The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nats call up Gerardo Parra, hoping to catch lightning in a shark-shaped bottle

For the first time since the 2019 World Series, Gerardo Parra is back on a big league roster. (Alex Brandon/AP)

A 34-year-old journeyman outfielder hitting .222 in Class AAA this season stepped cheerily into the Washington Nationals dugout Sunday morning, the kind of entrance that rarely gets much attention. Veteran outfielders come and go in this game, filling short-term needs and hoping to stick. Rarely are they met with fanfare when they do so. But rarely has a journeyman outfielder meant as much to any franchise as Gerardo Parra means to the Nationals. And rarely has a franchise meant as much to a player as the Nationals seem to mean to Parra.

“I feel like I’m here every time. I never feel like I’m leaving,” Parra said. “Even when I play last year in Japan, I saw all the games with my team. I watch every time.”

For the first time since the 2019 World Series, Parra is back on a big league roster — the only roster he really wanted to be on, even as he left the majors to play in Japan last year, even as he rehabbed from knee surgery last fall. The Nationals signed him to a minor league deal in spring training and called him up from Rochester before Sunday’s series finale with the New York Mets. He is not in the starting lineup, but he is a National again.

“I feel like my first time in the big leagues right now. I’m happy to see these people again,” Parra said. “Like I say, believe it. Start to believe again. It’s never late.”

Parra is back in the big leagues because the Nationals lack outfield depth, particularly after Andrew Stevenson landed on the injured list with a strained oblique. The left-handed-hitting veteran isn’t a perfect fit for a team that could really use a right-handed-hitting outfielder to start in place of Kyle Schwarber, who crushes right-handed pitching but is less effective against lefties. It could also use a backup center fielder, a position for which a 34-year-old coming off knee surgery isn’t always best suited.

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said he talked to Rochester Manager Matt LeCroy, who reported that Parra was looking mobile and hitting the ball well despite a .188 average in June. Parra said he feels like his knee is healed, too. Parra and his manager agree he can play some center field if necessary.

Jon Lester shows up for the Nationals, helping them split a doubleheader with the Mets

But where and when Parra plays is, frankly, secondary to what his presence means to the Nationals and their fans. His arrival — and the massive tattoo on his left arm of the 2019 World Series trophy — serves as an immediate reminder of the 2019 season, of what can happen when a team that started slow thinks it can finish strong, of the possibility of catching lightning in a shark-shaped bottle. This Nationals team has started slowly, too. This Nationals team, though far different in its construction and history than that 2019 version, is hoping for magic, too.

“Maybe it’s a little bit different, but like I say, the differences are not too many,” Parra said. “It’s a new year … but everything happens inside the clubhouse, if you have a great clubhouse.”

Parra had been in and out of the Nationals clubhouse at times over the last few months, normally as part of the taxi squad the team carried with it on the road. Martinez said he didn’t feel like Parra was totally himself during those visits — not quite as outgoing, not quite as comfortable asserting himself. Parra agreed. Sunday, things were different.

“I do my best on the taxi squad, but it’s not the same,” Parra said. “Now I’m here and standing in the dugout, I’m going to feel my teammates, I’m going to feel the fans.”

Parra will almost certainly have to hit to stay on the Nationals’ bench long-term. Their other backup outfielder, Yadiel Hernández, proved himself a capable bench option with a .261 average in 69 at-bats this year. But Washington sent him down a week ago, meaning he isn’t eligible to return yet. So Parra was the next obvious choice.

The Nationals will need at least one of them while Stevenson is out, and he could be out awhile. Martinez said Stevenson probably won’t be able to swing a bat until after the Nationals return from their upcoming week-long road trip, if then.

To make room for Parra, the Nationals had to clear space on their 40-man roster, something they did by designating left-handed starter Ben Braymer for assignment. Braymer, 27, was pitching to a 6.75 ERA in seven starts but was effective in a brief stint with the Nationals last year. He becomes the second starter the Nationals, who have a veteran rotation and little proven starting depth behind those in the majors, designated for assignment in the last week. The other, Rogelio Armenteros, cleared waivers and is now back in Rochester.

“We needed a roster spot. I’ve said this before. He was struggling a little bit. … We hope that we can get him back and we can keep developing him. But it gives him an opportunity if another team wants him to go pitch for somebody else,” Martinez said. “That being said, left-handed pitchers are hard to come by. We’d love to have him, but he needs to develop. He needs to get better.”

Parra heard he was called up Saturday afternoon and drove from Rochester to D.C. He arrived in Washington around 10 p.m. Saturday night. By Sunday morning, his kids had already texted him, asking the question everyone around the Nationals was asking: Could they please hear “Baby Shark” again? Whenever Parra bats next, he confirmed, they will.

“I can’t change,” said Parra, confirming that he will step up to the plate to the song that took D.C. by storm, that ended up on T-shirts and hats and memes during that 2019 run. “It’s a good vibe for my team and even more special for the fans. I think that’s even more important.”