Nationals Winterfest 2016: Player Photos, Autographs and Game Shows

The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest on Saturday and Sunday at The Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest on Saturday and Sunday at The Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center over the weekend and it was a great opportunity for Nationals fans to meet and mingle with some of their favorite players. We highlighted some of the most exciting moments from Sunday in this blog post.

Meeting Players

One of the most exciting opportunities that fans have at Winterfest, that they are not usually afforded during the regular season, is the opportunity to take photos with players. There were two player photo stations set up near the main stage where players rotated taking photos with fans for thirty minute intervals. The meetings at the photo stations were not opportunities to get autographs, but they were terrific opportunities to welcome the new players and wish them well as they prepare for spring training.

There were five sessions at each photo station each day and fans interested in taking photos with players could meet up to 20 players each day.

Some of the players who posed at the photo stations on Sunday included: Chris Heisey and Wilmer Difo, Koda Glover and Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Pedro Severino, Dusty Baker and Trevor Gott, Adam Eaton and Derek Norris, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Grace as well as Michael A. Taylor and Matt Grace.

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These players were excited to meet their fans and they deserve major props!

Nationals players who were noticeably absent from Winterfest this season included Bryce Harper (who looked like he was enjoying himself at a Duke basketball game), Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon.

Getting Autographs

The best way to guarantee your autograph at Winterfest this year was to purchase an autograph voucher online as soon as they went on sale. A Nationals Insider email alerting fans that vouchers were going on sale at 10:00 a.m. on December 2 was distributed at 9:06 a.m. the same morning which resulted in many fans missing out an exciting opportunity. The vouchers were all sold out when I checked my email at 11:00 a.m. that morning, but someone, generously, gave me a voucher after they overheard me speaking about the Nationals in a conversation.

I redeemed my autograph voucher for a special bracelet and got in line for my autograph session featuring Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross. It was an amazing experience to meet Strasburg and Ross.

Player Interaction

Winterfest offers plenty of other opportunities to see players around the convention center floor at the different elements.  Eaton, Ross, and Scherzer stood with Santa Claus on Sunday afternoon for family photos.

Sammy Solis and Norris greeted fans at the top of The Slider.

A.J. Cole was also out and around the convention center. He started the clock for children at the steal home challenge.

New For 2016

There were a handful of new elements this year at Winterfest. The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, the new spring training complex that the Nationals and Astros will share in 2017, had a presence behind The Slider. This area had a video playing about tourism sites in the area showcasing restaurants, spas and the beaches. Fans who stopped by also walked away with a koozie, spring training schedule, and pamphlets about new ballpark and other activities in the area.

An exhibit showcasing the Ballpark of The Palm Beaches was new for 2016.
An exhibit showcasing the Ballpark of The Palm Beaches was new for 2016.

There were also multiple new main stage events to complement the classic events like the gingerbread house contest. The games allowed fans to get a better feel for the personalities of their favorite Nationals.

Dusty Baker and Chris Speier teamed up against Strasburg and Tanner Roark for Smitten Mittens Duo Battle–a game show modeled after “The Newlywed Game.” The teammates took turns answering questions about their partners while one was behind the stage in a “soundproof room.” Some of the answers made the audience laugh including one where Speier said his favorite postgame meal was ribs when Baker predicted it would be salad. It was also funny to watch when Roark correctly anticipated that Strasburg’s favorite flight activity was to watch movies on his iPad.

X’s and Bows was another new game this year and it was hosted by Charlie Slowes–the veteran play-by-play announcer for the Washington Nationals. Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg teamed up with members of the audience to answer trivia questions about Nationals players to get three of their ribbons or bows in a row. Some of the highlights of the event included Ryan Zimmerman answering a question about where he went to college (University of Virginia) and Stephen Strasburg answering a question about the year he was drafted (2009). It was also fun to watch the players correctly answer trivia questions about some of their teammates.

Room For Improvement

Winterfest was a terrific experience, but there are definitely areas where there can be room for improvement. Two of the longer lines were for the video pitch exhibit and the batting cages. Adding an additional two batting cages and encouraging some of the younger attendees to use the rookie batting cages  would go a long way at reducing the waiting time for attendees.

Winterfest planners can also consider rotating out some of the exhibits such as the New Era cap exhibit and the snow globe photo station to make room for more popular or new exhibits for 2017.

Pitch: A Review of “The Interim” and Dusty Baker’s Support of Aroldis Chapman

Al Luongo, like Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, had to face the media after making an insensitive off-the-cuff statement. (screenshot from Episode 2)
Al Luongo, like Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, had to face the media after making an insensitive off-the-cuff statement. (Screenshot from Episode 2).

Ginny Baker did not make another start in the second episode of Pitch. “The Interim” focused, instead, on the San Diego Padres clubhouse and the team’s manager–Al Luongo.

