Kristi Antonacci had been looking for her 9-year-old son inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for five or 10 minutes before she looked up. It was late afternoon on the first day of the Nationals Winterfest, and young Max had somehow gotten separated from his family, and so Kristi and her husband Dave were searching everywhere, their eyes low to the ground, ignoring the main stage,

“So finally I look up,” she later recalled. “There was a kid up there. And I go, ‘Wait, that’s Max!’ ”

Her lost son. Sitting with Nats Manager Dusty Baker, naturally.

So how did this happen? Max, his 11-year-old sister Mia and their parents were enjoying the annual winter event — with its baseball tutorials, contests and kids games — when Max somehow wandered off. His father thought he was one place, and his mom thought he was with his dad, and then it turned out he was just gone. No one was particularly worried just yet — this was an enclosed space, filled with excessively happy Nats fans, and he couldn’t have gotten far — but they obviously wanted to find their son.

Max, meanwhile, knew he was supposed to find an adult he trusted. So he headed back to the toy drive, where the family had previously dropped off some presents, figuring the adults there were sort of in charge. They passed him on to other employees, who told other employees. Kristi still isn’t sure exactly what happened next, but it seems MASN’s Bob Carpenter — who was hosting a session with the team’s coaching staff — made an announcement that a boy named Max was looking for his parents. Then Baker invited Max to come up on stage.

“Dusty worked to make him comfortable,” wrote Scott Ableman, a fan in the crowd who posted photos of the incident on his Flickr page. “There was a table between him and [pitching coach] Mike Maddux. Max climbed up on the table and Dusty asked them to bring out a chair.”

Somehow Max wound up with a mic in his hands, and one of the panelists asked him to offer some words.

“I know you’re a great person because you invented the high five,” Max told the manager, more or less, because his father — a baseball nerd and Baker lover — had told him this fact about the Nats manager.

“I mean, they don’t remember to bring their jackets home from school, but he remembered this story about Dusty Baker,” his mom said.

Seeing her son sitting with the manager, Kristi initially thought he had won a contest, or had been chosen by team officials, or was receiving some sort of prize. “He’s very, very friendly; he’s very gregarious, so of course he would be up there,” she remembered thinking. So she inched closer to the stage.

“Oh yeah, that little boy’s lost,” someone told her.

“That’s my son!” she replied. So she was brought up on stage, too.

“Everybody, it’s Max’s mom!” someone announced.

“I was like ‘Hi!’ and waving, and everyone was clapping,” Kristi told me. “Max had really gotten himself in with the crowd; everyone was rooting for Max. So now I’m like the proud parent.”

People tweeted Max’s photo, of course, and Kristi’s cousin — who works for the Ravens — saw the photos. “I hear Max is a Twitter sensation,” he told Kristi, who didn’t know this was happening. And then after the session, the Nats brought the family back on stage, because Baker wanted to give them something. They chatted for a while, and posed for photos, and Baker gave Max a signed hat and a signed ball.

“Dusty was so gracious, so nice, saying ‘It was so nice to meet you.’ It was amazing,” Kristi told me. “He was so nice. I mean, I love watching him on TV, and he’s exactly like that in real life. It was a really, really great time.”

Which is why other people started tweeting at Kristi that they wished they had gotten lost, and why she told Mia that she wasn’t allowed to get lost on purpose, and why others asked her if Baker was now a part of their family. (“We’d gladly welcome him into our family,” she said.)

The family still isn’t sure who’s idea it was to put Max on stage, but they heard it was Baker’s, and that’s a nice thing to believe. The afternoon was kind of scary, but also teachable, since Max did what they wanted him to: found an adult he trusted, and found a place he felt safe, even if that happened to be on a stage with Dusty Baker. And the manager wound up earning the permanent loyalties of a 9-year-old kid from Montgomery County.

“He is a fan for life, if he wasn’t before,” Kristi said. “I’m not even kidding: he sleeps with that hat on. It’s amazing. Dusty has a fan for life.”

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