VIERA, Fla. -- Minutes after taking batting practice at Space Coast Stadium, Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth walked toward the dugout to talk to some fans. One fan, in particular, wanted more than just an autograph from Werth; she wanted to touch his famous beard.
But Werth, 33, didn't seem to mind. His beard has taken on a life of its own since he joined the Nats following the 2010 season. It's one of the reasons he is a popular figure in the nation's capital.
"People make a big deal about the beard at times. It's not a real big deal to me," Werth said. "I actually forget that I have it. People say that they like it or don't like it. At most times I'm surprised by it, because I don't even think about it. It's a comfort thing for me, I guess. It's taken on a life of its own a little bit at times. At the end of the day, I'm here to play baseball. I'm here to win. It's not like an act or anything like that. It is what it is, I don't put that much weight into it."
There's more to Werth than just his beard. After signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with Washington, Werth has proven to be a influential player on and off the field. For example, manager Davey Johnson is known for taking lineup suggestions from Werth.
After recovering from a left wrist injury last August, Werth suggested that he should be the team's leadoff hitter. Johnson put Werth at the leadoff spot and it paid off for Washington, as Werth hit .309 with a .388 on-base percentage.
"He will be an influence no matter where he is at," Johnson said. "He is a good guy, a good athlete."
"At the end of the day, he does what he wants to do and what he sees is best for the club," Werth said about Johnson. "He is not going to accommodate me for any reason. He wants to win, he has a sound mind, a great baseball mind. ... It just so happens we both think the same thing, and that's OK. As they say, great minds think alike."
Even when Werth had his worst season in 2011, Werth had significant influence on the club. He showed his teammates how to keep their heads up and continue to play hard.
"I think you can tell a lot about a person's character when they struggle," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That first year, he went through some trials. He kept his head up, he kept running out there, he was playing. He continued to grind through. He never really showed weakness during that time."
Werth is always willing to help Bryce Harper on baseball matters, such as what pitches to look for from opposing pitchers or how to position himself in the outfield. Talk to Harper and he will say he would not have won the National League Rookie of the Year Award last year without Werth's influence.
"Jayson was ready to take me under his wing. He taught me a lot of things," Harper said. "He has been in this game a while. He has been in the NL East for a long time. He knows a lot of things about pitchers and what they are going to do. He has been good with everybody else. He is really a leader on this team. We all know that. He is one of the best guys in the league when it comes to leadership."
In talking to Werth, one can understand how he was able to become an influential player on the team. When it comes to the work ethic, Werth credits his mother, Kim Schofield Werth, who once competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials in track and field. Werth lovingly described Kim as a "tough mom."
"She would make you work, make you train, She was really instrumental in the work ethic," Werth said.
When it comes to winning, he learned a lot by spending four years with the Phillies. The team went to the postseason all four years, including winning a World Series title in 2008.
"I played with two professionals like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. They are leaders in their own right," Werth said. "They do it differently. I think I learned a lot from those guys, and by playing on that team with that mentality. It's contagious. It rubbed off on me. I feel like I kind of brought the same attitude and outlook toward the game over [to Washington]. And it rubbed off on guys over here."
And Washington believes it can make the postseason for the second year in a row. But Werth realizes the Nationals will have competition in the division. Werth said to watch out for the Braves and Phillies.
"In terms of who will really be competition for us, Atlanta is going to be good. They were good last year," Werth said. "They made some moves, but they lost some guys. We'll see. They have had a really good bullpen over the years. We'll see. I think they will be there.
"I think Philadelphia will be there, too. I think they are a lot better than what people think. They say they don't have the guys in the outfield or whatever. [Manager] Charlie Manuel has a knack for making the lineup work. I don't think that will be as big of a deal as people are making it out to be. I think they will be pretty tough. Their pitching is obviously good. They improved their bullpen.
"They are as old as I am, and I don't feel very old. A lot of the talk is that they are over the hill. The best days are behind them. I know those guys, I know how they think and how they go about their business. They don't feel old either."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.