One of the first scenes of the second episode involves a frustrated Al venting to team captain Mike Lawson in the clubhouse. Al quickly rattles off a list of the pressures that he is facing.

“My team’s broke. I’ve got pitchers taking swings at centerfields. I’ve got a girl getting dressed in a closet. I got a pissy owner. And on top of that, now I have psoriasis on my elbows.” Al then deadpans a solution, “So, I’m gonna fix my psoriasis. Your gonna fix the other stuff.”

This conversation makes it clear that the old-school manager is overwhelmed. Al lost control of personnel decisions in the Pilot episode when owner Frank Reid called up Ginny to make her debut. In addition to losing control of personnel decisions, Al’s team was seemingly “broken” by the decisions of the Padres players who were resistant to having Ginny on the team.

Before the audience can start to feel bad for the frustrated manager, a breaking news story on MLB Network revealed Al made a controversial statement about Ginny two years earlier. Al nervously looked back at Ginny when the video clip was played on the team bus.

Al was very embarrassed by a video surfaced showing him make crude remarks about Ginny. (Screenshot from Episode 2).
Al was very embarrassed by a video that surfaced showing him making crude remarks about Ginny. (Screenshot from Episode 2).

Al told a scrum of reporters, “Yeah, Well I hope she makes it to The Show one day. I mean have you seen her? Easy on the eyes. Sure a lot of the guys would love to have her in the locker room.”

The statement Al made was absolutely inappropriate. It undermined Ginny’s talent as an athlete and objectified her beauty as something that would keep the major leaguers entertained.

Al ends up making a very genuine apology to Ginny and then reads a statement to the press. Al made a reference to his daughter in his private apology and also added, “I’m probably missing something here. The world kinda passed me by when they made the Internet. Anyway, it won’t happen again.”

Al’s statement to the media was more “boiler-plate” and seemingly ripped right out of a book by a professional PR agency. At the end of his statement he is barraged with questions about the state of affairs in his clubhouse and he relents, “Geez..can we just go back to talking about how pretty the girl is?”

These statement about the Internet and his slip at the end of the statement were both revealing. The statements show that although Al may be a good manager, he struggles with the added burdens of managing in 2016.

Managers may have been able to get away with speaking with more candor to the media during the early stages of his career. Less eloquent or poorly phrased statements may not have been printed. The times, however, have changed and managers are expected to be able to speak to the media with the knowledge that raw video of their statements will be released to the public.

This episode incident may have resonated with baseball fans who tuned into coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

During a press conference with reporters, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker made a statement about Aroldis Chapman–a free-agent closer who was under investigation by Major League Baseball for a domestic violence incident.  

Baker, who was in his first months as manager at the time, is known for his years of experience in the sport as an All-Star outfielder and as a manager. He is very relaxed when he speaks and he speaks with candor. The relaxed nature of his interviews can be seen in his body language during post-game interviews where he can be seen scratching himself or adjusting his jersey while answering questions.

Baker defended Chapman, his pitcher from when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, from accusations that he “pushed” and “choked” his girlfriend during an October altercation. He said, “I don’t believe the reports,” and he questioned whether or not Chapman was the aggressor in the altercation.

Baker elevated his support by calling Chapman, a “heck of a guy.” He added, “I will go on the record and say I wouldn’t mind having Chapman.”

Baker who speaks off-the-cuff during his meetings would later walk back his comments and slip the same way Al did at the end of his interview by insinuating that African and Latin American players throw the ball harder than white players and that acquiring Chapman would help make the game more diverse.  

The fictional incident in Pitch is another great example of how the TV series is doing a great job at reflecting reality in Major League Baseball. Baseball is not like a movie script. Players and managers are fallible and Pitch continues to do a great job by not romanticizing the game.

Giveaway Review: Dusty Baker Bobblehead (Grade: A-)

The only other manager of the Nationals to be featured on a stadium giveaway bobblehead was Davey Johnson (2013).
The only other manager of the Nationals to be featured on a stadium giveaway bobblehead was Davey Johnson (2013).

The first 25,000 fans who arrived at Nationals Park for the series opener between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers on July 19 received a Dusty Baker bobblehead.

Dusty became just the second manager of the Nationals to be featured as a bobblehead. Davey Johnson received the bobblehead treatment in 2013. The bobblehead celebrated the successful 2012 season when the Nationals made the playoffs and he was named National League Manager of the Year.

Baker’s predecessor, Matt Williams, who was fired after the 2015 season was not featured on a bobblehead after winning the same award in 2014. The Nationals celebrated their 10-year anniversary with bobbleheads commemorating “great moments in history” which may explain his omission.

The announcement of a Dusty Baker bobblehead in February was as surprising to me as the possibility of having a Daniel Murphy “fans choice” bobblehead. Dusty had not managed a single game for the Nationals and Murphy had not played a game for the Nationals.

