By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The Washington Nationals fell behind against a pitcher bound for the Hall of Fame and predictably ended up losing to the Atlanta Braves last night, 6-4. But what otherwise would have gone down as a routine April defeat by a young team trying to find its way was given greater meaning when the Nationals came out of the dugout wearing Virginia Tech baseball caps.
At that moment, playing baseball took a back seat to remembering the victims of the shootings in Blacksburg, Va., as the 17,791 at RFK Stadium responded with a loud ovation.
Atlanta jumped ahead when the Nationals' Jerome Williams allowed the game's first five hitters to reach base -- four hard-hit singles and a four-pitch walk to Brian McCann -- which allowed the Braves to give a 3-0 lead to John Smoltz.
The Nationals cut the lead to 5-4 in the seventh inning and had a chance to move ahead. But with runners on first and second, Ryan Zimmerman struck out on a nice slider low and away after a long battle with reliever Rafael Soriano. Then, with two out, Dmitri Young thought he had driven in the tying run with a slicing shot toward the left field corner. But Atlanta left fielder Ryan Langerhans, shading toward the line, ran down the ball. Young slammed his batting helmet into the dirt near first base knowing the Nats' best chance was gone.
Zimmerman attended the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech's arch rival. But when team officials approached the players during batting practice to ask them about wearing Virginia Tech hats, Zimmerman didn't hesitate.
"I was honored to wear it," he said.
The idea sprang from an e-mail that Nationals fan Dave Lanham sent to team president Stan Kasten. Lanham, a resident of Calvert County, suggested that the team don the hats in tribute. Kasten liked the thought but didn't see the e-mail until after his afternoon meetings.
With about 90 minutes before first pitch, Harolyn Cardozo, executive assistant to General Manager Jim Bowden, was on the phone calling sporting goods stores. She dialed the number to the Sports Authority's store in Alexandria, and when she heard a voice, she had one simple demand: "Give me the smartest guy in the store who can get something done fast."
Paul Schneider, a department manager, soon was scouring the store for Hokies hats. Cardozo asked for 40 of them and they needed to be at the stadium before the Nats took the field. Schneider found about 20 on the rack and discovered a box full in a storeroom. He talked his managers into donating the 38 hats of various styles, then jumped in his car to cross the Wilson Bridge and weave through rush-hour traffic to get to RFK.
Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, Major League Baseball gave the team approval. Schneider arrived at the stadium during the first inning, and the caps made it to the Nationals' dugout in time for the team to take the field with them for the second inning.
"It's very cool," said Schneider, who watched the Nationals pay their tribute from a box seat above home plate. "It was a real tragedy that happened yesterday, a really awful thing to see on the TV. This is an excellent tribute, very timely and it's very cool to see them with the hats on."
Kasten arrived at the ballpark an hour into the game, surprised the hats had arrived. The gesture was similar to one by the Yankees and Mets when baseball resumed play after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Players from both teams donned hats representing New York's police and fire departments.
"It's a really sad moment, that type of thing goes on in this world," Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said. "It was an honor to wear that hat. Our thoughts and prayers are going out to the victims' families."
Outfielder Chris Snelling donated his hat to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it will go on display alongside the caps used by the Yankees and Mets after 9/11. At least six other game-worn caps were signed by players and will be sent to the Virginia Tech athletic department.
Zimmerman signed his hat with a simple message: "God Bless! From the Nats and Cavaliers!"