And it’s the day Modami became a key part of Manager Dave Martinez’s master plan.
“Shhh,” Martinez said, putting his pointer finger to his lips, when asked about Modami before a game in Cincinnati in late May. “Ali’s my good luck charm.”
(Modami, 39, doesn’t do interviews. When told there was going to be a story about him taking out the lineup card before every game, he grinned and said, “It’s about time someone noticed.” When he realized it was going to be public, he grinned and said: “No, don’t put that out. It’s a secret.” When told that thousands of people see him do it and he had no say in whether it was publicized, he grinned and said, “Well, then, just make me look good.” He grins a lot.)
So what’s so lucky about walking a lineup card onto the field? Technically, nothing. But hang on a second.
The Nationals typically rotate who takes the card to home plate before each game for a meeting with the umpiring crew and a representative from the other team. Bench coach Chip Hale was a regular in the role. Modami was part of the mix, getting a chance now and then. Then the Nationals lost and lost some more and limped home after being swept in a four-game series by the New York Mets. They were playing the Miami Marlins and scraping the bottom of the barrel for answers. It was — you guessed it — May 24, and Martinez told Modami he was in charge of the lineup card that night.
The Nationals won before taking three of four from the Marlins. They won back-to-back games in Atlanta that next week. They were on a roll, and Modami has brought out the lineup card for all but one of the 82 games since that sweep in New York. Not changing something that is working is an unwritten rule in baseball, whether it’s using the same equipment or wearing the same shirt or having a left-handed batting practice pitcher walk 50 feet with a small piece of paper in his hand.
Washington’s record is 54-27 when Modami does.
“Whoa, is that a real stat?” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton asked. “That’s the best kind of superstition, the ones you don’t notice. I love Ali. I’ll have to start rubbing his head before every game.”
He played first base at Oklahoma State in the early 2000s. His manager with the Cowboys, Tom Holliday, once told the Tulsa World: “He’s a character I haven’t had before.” Modami joined the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007, helping them win the World Series the next year and becoming a clubhouse favorite. He was the guy who threw great batting practice. It helped that he’s a lefty. It helped even more that he’s always good for a laugh.
Modami was with Philadelphia for four seasons, left when the front office shook up the staff in 2011, then landed with the Nationals with the recommendation of good friend Jayson Werth. Modami later sued the Phillies and General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for defamation and ruining his job prospects. He soon became a team favorite in Washington, just like in Philadelphia, and grew close with Bryce Harper after feeding him balls for the first seven years of his career. Harper departed for the Phillies in the offseason. Modami did not.
You may have seem Modami on TV recently, wearing No. 86, when either second baseman Brian Dozier or first baseman Matt Adams hopped onto his back before he sprinted through the dugout. Modami has become a prop in Washington’s viral post-home run dances. But the team knows him best by one phrase, repeated over and over, both in the early afternoon and when games are heating up: “Whatever you need.”
“Ali is indispensable, and I really mean that,” said Dozier, who estimated that Modami throws around 1,000 pitches of batting practice a day. “You see him icing him arm after every game; he’s tired. That’s because the man puts in an honest day’s work. He’s one of us.”
So what’s the job of a batting practice thrower?
It’s a busy role for Modami. There is, of course, the throwing of batting practice before each game. He will have players for early work around 3 p.m. He will throw the bulk of his pitches around 5 p.m., especially if the Nationals are facing a left-handed starter, and helps out with infield drills by playing first base. He hangs in the batting cages throughout games, tucked between the dugout and clubhouse, doing whatever’s needed. He helps the video team facilitate clips to players. As opposing relievers enter in the late innings, he adjusts the scouting reports written on a row of whiteboards. He gets pinch hitters ready, whether with flips or full-speed pitches, and is sometimes roped into home run celebrations. All the ice you could want is his end-of-the-night reward.
Then he comes back the next day and does it all again, lineup card in hand.