Any preseason skepticism is now out the window as Dusty continues to lead a team that sits atop the National League East.

Dusty seemed indifferent to the giveaway and said, “I don’t know if it looks like me. Just give them away. I don’t care.”

The truth is the bobblehead was very well done and very detailed.

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The most eye catching feature of the bobblehead is the toothpick sticking out of the manager’s smiling face. A stadium giveaway bobblehead distributed by the Cincinatti Reds in 2011 following the team’s division title also featured the manager chewing a toothpick and came with toothpicks and a container to hold toothpicks.

Hundreds of toothpicks were also scattered along a table by the Center Field Gate so fans could pick up “Dusty toothpicks.” Many fans grabbed them and posted photos of their Dusty Baker game faces on social media.

The bobblehead also includes the detailed gray sweatbands that Dusty wears on both of his forearms featuring a stitched signature and a drawing of his likeness. The sweatbands are called MIMSBANDZ which were specially designed by James Mims and have been worn by many other baseball players including Barry Bonds, Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn. Dusty Baker was the first Major League player to wear MIMSBANDZ in 1986.

Dusty is featured wearing a red cap and a white home uniform with the red and blue trim. He is leaned up against the dugout railing and is depicted nonchalantly crossing his legs. The pose really captures Dusty’s easygoing personality.

The box features two photos of a smiling Dusty Baker in his uniform and also includes a quotation from Baker called a “Dustyism.”  

The side panel of the box says, “You’ve got to think it–and believe it–for it to happen.”

The Washington Nationals also tweeted out a handful of so-called “Dustyisms” over the course of the day.

#Dustyisms has not been a very popular hashtag on Twitter and most Nationals fans do not really point out his quotations or mannerisms and identify them as “Dustyisms.”  

This was a very well done promotion, but it seemingly went a little too far for the sake of creating a catchy hashtag.

Grade: A-

A Review of Nationals Winterfest

This weekend was truly “everything you loved about NatsFest…all wrapped in a holiday bow.” It may have been even better than NatsFest.

The most significant improvement to the annual event was the amount of fan interaction with players. Last year, the opportunities to mingle with players were much more limited. A majority of the meetings took place at player photo stations–where fans had the chance to grip and grin with some of their favorite players.

This weekend there were plenty of opportunities to take photos with players at the photo stations, but it was also not unusual to see players mingling with fans at every activity in the exhibition hall.

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Fans were able to shake hands and pose for photos with players at three photo stations.

Jayson Werth was on top of “The Slider” and helped push fans down the snow tubing themed slide. Dusty Baker posed for snow globe photos. Taylor Jordan tossed baseballs with fans at the carnival games station. Stephen Strasburg gave advice to fans at the steal home challenge station. Oliver Perez greeted fans preparing to encase themselves in plastic bubbles at the snowball run station. Players were everywhere and they were excited to meet the fans.

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Taylor Jordan looked on as I aimed for the Philadelphia Phillies target at the carnival games station.

Winterfest was also defined this year by the presence of Bryce Harper. Harper sat out last year’s NatsFest, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, because of an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for the following week.

The 2015 National League MVP more than made up for last year’s absence. Harper navigated the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with a five man security detail, but he was still incredibly accessible to fans as he posed for photos and taught baseball mechanics at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy Field.

Harper may have been closest to fans on Sunday during the Lip Sync Battle which commanded national attention from the news media when he accessorized with a pink feather boa and danced to a song by the Spice Girls. He subsequently serenaded a young fan from his knees to the tunes of “My Girl” by The Temptations.

Main stage events including Nats Pictionary, a favorite from NatsHD Live pre-game show, and Youngbloods Q&A, where Gio Gonzalez sassed four rookies about their off seasons for 30 amazing minutes, seemed like an upgraded from last year’s NatsFest. These events replaced less exciting main stage events like the gingerbread house building contest and Jerry Blevins’ discussion about his all-time favorite movies.

There were only a few areas that warrant improvement for next season’s Winterfest.

The video pitch simulator station was one of those places. The virtual reality station gave fans the opportunity to throw pitches and then watch a batter smack it out of the ballpark. Unfortunately, the experience took more than a couple of minutes for each fan to experience which made waiting on a line of more than 30 people seem like an unwise investment.

The conclusion of Winterfest can also be improved. Sunday’s festivities on the main stage unceremoniously ended with Matt Grace and Taylor Jordan watching children faceoff in reindeer ring toss which didn’t establish a real sense of closure for fans.

The official final event of the day was the mascot home run derby which felt like a strange way to close the event compared to last year’s grand finale when the entire team gathered on the main stage for a sendoff.

We would start looking forward to next season’s Winterfest, but that could wait until October.