WASHINGTON -- Following a perfect 6-0 road trip, the Nats were greeted with a welcomed off-day Thursday. Nationals Park, however, still opened its doors for the third annual A Night At The Park.
The event, hosted by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and his ziMS Foundation, raises money and awareness to help fight multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the body's central nervous system. Zimmerman's mother, Cheryl, was diagnosed with the disease in 1995, and the Nats' first Draft pick created the foundation in 2006. An estimated 700 people attended this year's event, which occupied part of the concourse on the stadium's first-base side and raised more than $200,000. Also in attendance were most of Zimmerman's Nats teammates, including Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and several others.
"There's no better theater or stage than MLB," Zimmerman said, adding that the foundation expected to eclipse $1 million raised for the year after the night. "As a professional athlete, I think we have so many connections and so many resources that people don't have. If you don't use those, it's kind of a shame."
Upon signing his first contract with the Nats in 2006, Zimmerman asked the team to include a provision allowing him one day per year to use Nationals Park for the occasion, paving the groundwork for the foundation's biggest event.
"It's the first time that anybody had done something like this," Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman's agent, said of the contract provision. "Hopefully now, the Nationals can see that it wasn't just a halfhearted request, but he's actually activated around that contractual right to do something meaningful in a positive way. So hopefully, that will only encourage other players to do it."
In its third year, A Night At The Park featured live and silent auctions, as well as a concert by alternative rock band Guster. Gar Ryness -- whose mother also has MS and is better known as entertainer and YouTube phenomenon "Batting Stance Guy" -- played emcee, while auctioneer Howie Schwartz led the live auction. Items included two tickets to the 2013 Masters golf tournament, a Silver Oak Wine Experience and a "Choose Your Championship" package -- which allowed the winner to select tickets for the 2012 World Series, a 2013 Bowl Championship Series college football national championship game or a 2013 Stanley Cup playoff game. Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson also bid $10,000 on a pair of tickets to the 2013 Grammy Awards, including access to the VIP after-party as well as airfare and hotel accommodations.
The silent auction included a wide range of sports memorabilia, such as signed jerseys by Zimmerman, NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant, as well as autographed photos of Yogi Berra and several other sports legends. Other popular silent auction items included an all-expenses-paid private vacation to southern Italy, 2 VIP tickets to the Jimmy Fallon show and flying lessons to "Be A Fighter Pilot For A Day."
Doors opened at 6 p.m. ET and the main event began with Zimmerman speaking for approximately 20 minutes on a stage set up behind home plate. Zimmerman discussed his involvement with the cause after his mother was diagnosed, and after a short video on the center field video screen detailing the foundation's efforts, he awarded two checks -- the oversized "Happy Gilmore" checks as he referred to them -- to two organizations the foundation works with. A $40,000 check was given to the National Capital Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, as well as a $30,000 check to dreamMakerS, a non-profit organization dedicated to offering programs for children with parents or primary caregivers with MS.
Zimmerman ended his speech on stage by noting the foundation's history. Beginning with living-room discussions involving about a dozen family and friends -- many of whom are still the primary executives -- the ziMS Foundation first sponsored golf tournaments in Charlottesville, Va. Zimmerman then drew the loudest applause of the night, noting how the foundation has moved from Charlottesville to Washington D.C., where he proclaimed he'll be "for a long time."
Mike Fiammetta is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.