Five-year celebration brings smiles, memories of 2019 title

Most members of the 2019 Nationals enjoyed long, distinguished careers, playing for multiple franchises and experiencing personal highs and lows along the way. None of them, though, ever played for a team quite like that one.

Because of how the season ended, yes. But also because of the bond they all created along the way.

“I’d still be playing if we had that group in 2019 over and over again,” said Brian Dozier, who retired in 2021. “It was a great group.”

The members of the franchise’s first World Series roster are forever connected, and when they gathered back at Nationals Park this weekend for the five-year celebration of that achievement, they were instantly transported back to the greatest season of their lives.

Twelve players from that roster were in attendance, including alumni Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Kurt Suzuki, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Gerardo Parra, Javy Guerra and Dozier. Many of the 10 players still actively playing elsewhere sent in video messages. All received rousing ovations from the crowd that assembled to celebrate a championship in a way that wasn’t possible in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions.

They of course reminisced about the way the 2019 started, with a 19-31 record that left plenty on the outside wondering if major changes were afoot, while those inside the clubhouse tried to remain confident.

“Shoot, I thought everybody was getting fired,” Suzuki said. “At the same time, maybe having a younger team, panic would’ve set in. Not saying that we weren’t panicky. I think panic is a little strong word for what we were. I know we were a little worried. We wanted to turn it around. But we knew we had a lot of time left, and we knew the clientele we had in the clubhouse and the veterans we had that had been through a lot before, we knew it was possible. We just needed to stick together. And that’s what created the friendships so strong, that we stuck together.”

The veteran makeup of that roster – the oldest roster in the majors that season – was brought up multiple times today as an integral part of the comeback from 19-31 to a championship.

“On the flip side, if we had been young, I think it would’ve been complete chaos,” Dozier said. “So we stuck to it, and we kind of rallied and started winning.”

For many of those veterans, the collective goal of winning a ring overshadowed any personal achievements. And that made the biggest moments of the postseason communal events, no matter who delivered those moments.

“People ask me about those moments all the time, I tell them: You don’t realize how many failures I went through to get to those two successes,” Kendrick said. “That’s a culmination of baseball itself. We fail so much, just for a glimpse at glory. And I think in those two situations, I don’t think I could’ve dreamed of anything better.”

Kendrick’s two game-changing homers – the grand slam in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in Los Angeles, the clank off the right field foul pole in Game 7 of the World Series in Houston – made him a D.C. sports hero for eternity. The MVP of the Fall Classic, of course, was Stephen Strasburg, who saw his tumultuous career culminate with a dominant Game 6 performance.

Strasburg, who made only eight more big league starts after that night, officially retired from baseball earlier this month following protracted (and at times contentious) negotiations over the payout of the remainder of the $245 million contract he signed following the World Series. The right-hander didn’t attend this weekend’s event, and his absence was impossible to ignore.

Those who know him best will never forget the sacrifices he made in support of the team’s greater cause.

“The dude literally pitched his arm off and was the World Series MVP and was one of the most – if not the most – influential players in our history,” Zimmerman said. “You think about what he did as far as putting us on the map, as far as being on national TV games here, as far as getting everyone to pay attention to a team nobody had paid attention to before. And then to actually live up to the hype? You don’t see that in the sport. …

“It’s not his fault he signed that contract. It’s not his fault that the contract didn’t work out. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just how it works out. I think people should choose to remember what he did positively, what he did for this organization and what he did for this city, and push the other stuff away. I don’t think anyone deserves that, especially him. And I also know nobody tried to give more back than he did. The thought process of: ‘Oh, he’s just sitting back and collecting a check’ is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I just hope people celebrate and remember him for what he was.”

Zimmerman, who remains in close contact with Strasburg, was asked if he thinks the pitcher is at peace now with the way his career ended.

“I think he lets me talk to him, because I’m one of the only people that doesn’t talk about that with him,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “It’s a tough situation. We’re competitors. Nobody wants to go out and validate, or justify, why we get paid the money we do more than we do. So when you can’t do that – I’m not going to sit here and speak for him – but I know when I was hurt, you feel like you’re letting the team down, you’re letting the fans down. Everyone tells you, you shouldn’t think like that. But it’s still hard not to. I can’t say whether he is or not. I think it’s the first step in probably what should happen. This guy should be celebrated and thought of as an icon and a legend around here. I think he is. I think most people think that way. Hopefully, now that this is all resolved, we can properly celebrate him.”

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