You can say what you want about the Washington Nationals, but they sure know how to throw a party. Today I had the privilege of attending NatsFest, the annual event where fans get to interact with the team through four hours of fun-filled events and activities.
This was my first time attending NatsFest, and I’m already excited to go back next year.
The event took place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in a room that was more than large enough to accommodate the 8,400+ fans that showed up on Saturday morning. Throughout the day, fans had the opportunity to participate in a wide array of activities including Q and A sessions, player and mascot photo stations, autograph sessions and even batting cages.
Regardless of what activities fans went to, each one promised an opportunity to interact with the team in a way that simply would not be possible during the season.
Many baseball fans can claim to know a baseball player because they watch them play over a hundred times a year. While that may be true, those fans only know the players based on their stats, how many home runs they hit, whether or not they had a good season, etc. That’s public information, there’s nothing special about that. On the other hand, it’s very rare for a baseball fan to have the opportunity to meet their favorite players on a more personal level. And that’s what NatsFest is all about.
Fans had the opportunity to ask their favorite players all kinds of questions. One guy asked a question about whether or not the team plans on sacrificing a rubber chicken during Spring Training for good luck, a question that received a resounding ‘yes’ from Gio Gonzalez. A little kid asked about why so many players decided to get married this offseason. Perhaps that was the only question that the players had trouble answering. The awkward ‘who’s your favorite teammate’ question came up a couple of times, but most players seemed to agree it was Gio Gonzalez.
Some of the answers that the players gave were even funnier than the questions being asked. Anthony Rendon admitted that Gio Gonzalez was responsible for the murder of his famous mullet. Gonzalez discussed the possibility of building a barbershop in the clubhouse. Rendon and Gonzalez also discussed the many ‘sunflower seed fights’ that they had in the dugout last season. Players seemed more like talk-show hosts than baseball players, and that’s just one of the many things that makes NatsFest so special.
While these were all fun and interesting questions, some fans had legitimate baseball questions which the players and general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t hesitate to answer.
In ‘The New Guys’, a presentation that took place on the event’s main stage featuring Rizzo, Jerry Blevins and Doug Fister, everyone seemed to be wondering what the GM thought of the team’s latest acquisitions. Needless to say, Rizzo didn’t hide his excitement about Blevins and Fister.
“We couldn’t be happier to add [Fister] to our starting rotation. We wanted someone that we could control and have with us for a long time,” Rizzo said. “We traded a very high upside prospect in Billy Burns for a guy that will really be the stalwart for the left side of our bullpen in Jerry Blevins. It’s really a testament to our scouting and player development departments that we could land these two players for our 2014 season.”
Fister and Blevins both expressed their excitement about joining the Nationals, and Fister seemed especially excited to play at Nationals Park with his new teammates.
“Being able to receive phone calls and text messages from teammates is really special to me. Nationals ballpark is just a terrific ball park. It’s not cheap and it’s well deserved. I’m looking forward to be able to play with the teammates that we have. I’m gonna go up there and say swing at it, hit it, and hit it to one of our guys. I’m excited,” Fister said.
When Rizzo mentioned the fact that Fister’s postseason success with the Tigers was a major factor in the decision to trade for him, the crowd simply went crazy. As you can imagine, the crowd went crazy several times, especially when Jayson Werth was introduced on stage. Don’t get me wrong, Nationals fans love all their players. But the ovation that Werth received as he walked onto that stage was really something special. For me, it brought back memories of his Game 4 heroics back in 2012. To sum it up in three words, it was awesome.
Players were also very candid about their health, a concern for many Nationals players this offseason.
Stephen Strasburg says he’s fully recovered from surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, says he’s 100 percent for start of camp.
— Mark Zuckerman (@ZuckermanCSN) January 25, 2014
Bryce Harper says he started sprinting three weeks ago and has been excited to be pain-free for the first time in nearly a year.
— James Wagner (@JamesWagnerWP) January 25, 2014
Jayson Werth says his left wrist feels good this offseason, as it did during the 2014 campaign. “I would hope we’re past that,” he said.
— Dan Kolko (@masnKolko) January 25, 2014
Everyone seems to be confident that the Nationals will enter Spring Training healthy and ready to go, including Rizzo.
“Harper, Strasburg and LaRoche all will be 100 percent coming into spring,” said Rizzo of the three Nationals players who underwent surgery this offseason.
The whole thing was an incredible experience for the fans as they got to see what it’s like to participate in a press conference, something that many fans, including myself, have always dreamed of doing.
While I didn’t get the chance to ask any questions, NatsFest was still one of the coolest experiences of my life. I learned that Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez are two of the funniest people in the world. I got to stand less than three feet away from Stephen Strasburg, who I must say is one massive human being. I got to stare at Mike Rizzo until he nodded his head at me. I got to have my picture taken with a bunch of big-headed racing presidents. I even had the chance to say hello to Max Gonzalez, Gio’s father. These are the little things that you simply don’t get to do at games. These are the little things that make it worth the long lines and overpriced food. These are the little things that make NatsFest so special.
There are still a few months to go until Nationals fans get see their favorite players on the field, but today several thousand fans got to experience the next best thing at NatsFest. From meeting players to seeing hundreds of excited fans of all ages, NatsFest was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.
Perhaps the best thing about NatsFest is that it reminded fans that baseball is right around the corner. The vibe at the event was one of excitement for the new season, and the opportunities that go with it. The words ‘playoffs’ and ‘World Series’ were flying all over the place, and for good reason.
2014 could finally be the year that the Nationals bring the World Series trophy back to Washington. And if this year’s NatsFest is any indication, that would be one heck of a parade.