There aren't a whole lot of ex-Nationals who bring a smile to everyone's faces, owing in large part to the franchise's overall lack of success and ever-changing roster during its first nine seasons in the District.
Livan Hernandez, though, has always been — and will always remain — one of the most popular players in the team's brief history. That's true among players, fans and media members alike.
So there were smiles aplenty yesterday at NatsFest when that familiar face (and physique) strolled through the Gaylord National Convention Center, wearing that familiar No. 61 jersey. And there surely will be more smiles in a couple of weeks when Hernandez is expected to appear in uniform at spring training as a special instructor, invited by general manager Mike Rizzo to come back and work for the organization.
"He's one of the few guys we can call legends of the Washington Nationals," Rizzo said. "He brings a lot to the table. First of all, he's loved by everybody: Ownership, front office, the general manager loves him, all the players love him. And he's got a wealth of knowledge for our pitching staff. And I just like having him around. His attitude is infectious. His knowledge is great."
Hernandez pitched for the Nationals from 2005-06, then again from 2009-11. He has pitched more innings (828 2/3) and won more games (44) than anyone who has donned the curly W cap over the last nine years.
And the right-hander has always identified more with this organization than any of the eight others that employed him during a 17-year career. Which is why he jumped at the job opportunity presented by Rizzo last week.
"It's something nice," said Hernandez, who is "99 percent" sure he'll accept the offer. "We talked a little bit the other day on the phone. I'm very excited. Always, I want to do something in this place. I think it's the best place, here in D.C. Just to try to do some work, I'd love to try to do that."
Hernandez's specific job title and duties (not to mention compensation) still have to be worked out, but the right-hander (who turns 39 next month) is looking forward to participating in spring training from a new perspective.
"I'm ready to ride a golf cart like [former bench coach] Pat Corrales," he said.
Hernandez last pitched for the Nationals in 2011, going 8-13 with a 4.47 ERA. Though he wanted to return for another season, the organization knew it couldn't guarantee a roster spot for the veteran, given the wealth of young pitching talent that was ready to fill out the big-league staff. He wound up pitching in relief for the Braves and Brewers in 2012, posting an unsightly 6.42 ERA in 44 games.
Though he never officially announced his retirement, Hernandez was unemployed last season and spent his time playing golf in the mornings — he said his handicap is now +2 and he may qualify to play on the celebrity golf tour — and then watching baseball in the evenings. He watched the Nationals closely last year and remained in touch with several pitchers, offering advice.
Along the way, Hernandez realized he wants to stay connected to the sport that gave him a fulfilling career, not to mention the franchise that remains dear to his heart.
"I miss baseball," he said. "I watch a lot because I love baseball. I watch it on TV and see what people are doing, more what the pitchers are doing wrong than right. I love to do that, because maybe one day I have to do some work. I'm ready for it."