As the Nationals’ fill-in manager, Chip Hale brings loads of energy and a dose of humility

Chip Hale performing one of his many game-day duties for the Washington Nationals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

ST. LOUIS — Try to track Chip Hale in the lead up to a game — from the coaches room to the clubhouse, to every nook of the outfield, through any of his four duties during a given batting practice — and it begins to feel like watching a bug in water.

He doesn’t stop moving. Motion is his constant state. He told himself a long time ago, as an undersized infielder with a big baseball dream, that he’d do whatever was asked of him. He was that way when he debuted for the Minnesota Twins in 1989. And he remains that way now, in the heart of a pennant race, as a 54-year-old fill-in manager who’s been thrust into a job that’s not his.

Hale is temporarily managing in place of Dave Martinez, who remains in Washington after undergoing a cardiac catheterization on Monday. Martinez will not need any further procedures and is expected to rejoin the Nationals once he’s cleared to travel. That could be as soon as Friday in Miami. Hale will then be Martinez’s bench coach, the role he was hired for two winters ago, and everything will be the same again.

But until then, Hale has a delicate balance to strike. He managed the Arizona Diamondbacks for two years in 2015 and 2016. He interviewed for the Baltimore Orioles’ managerial opening this past offseason. Yet he wants it to be clear that, no matter what, this is Martinez’s team. That’s why Hale isn’t sitting in the first row of the team bus. That’s why he isn’t getting dressed in the manager’s office at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. That’s why he’s hesitant to discuss his own managing style, even in broad strokes, because that could cross a line. He’s fine with doing what the club needs him to, for as long as it needs, for its continued goal of holding onto the National League’s top wild-card spot.

He’s fine with little change.

“Style-wise, you are locked in to what your team has,” Hale said of how he’s personally approaching these games without Martinez. “If you have a bunch of guys who can run, you do it. If you’re a power guy, you sit back and wait and go for the three-run homer like Earl Weaver. We have some really talented players that we are going to lean on down the stretch.”

Those two seasons in Arizona didn’t end like he hoped. He inherited a young team that few expected much from. That once included the Diamondbacks’ executives, too. Hale began his major league coaching in 2007 after he played parts of seven years with the Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers. His best season came in 1993 when he hit .333 in 213 plate appearances. He always fit the mold of a coach — a heady player, could field a lot of positions, had endless energy — and eventually surfaced on Bob Melvin’s staff with the Oakland Athletics.

That lasted for four years before he bounced to the New York Mets. He was their third base coach and became a candidate for manager before the job went to Terry Collins. Then Hale was back with the Athletics for three more seasons, Then he got his shot with the Diamondbacks. The first year was a step forward for an unproven team. The second year was too big of a step back.

Hale’s record in Arizona stood at 148-176 when he was fired in October 2016. His next win came when the Nationals beat the Cardinals, 6-2, on Tuesday night.

“By being better than anyone thought that first year, we sort of created expectations for the next one that could have been unfair,” said Daniel Hudson, who played for Hale in Arizona and is now a late-inning reliever for the Nationals. “We just didn’t play well in his second year and he had to fall on the sword for the team. It happens, but we all loved playing for him.”

Hudson described Hale as “always doing something.” The description fits. He spends the most time with the kids of players. He’s often throwing pitches to Gerardo Parra’s son in the early afternoons. He spent much of the summer teaching Howie Kendrick’s son, Owen, what goes into game preparation. He gathers as many bodies as he can to collect balls in the outfield during early batting practice.

Hale insists that this is all just a second workout for him, that he needs it to stay in shape in his mid-50s, that there’s nothing odd about how little he stands still. He runs every morning and, once he arrives with the team, gets more activity in by chasing down drives in the alley and hitting ground balls to infielders. But his contributions are more than extra cardio. Hale, like many older Nationals, is an illustration of baseball evolution. He’s like the 32-year-old Parra, designated by the San Francisco Giants this past spring, doing everything he can in the clubhouse to keep Washington loose. He’s like Asdrubal Cabrera, designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers in August, learning to play first base, his fourth position, at 33 years old. He’s like Howie Kendrick, having his best offensive season at 36, accepting that he’s no longer an everyday player because his body won’t allow him to be.

When you’re older, and maybe past your prime, and maybe most teams aren’t rushing to bring you in, there’s increased value in always saying yes. Hale shows that by zipping around the ballpark every day. And he’s shown it at the center of a trying situation, explaining decisions he hopes reflect Martinez’s, and expressing that as much as he can.

“We’re just trying to execute the plan that we all come up with,” Hale said when asked why he’s stuck to his same routine despite Martinez’s absence. “And Davey is a big part of it.”

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