When I walked out of the umpires' tunnel and onto the field to watch batting practice as a part of the Washington Nationals' annual Blogger Night, I was in awe. I felt that way partly because of the enormity of the stands towering over me, and partly because being on the field in the ballpark I love, feet away from my favorite baseball players is probably the coolest experience I have ever had in my 18 years of life.
However, more than my being star-struck, that feeling of awe accompanied a sense of surprise. I have been on or around the field during baseball practice for both my high school and college teams. While the balls during BP yesterday were certainly being hit harder and farther than I ever witnessed at one of those practices, the dynamic between the players was almost entirely the same. They were just a bunch of guys hanging out on a baseball field, laughing, talking, and spitting seeds just like any other team. I think so often people give so much focus to the insane talent that these players have, that in our heads they become larger than life, and we forget that they are actually real people. Certainly you can like a player for the simple fact that he is talented and nothing more, but during this opportunity to get an inside look into this team, I found that there are a lot more reasons to be a Nationals fan than what initially meets the eye.
If you are reading this blog, it more than likely means that you are a fan of the Nationals. You might listen to the games on the radio, watch them on TV, or even occasionally drive down to D.C. to attend one in person. You know the players' names, their positions, their batting averages. But the knowledge level of the average fan stops around there. Bob Carpenter can read you all the stats in the world during his broadcast of a game, but it's what you don't see on TV that really makes this team great.
What you don't see in that broadcast is the sincerity in Gio Gonzalez's eyes when he says he can't bear to ever turn away a kid asking for an autograph. So because of his big heart, he has to wear headphones while he is warming up to pitch so he can focus.
What you don't see is the usually stony-faced Adam LaRoche giving his cell phone number to a triple amputee from a group of Wounded Warriors. You don't see him saying "call me any time" after showing the soldiers around the clubhouse and hanging out with them while they hit in the batting cages. You don't see the level of respect that Nationals Senior Director of Community Relations Israel Negron clearly has for LaRoche when he says, "Adam saw [the soldiers] right away as real people," and not as damaged goods.
You can read about what a "cocky jerk" Bryce Harper is, but what you probably don't know is that the people who interact with Harper daily couldn't disagree more with the general perceptions of him. Shaking his head, Negron said: "I've seen what other people write about him and honestly, I'm curious about who they're talking about…Bryce is incredibly humble."
You can hear about how first baseman Tyler Moore is being made to play in the outfield when he has hardly any experience in that position. But, what you don't know is that even though at first he felt like he "was playing in the dang Grand Canyon" out there, he practices reading the ball in the outfield literally every day so that he can make his teammates and the fans proud.
So many of the great things about this team that give it so much character go completely unnoticed. So many people only see how they act on the field, when how they act off the field is really where you can fall in love with them.
Seeing the team up close yesterday and interacting with the people who know them made these players mean more to me than they ever have before. I'll cheer for them in a new way now, knowing that they are regular guys, good guys, who happen to get to play baseball in front of thousands of people for a living.
I'm so thankful that I was able to see all those usually unseen things yesterday, and that I am now able to tell people about them. Because this really is a special team, on the field and off.