There’s a saying used regularly by the folks in the Washington Nationals’ community relations department. It speaks to the dedication that both the staff and the players themselves have shown to the city they have come to call home.
“For us, the game doesn’t end on the field.”
In only the team’s second season in the District of Columbia, the Nationals already have forged a strong bond with the community, building the foundation of a relationship that is sure to grow in the coming years.
Chartese Burnett, vice president of communications for the Nationals, said the department has come a long way in the year and a half since the team, formerly known as the Expos, relocated from Montreal and reinvented itself as the Nationals.
“Our role is primarily to be a good partner, to be a good corporate citizen in the community,” the native Washingtonian said. “I think with any area, there’s specific issues that may be more pressing to that particular area. But in general, we want to be able to help and be a partner in education and the creation of awareness for social ills.”
The goal is mirrored by those who participate in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. The 45th edition of the game will be played tonight at the Nationals’ home, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Money raised from the game goes to area charities, primarily the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
The community relations department covers a wide range of issues with the programs they operate throughout the season. Burnett said it’s a conscious effort to live up to the department’s three-pronged mission statement: enhancing education, increasing participation in youth baseball and softball, and improving the quality of life in the D.C. metropolitan area.
What has Burnett and the rest of the department particularly excited about this season and beyond is the dawn of a new era of ownership for the Nationals. At the beginning of May, a group headed by D.C.-area real estate mogul Theodore Lerner was awarded ownership of the team, which previously was owned by Major League Baseball. Burnett believes that change will help the community relations department more finely focus its efforts on local issues.
“I think that it’s going to make a difference, not only in the community, the political realm, and in the stadium, but you will see an owner say, ‘This is my team,’ a local group in Ted Lerner and his family, and it’s going to make a difference,” Burnett said. “People will take stock in the community. ... I’m excited about the opportunities and what we can do.”
Burnett said that by gaining an owner, the team can now launch the Washington Nationals Foundation, a “grant-giving piece of the community relations picture” that will be easier to operate with a local ownership group that can direct the money where it will best serve the community’s needs.
Among the plethora of programs in which the Nationals participate:
• the GALA Hispanic Theater Latino Heritage Day on July 8, where a few of the team’s Latino players will sign autographs and talk with the families present at the event;
• the Baseball 101: Women’s Clinic on Sept. 2, in which the coaching staff, some players and a few members of the National Pro Fastpitch softball league help women strengthen their baseball skills; and
• several free youth baseball and softball clinics, located in various places around the D.C. area.
The Nationals also reach out to D.C. schoolchildren, even after the academic year has ended. In partnership with the D.C. and Fairfax County, Va., public library systems, the team hosts the Nationals Summer Reading Grand Slam, which kicked off June 20 and will run through Aug. 4. The goal is to use the infusion of baseball to get schoolchildren excited about learning — if kids complete their reading lists, they score a “home run” and get treated by the team to a free game at RFK in September.
“It’s an opportunity to utilize baseball as an incentive,” Burnett said. “We understand that education is important, we understand what kids need to do as far as reading and the fundamentals of education. And we want to play a part in that, even if it’s a small part.”
Another fundamental of education — and one of particular use to fans of baseball, the ultimate statistical sport — is math. And as such, Burnett said the Nationals will start the Business of Baseball program later this year, using theories of money management in baseball, among other things, to teach kids basic math. All-Star closer Chad Cordero will be the spokesman for the program and will make several appearances at the the stadium and at area schools to promote it.
Such player appearances are not uncommon. Budding star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose mother has multiple sclerosis, was heavily involved in last month’s health initiative centering on the disease. And Jose Guillen, Robert Fick and Matthew LeCroy are among the handful of other players who already have made public appearances, Burnett said, with quite a few more scheduled throughout the season.
One would think it might be below players of the stature of, say, Alfonso Soriano — a four-time All-Star due to net a cool $10 million this season — to spend time either playing the role of one of Santa’s elves, making myriad public appearances across the D.C. metro area, or helping out at softball and baseball clinics in the heat of a typical D.C. summer. But Burnett said the functions don’t faze the players, whom she described as “tremendous” for giving up so much of their already limited time to make hospital visits, sign autographs after batting practice and visit area schools.
“I don’t know whether we happened to get lucky, but our guys are so excited about being in the nation’s capital,” Burnett said. “With the tremendous support we’ve gotten, they are so excited to be here. They are willing to do anything.”
The players, however, aren’t the only part of this equation that gets enjoyment out of it. Kids flock to see their diamond heroes up close, Burnett said, and the players’ off-field, in-season appearances always give them a thrill.
And according to Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Senior Athletic Director Michael Williams, the thrill translates in accordance with one of the three pillars of the mission of the Nationals’ community relations department.
“Our partnership with the Washington Nationals has been a positive experience for our club members,” Williams said. “We have seen the number of baseball teams in our organization increase, and club rosters reach their maximum capacity. This partnership has made the lifelong dream of many of our club members to see and attend a Major League Baseball stadium and game come true. The Washington Nationals have graciously donated truckloads of equipment allowing us to effectively teach the game of baseball to our teams.”
D.C.’s children get their fix of the Nationals in the offseason, as well: In furtherance of the department’s motto, “the game” doesn’t end when the season ends, either. In October, the Nationals will join with the Boys & Girls Clubs to run the Holiday Card Art Contest, a competition in which members of the Boys & Girls Clubs can enter their drawings of a holiday scene — with the winning scene becoming the front of the Nationals’ 2006 holiday cards.
The yearly capper is the Nationals’ Christmas party on Dec. 12. Held at the ESPN Zone in downtown Washington, the team, in conjunction with Toys for Tots and the Boys & Girls Clubs, hosts a group of children and delivers presents to them via players dressed as Santa’s elves.
Ultimately though, Burnett said, what the community relations staff does isn’t about specific events. What’s important is rolling up its sleeves and getting hands-on with the people who matter most — the fans.
“We want to make smart choices and get guys out there for things that make an impact. We want programs, we want relationships, we want to make an impact as an ongoing thing, not a one-off thing where guys go and just check a box,” Burnett said. “Kids are going to love guys going to their school, but what are they saying? What are they sharing with the kids that they can take away with them? That’s important to me, and that’s my mandate to my staff.”