Dave Nichols: Zimmerman speaks from the heart at "Night in the Park"

In his sixth full season with the Washington Nationals, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has become the face of the franchise. He has garnered many accolades, including being selected as an All-Star and winning a Gold Glove. A mild-mannered guy, ZImmerman usually leads not with words but with his actions and work ethic on the field. Last night, for the second consecutive year, Zimmerman spoke from the heart during "A Night at the Park," a benefit hosted by his ziMS Foundation, which funds comprehensive support and educational programs dedicated to the treatment and ultimate cure of multiple sclerosis.

In 1995, when Ryan and his brother were still boys, his mother was diagnosed with MS, a chronic and unpredictable disease that affects the central nervous system. Zimmerman and his parents Keith and Cheryl started the foundation in 2006 after Ryan became a fixture for the Nationals. Ryan feels that being a popular athlete could give him a platform to educate people about the disease and provide funding for research toward a cure.

"It's personal for me, with my mom having it," Zimmerman said at Nationals Park on Thursday night. "It's just good to be able to give back. So many people helped me to get where I am now and this is not only just for my mom. Through the times, we've met a number of families, a number of people affected by this disease and for me to be able to have the platform and the resources to give back just a little bit is the least I can do."

This is the second annual event the foundation has held at the stadium. Zimmerman has a stipulation in his contract that allows him use of Nats Park to host an event each year, and the Night at the Park has become a staple on the D.C. social calendar. The best part is that's it's all for a good cause.

"It's great," he said. "I think any time we can organize things that are fun and enjoyable and do good things, it's kind of the best of both worlds. In the end, this night's supposed to be fun and a good time. So to be able to do that and raise a lot of money for a good cause at the same time is perfect."

Last year's event raised more than $200,000 and the foundation expected to top that this year. Zimmerman mentioned that his parents do a "bulk of the work" with the foundation, which also hosts a golf tournament in their hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., and several other charitable functions throughout the year. "Our entire foundation is run by volunteers and they work hard at it. So I think they're also very proud of what this thing has become in such a short amount of time," he said.

The evening consisted of both a live and silent auction, and VIP guests were entertained during dinner by magician David Blaine. Gar Ryness, better known as "The Batting Stance Guy," then helped emcee through the live auction and provided comic relief, imitating various Nats at bat, such as Ian Desmond, Michael Morse, and of course, Zimmerman himself. After the auctions finished, the entire party was treated to a concert by country artist Rodney Atkins. Zimmerman was obviously moved that the country superstar was able to participate in his event. "He's a great person and it means a lot to me and my family that he comes out here and does this," Zimmerman said.

It means a lot to Ryness and Atkins as well, as they both have family members stricken with the disease.

But what's a fundraiser without generous people providing the funds? Nats fans - and several of Zimmerman's teammates - bid heavily on dozens of unique silent auction items, such as a Chris Bosh signed jersey and lithographs of great moments in sports history. But the serious bidding started at the live auction, where once-in-a-lifetime experiences like passes for a practice round at the Masters, a fighter pilot experience or a trip to attend the 2012 Grammys, were up for bid. And they were bid on with gusto, with the donations of the live auction totaling more than $60,000.

Zimmerman couldn't say enough about the fans that attended the event, or Nats fans in general. "I think that it says a lot about the people of D.C.," he said. "Obviously, they're big baseball fans and as we continue to get better (on the field) they're going to become better win us. They haven't had baseball in a long time and they've had to go through some tough times the last few years and they've stuck with us. So for them to show their support for us on the field and obviously to come out to these things, I think really shows you how good they are."

Many of Zimmerman's teammates were in attendance, and to a man, they spoke about the respect that Zimmerman carries in the clubhouse - and not just for his prowess on the baseball diamond. "He always does the right thing," reliever Collin Balester said. "He's a great person and a great guy to be around and everyone respects him and wants to do things to help him out any way we can."

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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