Last Thursday provided a rare home off-day for the first-place Washington Nationals. But Ryan Zimmerman, the team's All-Star third baseman, still spent his night at the ballpark.
Zimmerman had important business at his third annual "Night at the Park" fund-raiser at Nationals Park to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis -- the chronic disease which has crippled his mother, Cheryl, since her diagnosis in 1995.
Zimmerman hosted more than 700 guests, including Nationals fans, management and many of his teammates (yes, rookie sensation Bryce Harper was there), at the benefit for his ziMS Foundation. He founded the charity in 2006 to raise awareness and money to fight the disease. MS attacks the nervous system and affects more than 2.5 million people worldwide.
"I always knew if I had the chance, I wanted to do something to help with the disease," Zimmerman said. "Not just for my mom but for everyone who we've met who has been affected by it. I got called up in 2005 and I came home that offseason. They had known I wanted to do something -- they didn't really know the extent or how big or how small -- but we started talking one night literally in the living room of the house and that's where it started."
The ziMS Foundation has come a long way since those living-room conversations in Virginia Beach with his parents Keith and Cheryl, who attended the event last Thursday as did his fiancee Heather Downen and brother Sean. Though it remains staffed entirely by volunteers, including friends and family, this year the foundation expects to surpass $1 million in donations for MS charities and research.
Last Thursday's event raised more than $200,000 through ticket sales, donations and a live and silent auction. Zimmerman presented a check for $40,000 to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Capital Chapter and made a $30,000 donation to dreamMakerS, a local nonprofit organization which connects, supports and empowers children of parents with MS.
"Night at the Park" represents Zimmerman's commitment to the team and community. When Zimmerman signed his first long-term contract in 2009, he and his agents requested a special provision to allow him use of Nationals Park for one night each year.
"It's the first time that anybody had done something like this," said Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman's agent. "Hopefully now, the Nationals can see that it wasn't just a half-hearted request, but he's actually activated around that contractual right to do something meaningful in a positive way."
The success of "Night at the Park" relies not only on Zimmerman, but his teammates. Nearly 20 of his fellow Nationals -- including Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche and Edwin Jackson -- took time out from their off-day to mix and mingle with fans and bid on live- and silent-auction items.
Jackson, who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals before this season, took home a VIP trip to the Grammy Awards for $10,000 and several sports memorabilia items, including an autographed Kevin Durant jersey and a framed photo of Jackie Robinson.
"Anything we can do to give back to the community whether it's time, monetary values or even just a chance to come out and mingle along with everyone who has involvement with the event, it's great," Jackson said. "The main point is for the foundation. We have a lot of fun with it -- you have guys bidding back and forth for different things. It's a fun event for a good cause and something that's important and that's how you look at it."
Zimmerman isn't the only Nationals player affected by MS. Relief pitcher Craig Stammen's father also suffers from the disease.
"Being here is important to me," Stammen said. "It's important to the cause because I know what he goes through on a daily basis. He has a tremendous platform being who he is and he's done almost anything he can to help support his mother and there are a lot of other people who are affected by the disease, so every little part means a lot to everybody who's affected by it."
The event also continues to reinforce Zimmerman's role as a leader of the team both on and off the field.
"Zimmerman is an unbelievable guy and he does a lot of things for the D.C. area," Harper said. "Any time I can support anything he does, I will. I think it's great for the whole team to come out here and really support our captain."
In addition to the silent and live auction, the crowd enjoyed a concert by Guster and the comedic baseball stylings of Gar Ryness, better known as "Batting Stance Guy," who performed several players' stances, including Zimmerman's and Harper's. Ryness volunteered to serve as emcee for the event for the second year because he and Zimmerman share a common bond -- both of their mothers suffer from MS.
"It means the world to me to be able to have an athlete who's well-respected raising such awareness," Ryness said. "Even though he's a dynamic baseball player and a really nice guy and he never gets arrested, to raise awareness actually for MS is probably the best thing he's doing."
For more information on the ziMS Foundation, visit www.zimsfoundation.org.