meant two years," he cracks.) After playing through the pain in a miserable season, he had unsuccessful surgery, missed all of 2006 and contemplated retiring. Finally a wrist specialist diagnosed a split tear of the ulnotriquetral ligament. Werth had another operation, got dumped by the Dodgers and signed a $400,000 incentive-laden deal with Philly.
One of the first things Werth did at training camp in 2007 was to hand Manuel a DVD of his '04 highlights. Manuel found the footage as riveting as his favorite Clint Eastwood films, Pale Rider and The Outlaw Josey Wales. "Jayson and Clint are both intense and have dry senses of humor," he says. "The difference is that one's a hitter and one's a gunman."
Platooned in 2007 and early '08, Werth became an integral part of the Phils' attack. In 2008 he swatted three homers in a game and tied a team record by knocking in eight runs in another. He hit .444 during the '08 World Series as Philadelphia routed the Rays in five games. Last year, Werth's first as an everyday player, he hit 36 homers, swiped four bases—including home—in a game and added seven more home runs in 15 postseason games.
Werth and Manuel have their differences. The hitter is in the final year of a two-year, $10 million contract, and during that early-summer slump the manager was asked if the distraction of impending free agency might be a contributing factor. "In some ways it has to," Manuel allowed. "Even if a guy is quiet and he controls it better than others, I know it does. I know that in his mind he thinks about that."
Werth considered Manuel's insights worthless. "I don't think anyone can sit there and say they know what I'm thinking," he said.
The Phils have invested $286 million in long-term deals for core players Howard, Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and pitcher Roy Halladay, and their 2010 payroll is a franchise-record $142 million. Though Werth is the key righthanded threat in a lefty-heavy lineup, G.M. Ruben Amaro Jr. sounds resigned to losing him. "The goal is still to keep Jayson in our uniform," says Amaro. "I just don't know if we can afford him."
Werth's six tools would make a prime target of the hardware-happy Yankees and Red Sox. Of the two, the Yanks might have the inside track: his stepfather and uncle are Bomber alums. Back in spring training Werth had a long lunch with their old teammate, Reggie Jackson. He insists the Hall of Famer was reminiscing, not recruiting.
If Werth were to land in the Bronx, he'd play alongside Burnett, the guy who almost ended his career. On June 16, in a Phillies victory at Yankee Stadium, J Dub jacked one of A.J.'s fastballs into the rightfield seats. Later Werth was asked, "Did you savor the irony?"
Werth responded with silence and just a hint of a smile. It's not that he lacked an opinion, it's that he had no particular reason to share it with the rest of the world.
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Werth clutches privacy around him like a warmup jacket. "I don't want to be written about," he says. "I'm happy to be ignored."