After 95 years, it was truly a hometown baseball fan’s dream come true to finally hear the Washington Nationals’ play-by-play radio broadcaster Charlie Slowes, call the final out of the World Series with the words: “Swing and a miss!...And a World Series game seven winning curly W is in the books!...The Washington Nationals are the world champions!... Remember where you are on October 30, 2019, when the Washington Nationals finished the fight! From the depths of a forgettable 19-31 start, they have climbed to the top of baseball’s highest peak, giving us all a finish to a season we will remember for the rest of our lives!”

The 2019 season began seven months ago on a chilly Thursday afternoon in late March. I was lucky to be able to attend my first Opening Day game with a dear friend who is also a neighbor and a fellow member of St. Bernadette Parish in Silver Spring who shares my dedication to the Washington Nationals. 

On that day, the 162-game season began with thrill and hope that maybe this was “The Year” for the Nationals, who had arrived in D.C. with much fanfare in 2005 after 33 years with no baseball team in the nation’s capital. By May 23, the once-promising season had taken a depressing downturn, hitting rock bottom with injuries and a dismal record of 12 games below .500. It was about as bleak as it could get for the team and its fans. 

Since 2005, my family and I have been Nationals fans through thick and thin, attending lots of games throughout the years -- first at RFK Stadium and then at Nationals Park when its gates opened in 2008. That same year, just days after the first ball game in the team’s new permanent home, Nationals Park was turned into a sacred space for a day when Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Mass there for nearly 50,000 Catholics during his pastoral visit to Washington, D.C. A commemorative banner marking the occasion of the Papal Mass hangs at Nationals Park to this day.

A family prays during the Oct. 27 #NatsMass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Washington before a World Series game at Nationals Park. During the baseball season, the parish hosts a Sunday afternoon Mass before home games. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

But it was back in the fall of 2013 when my Nationals fandom really kicked up a few notches. I was asked to cover a story for the Catholic Standard that turned out to be one of my favorite and most memorable assignments. Craig Stammen, a Nationals relief pitcher at the time, paid a visit to Little Flower School in Bethesda. At first I thought it would be a fun story to cover and maybe I’d be lucky enough to bring home an autograph for my two boys. All that came true, but what surprised and moved me the most was how profoundly and proudly he spoke about his Catholic faith to the school kids.

“You’ve all been blessed with a gift from God. Your job is to use that gift to the best of your ability. For me, I kept dreaming of major league baseball. With the help of the Lord, He’s gotten me to where I am today. There was someone with a greater plan for me,” Stammen said. “Whether you’re an artist, an athlete or a caregiver, use that gift to help others and make their lives better.”

It reminded me that athletes, baseball players in particular, are often faith-filled individuals whom we can admire and who do inspire us. While I always loved the Nats and attending the games, from that day on, I was watching the games on television almost every night and trying my best to learn what seemed like 10,000 baseball rules.

People pray during the Oct. 27 #NatsMass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

For the Washington Nationals organization, my admiration and appreciation grew over the years for their generosity outside the ballpark. Through the team’s Dream Foundation, the Nationals are substantial benefactors in the local community, donating millions of dollars every year to sports programs for at-risk youths and for those with physical or intellectual challenges. On a personal note, my family is forever grateful for the team’s longtime and generous support of The Washington Nationals Diabetes Care Complex at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., which supports kids with Type I Juvenile Diabetes and their families and houses the largest pediatric diabetes program in the Mid-Atlantic region.

This year, my family and I were fortunate to be able to share a partial season ticket plan with friends enabling us to attend several home games. On May 24, things started to turn around for the team. Some new players, several from Latin America, arrived and infused the team with a sense of joy, which no doubt could be attributed to the deep Catholic heritage of their native countries. Home run celebrations became dugout dance parties, Gerardo Parra’s walk-up song, “Baby Shark,” became a stadium anthem, and slowly the wins started adding up. A season that began with such great hope and then had turned so gloomy suddenly became the definition of “The darkest hours are just before dawn.”

During the Oct. 27 #NatsMass, a man receives Communion from Father Andy Gonzalo, the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. The parish's church is located a short walk from Nationals Park. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

This winding road lead to improbable October playoff victories against all odds --  first over the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card game; then a game five playoff win over the Los Angeles Dodgers; a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Championship; and then finally defeating the Houston Astros in a thrilling game seven of the World Series. 

Much has been written about America’s pastime with its legends and heroic characters, but it’s also not a stretch to compare this 2019 Nationals World Series Championship season to many of the everyday virtues we strive to possess and share as Catholics -- those of faith, hope, love, perseverance, courage, unity, friendship, loyalty, patience, community, redemption, gratitude and joy.  

After winning the National League Championship, Davey Martinez, the Nationals manager, became emotional when speaking about how the team had overcome suffering and setbacks. “I can say this: Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place,” a poignant metaphor he applied to the Nationals 2019 winning season, but perhaps unwittingly he also reminds us of the great lesson our Catholic faith teaches us.

CS photo/Andrew Biraj