At last, baseball stadiums aren’t dark.
At last, the cracks of bats and the thwunks of gloves again beat in rhythm with the beeps of our kitchen timers and the clangs of dinner cutlery. For the first time in 281 days, but who’s counting, we’re shaking our heads at bad strike calls and not political tweets. We get to choose what to worry about: whether our man on first will beat the throw, whether it’s time to bring in a new reliever, whether they’ll turn the double play. As for the ever-increasing stressors brought to you in proud partnership with the year 2020, they, much like the fans themselves, aren’t permitted. There’s no existential screaming in baseball.
It’s a new kind of normal: nationally, all stay at home orders have been lifted, and many people have returned to work or in some states even to their favorite bars and restaurants. The Nats are playing again, though the lives of both the team and the fans may differ vastly from before.
Baseball isn’t exempt from the challenges that many of us are still facing at home. The Marlins suffered their outbreak and games across the East Coast were cancelled as the players quarantined in their hotel and other teams awaited the results of increased Covid-19 testing. Yoenis Cespedes opted out of the season this weekend without, apparently, telling the Mets. Even on the field, home run balls hit cardboard cutouts and are celebrated by distanced-high-fives with mask-wearing teammates.
“There’s a lot of stress that is unique from a typical season,” Erica Scherzer shared via phone last week. Two days prior, the Marlins outbreak became public and the Nats voted not to travel to Miami for the weekend series. The next day, Max took the mound, throwing 7 1/3 innings of shutout baseball as the “away” team at their home ballpark. “Normally your biggest concern is hopefully your spouse or significant other doesn’t get hurt, and that they have good outings and whatnot,” she says. “This just adds a whole other layer.”
Many players have opted out of the 2020 season entirely – ace pitcher David Price remarked via Twitter after the Marlins outbreak, “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.” Eduardo Rodriguez of the Red Sox is out for the season after contracting a hopefully temporary heart condition as a side-effect of the virus. Ryan Zimmerman opted out, citing a new baby and a mother with multiple sclerosis as reasons he’s exercising caution.
But there’s another dynamic at play as well, one the Scherzers aren’t taking lightly.
“Yes, the guys are all tested, so we know, okay, they’re negative, they’re negative,” Scherzer shares. “But we’re not [tested], as spouses and family, so we are kind of a question mark. What we do has a lot of impact. There’s this constant concern of okay, maybe if Max gets Covid and isn’t playing, yeah he’s not playing but he still has his job, he’s on a contract, but that can impact other players.”
“We know players that need these at-bats or these outings to make a team next year or they’re fighting for arbitration, so there’s those kinds of concerns too, of if it spreads to another player and they don’t get those outings, it could hurt them for years to come.”
“I don’t know if everybody looks at it that way, but we certainly do,” she continues. “We’re being probably annoyingly careful, but we’d rather err on the side of caution than be too lax with things.”
In a time when what-ifs loom large and worries about the health and safety of oneself and one’s family are paramount, personal responsibility can understandably feel secondary. But it’s immensely important. We stay home as much as possible and wear a mask when we go out not just to protect ourselves but also to safeguard against the possibility that we’re asymptomatic but contagious and could spread the virus to someone else.
For the Scherzers and many, many Nats fans along with them, personal responsibility goes a step further. When Spring Training was paused and the gravity of Covid-19 became apparent, the Scherzers made immediate grants in relief. Nationals Philanthropies, the charitable arm of the Washington Nationals, which rebranded from the Nationals Dream Foundation in March, put immediate attention on the food insecurity space in the District.
“I think the need is more vast than most people realize,” says Tamara Wilds Lawson, Executive Director of Collective Impact for Nationals Philanthropies.
World Central Kitchen scaled up their operations and began working out of the ballpark, at their peak churning out 10,000 to 12,000 meals a day. Nationals Philanthropies also made large grants to the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition, Martha’s Table, and DC Central Kitchen. The Youth Baseball Academy became a food distribution hub, serving the community in which they’ve been working since their foundation in 2013.
“That initial focus was really just to get out there and let people know that we were aware of how expansive the need was, particularly in the food insecurity space,” says Wilds Lawson.
As the summer months wear on, the virus – and its immense impact – continues.
“It’s pretty clear that this crisis is not subsiding anytime soon, so how can we be forward thinking and how can we be creative in the way that we are collaborating with organizations and how can we pull in other philanthropic resources to shore up the needs of the community?” Wilds Lawson says.
Even as the summer heat beats against our window panes, many of us, especially those with children, are already thinking about the fall. The Scherzers made a grant through Nationals Philanthropies to provide masks to four schools in the DCPS system and additionally to frontline workers or similarly in-need groups. They’ve also provided funds for plastic baseballs and bats to be supplied to families in need, and – full disclosure – have funded this writer to sew reusable masks to additionally contribute to at-risk groups in the area.
“With the Scherzers, the public only really knows the surface level of what they do. They do a lot that most don’t know about because they’re not looking for attention – they just want to do good things,” says Tal Alter, CEO of Nats Philanthropies and the Youth Baseball Academy.
Additionally, they’ve been cleaning out their closets.
“Knowing that there’s such a great need, I’ve been doing some decluttering, and we just have so much memorabilia,” Erica Scherzer says. She’s gathered bobbleheads, baseball cards, snowglobes, even game-worn jerseys and hats and All-Star Game jerseys from his time in both Detroit and D.C. “Them sitting in storage isn’t doing any bit of good,” she continues. “If there’s people out there that want them then we’re going to give them out.”
They’ve partnered with fan and area native Chris Nahlik to organize raffles, auctions, and giveaways, and will match any funds raised to contribute even more masks to those in need. To make winning accessible to all, raffles can be entered both monetarily and through volunteering with a local group, donating blood, making masks that can be distributed by the group, or other charitable actions. Some items are also available by playing Nats Bingo on days Max pitches. All details, entries, and info can be found at www.natsformasks.com. Check out the game used items, signed memorabilia, masks and other items that will raise funds. The Scherzers will match all funds raised from this initiative.
“We want to create a culture of philanthropy in the DMV through our brand,” Alter shares. “A lot of that starts with having a culture of philanthropy within our organization and [we] certainly want for those in our clubhouse to feel like there’s an organization within the team that’s supporting them around that.”
Though it’s been a long offseason and a strange return to baseball, the Nationals and their fans are able to spend it adorned in gold. And although, for now, we can no longer hug the stranger next to us after the ball hits the foul pole, there’s still plenty of championship energy – and empathy – in the DMV.