Denard Span did not expect to return to Washington, D.C.
He was born here unexpectedly. His mother, who went to the University of the District of Columbia, was in the city visiting friends when she suddenly went into labor 29 years ago.
Now Span is back, though in a very grown-up capacity. The new leadoff hitter and star center fielder for the Washington Nationals is getting to know the city — and his new baseball team — one step at a time.
“I figured out how to get to the grocery store yesterday,” Span said, speaking to CQ Roll Call in the Nationals dugout. “I know how to get from my apartment to the ballpark with my GPS.”
Span’s demanding schedule with the Nationals has afforded him limited opportunities to explore the D.C. area since he came over from the Minnesota Twins in a November trade. Span visited the Library of Congress after opening day to view what Abraham Lincoln had in his pockets the night he died, an anecdote he shared with his more than 50,000 Twitter followers. Span admits he usually eats at chain restaurants near his Crystal City, Va., apartment but said he has ventured to Oohhs and Aahhs and Ben’s Chili Bowl, both on U Street Northwest, for what he calls the “original D.C. places.”
“There’s so much to see here. I don’t know where to begin. They need to have a chronological order to the city. Hoping to have enough time here to do that,” he said. “I see myself coming back [to D.C.] during the offseason.”
Span’s interest in Washington, D.C., is more about the people of the community than the politicians it houses. He doesn’t follow politics, though he said he had been excited to tour the White House during the offseason and would like a chance to see the inside of the Capitol.
The off-field interest he’s most invested in is Span’s Fans, his community outreach effort with the Nationals that brings single-parent families to the ballpark. The families get to watch batting practice, meet Span and get his autograph and watch the game with refreshments. Span pays for the tickets and food himself.
“Just wrote the check yesterday” he said with a grin. He calls his community work some of his most important.
“Families were very appreciative,” he said of the first Span’s Fans outing held at Nationals Park on April 22, at a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. “It’s a good feeling when you can put smiles on other people’s faces. Just made their day. In the big scheme of things, it’s a small donation. For the benefit and what I get out of it, it’s worth it.”
While in Minnesota, Span won the Carl R. Pohlad Community Service Award. He was particularly involved with Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit designed to help single mothers. Span credits much of his success in life to the close relationship he has with his family, particularly his mother, Wanda Wilson, whom he speaks with every day and who raised him as a single parent. He’s glad that being part of the National League East means that his family in Florida will be able to see more of his games with shorter travel distances.
“My goal is reach as many people as I can, however I can, whether with a positive word or testimony. I think I was put here to touch as many people as I possibly can,” Span said.
“We were aware of his community activity in Minnesota, so when he got here to the Nationals, we talked to him in spring training about getting to know the Washington, D.C., community better and let them get to know him,” said Shawn Bertani, the senior director of community relations for the Washington Nationals.
Bertani credits the success of Span’s Fans to having a player like Span, who feels strongly about helping others. “If a guy is doing something that resonates with him, he is going to be fully invested,” she said.
Nationals First Base and Outfield Coach Tony Tarasco agreed that the community work is part of what makes Span who he is. “It goes into his total package, the underlying character about himself. He is a consistent and steady person, period. With that, everything else comes together.”
Big Win for Washington
After last season’s Cinderella-esque playoff run, followed by a crash-and-burn ending against the Cardinals, the Nationals wanted to add depth to the lineup and strength to the outfield.
Offensively, the team needed to increase its on-base percentage at the top of the batting order. Without a prototypical leadoff hitter, batters such as Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper were clearing empty bases. Defensively, the Nats wanted a center fielder so the young and still-growing Harper could move to a corner slot.
And so the Nationals found Span, whom they’d been trying to lure from the Twins for years. Span was traded for one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects, Alex Meyer. And while his speed and nifty catches have saved the Nationals in several close games, he doesn’t garner the national attention of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg or hitting prodigy Harper.
But Span is doing everything he can to acclimate himself. “His process started on day one,” Tarasco said. “He showed a lot of respect toward his teammates: being on time, the way he ran balls out, the way he communicated with his fellow outfielders [Jayson] Werth and Harper. He spent time from the very beginning listening to what guys who had experience in the National League had to offer him.”
Tarasco said that much of Span’s value comes from being a consistent, steady player who is both impressive in the outfield and a strong leadoff hitter. He continually puts up good at-bats, making starting pitchers work hard early and throw more pitches, something appreciated by the game’s purists. “Making guys feel like, ‘Man, I’m having a tough time getting the lead-out hitter out and I’m only at the first guy.’ It sets a tone, it’s not flashy, but it’s so consistent,” Tarasco said.
Span wants to help the Washington Nationals go further than their playoff run last year. “Personally I want to be an all-star,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never done but something I try and do every day.”
CQ Roll Call Congressional Baseball
Some traditions in D.C. are new to Span. He smiled upon hearing the details of the CQ Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, which will be played at Nationals Park on June 13 this year.
His advice for the members of Congress suiting up to play ball: “Bring your sunglasses. For pop flies, the sun is going to play a big factor. See the ball, hit the ball. Keep it simple. We don’t need any congressmen pulling muscles.”
A word to the wise.