Before the Dominion Bulls faced the Capital Black Sox last month, Bulls manager Michael “Zark” Markowicz presented a letter to Black Sox manager and catcher Ivan Sciupac. The letter was signed by the commissioner of the D.C. Men’s Senior Baseball League, and it authorized the Bulls to use a new player for that night’s 30-and-over game. Guy named Jayson Werth.
Sciupac laughed and handed the letter back, assuming Markowicz was pulling his leg.
“He goes, ‘No, I’m serious, keep it under your hat,'” Sciupac said. “I’m like, ‘What?! That’s Jayson Werth, I think people will figure out he’s playing on the team.”
Werth patrolled the outfield that night at Madison High School in Vienna with his friend Matt Mika, the Bulls left fielder and the man who had landed Werth his roster spot. A little more than a year earlier, Mika, a lobbyist for Tyson Foods and the coach of the Republican congressional baseball team, was one of four people shot during a morning practice in Alexandria ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game. A week after the shooting, which left Mika with multiple broken ribs and a severed median nerve in his left arm, a Nationals employee asked Werth, who was on the disabled list with a bruised foot, if he would be interested in visiting Mika in the hospital. Their meeting sparked an unlikely friendship.
“To me, baseball is a sanctuary,” Werth said in a phone interview this week. “Stuff like that shouldn’t happen anywhere, but it definitely shouldn’t happen on a baseball field.”
Last September, Werth invited Mika into the Nationals’ clubhouse and onto the field before a game. They hung out at President Trump’s State of the Union address in January, where Werth was a guest of Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), a catcher on the Republican baseball team. They’ve had lunch together on occasion, too.
Werth attended this year’s Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in June while he was home recovering from a hamstring strain he suffered as a member of the Mariners’ Class AAA affiliate in Tacoma. Two weeks later, he announced his decision to walk away from baseball. One of the first people he heard from after he made his retirement public was Adam LaRoche, his former teammate in Washington. LaRoche, who retired before the 2016 season, wanted to know if Werth would join his team of former major leaguers at the inaugural Bluegrass World Series in Louisville during the first week of August. It had already been nearly a month since Werth faced live pitching, and he worried about the rust his 39-year-old body was accumulating.
So Werth reached out to Mika, who had mentioned that he plays in a couple of wood bat leagues in the area, and asked if any of his teams had room for one more. Mika ran the idea by Markowicz, the team manager, who sought approval from the DCMSBL commissioner and his fellow coaches before giving Werth the green light to sign a waiver, pay the league dues and join the team.
“The Louisville thing came up and I thought, ‘I better do something before I go over there,’” Werth said. “I was trying to stay in shape, and I thought it would be good to get on the field with Matt one time.”
Which led to that pregame alert. Sciupac, the opposing manager, told his teammates, many of whom are Nationals fans, and they started texting their wives and girlfriends. Sciupac’s wife, who is from the Philadelphia area and considers Werth her favorite player of all-time, happened to already be at the field with her parents.
“Every time he came up, I looked around the fence and people were there with their phones, snapping photos, taking video,” Sciupac said. “Obviously we had a lot more people in attendance than our normal four fans, so it became quite a big deal. We were all kind of blown away by it.”
Werth was awed for different reasons.
“It had been a while since I played on a high school field,” said Werth, who had watched his oldest son, Jackson, play a game at Madison during the spring. “The outfield’s kind of uneven, the infield’s not really level and the batter’s box, it felt like a two-foot hole where your back foot stands. The lights aren’t real bright. All these things. It was really my first game that I’d played not in a professional stadium in 22 or 23 years, but it was fun being one of the guys.”
When Werth came to the plate for the first time, his familiar No. 28 on the back of his black and gray Bulls uniform, he tapped Sciupac’s shin guards and asked him how he was doing.
