The inside story from Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, who credits the team, coaches, fans, and "our generous God ..."
On May 24 when the Washington Nationals baseball team’s record was 12 games below .500 and a full 10 games out of the division lead, many fans had given up hope. One of the ushers said to me, “Well, Chaplain, you can make plans for other events in October because we won’t be in the playoffs.” More than a few voices were demanding the manager, Davey Martinez, be fired.
“I believe in these guys”
But Davey’s response to the team’s dismal performance was simply, “I believe in these guys.” The players themselves said they thought things were just about to turn around. All of this sounded like wishful thinking. The team was losing big and headed for the cellar of the division.
Week after week, despite the poor record, Davey’s response was the same, “I believe in these guys.” He said the players were grinding each day; working hard, and that things would turn around. The players did not lose hope either. They too believed that things were just about to turn in their favor.
Surprisingly, there was no carping, no finger-pointing, no jumping ship. The team and the coaches all stuck together and worked even harder. They worked hard on fundamentals. The players spent hours in the batting cage and fielding ground balls. They practiced longer and harder, day after day, perfecting basic skills. And they never gave up hope, even when the stats suggested that things looked pretty hopeless.
About when things were the worst, in mid-May, the Nationals picked up several players, including Gerardo Parra, who had been let go by San Francisco. The Nats paid him the minimum, $555,000, for a one-year contract. Expectations weren’t too high for the 32-year-old. Three days later, with the Nats entering the game with a losing record of 16-23, he hit a grand slam home run. It propelled the Nats to a come-from-behind win against the LA Dodgers. Ace pitcher Max Scherzer said, “Ah, we needed this.”
Parra’s walk-up song, “Baby Shark,” captured the imagination of the players and the fans. His exuberant personality and his Elton John colored glasses, along with his dancing in the dugout after home runs, helped the team to visibly enjoy themselves and just have fun. The fans loved it! It was about then that team started to win.
They believed in their team, as Davey did, and they were determined to turn things around
Davey Martinez’ leadership style likely was an important part of their turnaround. He frustrated many of the fans when the team was losing. He was a kind father figure. He supported the players. He believed in them. When a player had a bad outing, he patted them on the shoulder and gave him another chance. There was no screaming and no tantrums. He was calm and positive. He never lost faith and hope in his team.
The players responded. They worked hard to clean up the errors they were making. It also helped that some important players who were injured came back off the disabled list. Everyone was supportive of one another. And the wins started to come.
In each series of home games, I typically go into the locker room and chat with the players and coaches. I never caught a whiff of negativity or cynicism. They believed in their team, as Davey did, and they were determined to turn things around. They never lost hope.
Real camaraderie and mutual caring
There was something else that slowly emerged. There was a spirit in the locker room of real camaraderie and mutual caring. They really were a team. Everyone relied on everyone else. They knew that one or two stars were not going to carry the team. Everyone had to contribute.
And they did. In their highly visible playoff games, this was especially apparent. Bench players hit home runs and critical RBIs. Bullpen relievers shut down the opposing teams in late innings. Each player in the field played virtually flawless defense. They needed each other, down to the last man, and everyone contributed.
“Stay in the Fight,” a message of hope
Teams come up with slogans during their season that can be somewhat pro forma. But the one that emerged captured the 2019 Washington Nationals, “Stay in the Fight.” Davey Martinez and other coaches began to wear shirts with this motto. The fans picked it up as well. “Stay in the Fight” t-shirts and posters appeared everywhere. The fans began to believe.
The team and coaches never lost hope. They never devolved into carping and complaining. They worked hard. Each game they were “grinding” as they called it. Every pitch, every at-bat, they were grinding it out, doing their best.
The Nationals crawled back to second place in their division but they were never able to win it. The Atlanta Braves were an excellent team and the early season deficit was too great to overcome. But there were two wild card slots and this became the goal—eke out a way into the post-season with a wild card slot. It was a long shot; wild card teams typically don’t go far into the post season. But this was their one chance.
The Nats entered the post-season and four times faced elimination games and four times they came from behind and won. Each time when things seemed to be lost, the Nats fought back. The statistics showed that almost half of their runs came with two outs. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the late 8th and 9th innings. And typical to their come-from-behind spirit, they overcame an early deficit and won game 7 of the World Series. No one expected the Washington Nationals to win the World Series of Baseball. But they did.
“We need to hope in God and believe that God is with us, even when everything else suggests otherwise”
As the team entered the playoffs, I celebrated Sunday Mass for them, as I typically do. In my homily I told them that they would never be in the playoffs if they had given up in May. They never gave up hope, even when so many others had given up on them. In the homily I told them that all of us have dark times in our lives. But we, too, need to “Stay in the Fight.” We need to hope in God and believe that God is with us, even when everything else suggests otherwise.
For many of us, the 2019 Washington Nationals baseball season helped us to experience important truths. Life is about teamwork; we need each other. Carping doesn’t help; stay positive and believe in each other and in God. Most importantly, never give up hope. Stay in the fight and keep grinding day after day. In the end, it will pay off.
“Stay in the Fight” is a good motto for life
Part of my ministry is to try to inspire the players. During this season they inspired me. The 2019 Washington Nationals’ season was truly a grace. Something very special happened. I credit the team, their coaches, the Nationals’ staff, and the fans. I also credit our generous God who, I believe, was teaching us, through these days, the power of hope and his steadfast loving presence. “Stay in the Fight” is a good motto for life. If we do, we too will be winners regardless of what may come.