ANNAPOLIS - From the morning spent dining with a roomful of midshipmen and touring the United States Naval Academy grounds to the early afternoon spent dressing in a locker room in a football stadium down the road to the late afternoon spent playing an exhibition game in front of 1,030 fans (most of them in full dress uniform) in the tiniest ballpark most of them had seen in a long time, this was no typical day for the Nationals.
Their spring training finale, which ended in a 4-4 tie with the Red Sox in the first-ever Naval Academy Baseball Classic, was an experience unlike any they could recall.
“Today was awesome,” manager Dusty Baker said, “to see so many young men and women having a good time.”
This was the first installation of this newly created end-of-spring exhibition, with more to come in 2018 and 2019 per an agreement between the Nationals and the Navy. And it didn’t bear much resemblance to other games they’ve played, real or exhibition.
Start with the morning tour of the facility, with players from both teams meeting the men and women who are enrolled at the Academy, having breakfast together, seeing the massive bunks on campus and more than a few state-of-the-art vehicles and weapons.
“I thought it was really cool that, first of all, we could experience something that for me is unimaginable,” center fielder Adam Eaton said. “To spend a day with people that mean so much to us, to just be able to have breakfast with those people that have committed at an early age.”
“I can’t say it was as expected, because it was more than expected,” Baker said. “They were first class. They treated us with honor and dignity, and my guys did the same thing.”
Once the tour concluded, the teams headed to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, where they used the football locker rooms to dress and get treatment because the clubhouses at tiny Max Bishop Stadium couldn’t accommodate big league rosters.
A shuttle bus brought the players to the quaint ballpark, which quickly filled up with hundreds of midshipmen in full dress uniform, plus a few other dignitaries. Some watched batting practice on the field, taking videos on their phones of Bryce Harper mashing pitches over the fence while wearing a Navy hoodie.
“It just put everything in perspective,” Harper said of the entire experience.
The national anthem, sung by a Navy chorus, was punctuated by a helicopter flyover, piloted by Academy students who later returned to the ballpark to be recognized.
“Pretty cool,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Especially when the flyover takes place and you realize it’s students flying those helicopters.”
There was a bit of a feeling-out process to the game itself, with the small and mostly nonpartisan crowd - there were a few Nats and Red Sox caps sprinkled throughout the stands - watching the proceedings in a different manner than you’d find in major league parks or across the Grapefruit League.
“It was quiet,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It was almost like they’re too polite to yell. It was weird. The first couple innings were just really quiet. I don’t know if I’ve ever really played in an environment like that.”
They weren’t always quiet, though. Plenty of midshipmen weren’t afraid to let some players know how they felt about a dropped popup or a minor injury.
“I think Brock Holt fouled a ball off his foot, and I’m hearing them yell: ‘Rub it off!’ ” catcher Matt Wieters said with a laugh. “Most fans, I’d get upset. But you know what, you guys are actually the ones who could say that.”
Reality hit the ballplayers when they realized they were heading home for the day, resting up before Monday’s season opener, while those who attended today’s game have far greater tasks ahead.
“It was fun to just get a chance to play in front of those guys,” Turner said. “Because they don’t get a lot of time off, and I know they’re busy. It’s nice to let them get away from their real responsibilities.”
“To walk around with them, be able to ask them questions, see where they eat and where they stay and all that stuff, then to see them out there,” Zimmerman said. “It was kind of cool to see them in their element, and then to see them come to our element.”