“He took the first pitch and he just kind of said, ‘Oh man, I miss this,'” Sciupac said. “At one point during that first at-bat, I decided, ‘Okay, whatever, let’s just challenge him.’ I called for a fastball and he swung and missed. I thought, ‘Wow, we actually blew it by him.’ He goes, ‘God, that s— is slow.’”
“The velocity of the opposing pitchers wasn’t what I’m used to,” Werth, who drew a walk his first time up, said with a laugh. “It took me a minute.”
On a 2-2 count during Werth’s second plate appearance, Sciupac called for an off-speed pitch and Werth swung through Joe Rodhouse’s curveball in the dirt. Sciupac put his arm around Rodhouse as they walked toward the dugout at the end of the inning. “You just [expletive] struck out Jayson Werth,” he said.
Werth, who was hitting .206 with four home runs in 126 at-bats at Tacoma when he retired, would redeem himself later in the game. After grounding out to shortstop in his third at-bat, Werth dug in against Black Sox pitcher Josh Champney, whose very brief baseball career at Lynchburg College was derailed by back surgery. Champney had joked around with Werth before the game.
“All of my teammates were like, ‘It’s Jayson Werth! It’s Jayson Werth!'” Champney said. “During long toss, he had his back to me and I hollered to my throwing partner, loud enough for him to hear, ‘That’s not Jayson Werth. Jayson Werth is much taller than that.’ [Werth] turns around and he says to me, ‘Yeah, he’s cuter, too.’”
Champney pitched away to Werth, determined not to give him anything good to hit. After Champney ran the count to 3-0, Sciupac shouted toward the mound, “He didn’t come here to walk.”
“I didn’t really hear him,” Champney said. “I just went ‘Huh?’ Then Jayson hollers out, ‘I didn’t come here to walk.’ I hollered at [Sciupac], ‘I don’t even know who he is.’ The next pitch I threw him was a backdoor 3-0 slider that any other person is taking. He came to hit. … If I threw it in at 75 [mph], it left at 105.”
“He just destroyed that ball,” Sciupac said. “Luckily, there was nobody on. You could tell, just like from the sound of it, he didn’t get all of it. It completely cleared the trees beyond the fence. My mother-in-law went to try to get the ball and could not find it.”
“Any game that you hit a homer is a good game,” said Werth, who went 1 for 4 with a walk in the Bulls’ 9-3 win. “I wanted to get out there with Matt after all he’d been through, and just play the great game of baseball. I’m glad we got to do it.”
So were his teammates. Mika, who played baseball and football at Adrian College, a Division III school in Michigan, said he’s been able to see “some really cool things” since the shooting.
“One of them is Jayson Werth sitting on the bench chatting with guys about baseball,” Mika said. “I’m not sure if he’s going to play again, but it was pretty awesome to be out there playing baseball with a guy a year ago you were watching play in the playoffs for the Nats. He still has it.”
After the game, Werth signed autographs and posed for photos with both teams.
“He was such a gracious guy,” Sciupac said.
The one-game tuneup paid off for Werth at the Bluegrass World Series, where the LaRoche-led Stars won three games against teams of college-age players by a combined score of 24-2 before losing the championship game, 6-4, on Saturday. Mika was a guest for part of the week. Werth said he would participate in the event again, but was less committal about his future with the Bulls. He scratched his baseball itch in Louisville.
“Most of the guys went home and didn’t stay the whole time, so on Friday and Saturday, we were short players,” Werth said. “I played nine innings both games. Baseball is a game you have to play every day, to stay in rhythm, to stay in shape. … After not doing it for seven or eight weeks now, I was standing out there, it was the seventh or eighth inning, and I was like, ‘This is why I retired. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ At the moment I’m good on baseball. I’ve started playing tennis. I found my golf clubs from 20 years ago. I’ve played a couple rounds. I haven’t really liked golf for a long time, so I don’t know if I’ll get back into golf, but I’ve been enjoying playing tennis, staying in shape and doing that stuff. But baseball, I’m not sure.”
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