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.

The Completely Anticipated Anti-Climactic MLB Debut of Ginny Baker

Ginny Baker had an anti-climactic Major League debut. (screenshot from Episode 1)
Ginny Baker had an anti-climactic Major League debut. (screenshot from Episode 1)

Ginny Baker was not a phenom who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sixteen-year-old. She was not advertised as “Baseball’s Chosen One,” nor was she drafted first overall in the MLB Draft.

Washington Nationals fans, who comprise the greatest amount of my readers, have been fortunate to see many of the team’s first round draft picks breeze through the minor leagues and have seen them have an almost immediate impact in “The Show.”

Prodigies like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who were drafted first overall in their respective MLB Drafts in 2009 and 2010, are not typical. Most players don’t even make the majors.

The chance of making the Major Leagues after being drafted after the 21st round of the 40 round draft is only about 7 percent, according to an article on Bleacher Report. The chances of making the Major Leagues for a player getting drafted out of high school, like Baker, is even slimmer.

Baker, the audience learns during a tense moment with catcher Mike Lawson, took much longer to develop before her Major League debut. She pitched in the minor leagues for five years and even played two years of winter ball.

The audience learns that Baker pitched in the minor leagues for five years during a tense moment with catcher Mike Lawson. (screenshot from Episode 1)
The audience learns that Baker pitched in the minor leagues for five years during a tense moment with catcher Mike Lawson. (screenshot from Episode 1)

In addition to not having “Strasburg-like” talent to breeze through the minors, Baker also had to cope with the expectations of having to perform well to meet the expectations of women and girls who followed her career.

Katie Nolan, the host of FS1’s Garbage Time, weighed in on Baker’s anticipated debut in a cameo. Nolan takes a defensive position as she weighs in on Baker’s talent and the iconic nature of her debut.

Nolan can be heard saying, “If you want to say she’s only getting her shot because she is a woman go ahead…bitch and moan all you want gentleman, but tonight a girl is going to be the lead sports story in the world and if that upsets you, maybe you’re just getting your period, go get him Ginny.”

Other national sport media personalities including Colin Cowherd, Matt Vasgersian and Joe Buck also all weighed in on Baker’s debut. It was also clear from their comments that they too were more focused on the social implications of her start than her talent.

Instead of living up to the anticipation the way Strasburg did when he struck out 14 batters without allowing a walk, Baker crumbled.

It was painful to watch her struggle to throw a single strike and then “surrender” when she begs to be taken out of the game by her manager.

As I watched, Baker struggle I began thinking about the major league debut of another pitcher. Julio Urias who made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers this season when he was just 19-years-old.

Urias’ start was anticipated by the national sport media. Most pundits were able to speak knowledgeably about his discovery by the Dodgers as a 16-year-old in Mexico. Expectations were high for Urias. The LA Times panned him as a “phenom” who was making a start for the team who despite having the highest payroll in the division was floundering.

Julio Urias' anticipated Major League debut was also anti-climactic. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings.
Julio Urias’ anticipated Major League debut was also anti-climactic. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings. (photo from Newsday)

Urias struggled mightily in the national spotlight. I cringed as the New York Mets had their way with him. He threw 36 pitches in the first inning and gave up three runs and four hits.

Urias exited the game after throwing just 81 pitches in 2 ⅔ innings in a Dodgers walk-off loss to the New York Mets.

He looked a lot like Baker on the mound. Urias was under a tremendous amount of pressure in a very similar way that Baker was under pressure.

Baker’s anti-climactic debut was a dramatic viewing experience that was well captured by the show’s writers. An immediate “Bakermas” performance tantamount to “Strasmas” would be too unrealistic.

It will be exciting to see how quickly the writer’s have Baker’s performance improve and whether she will in fact be demoted the same way Urias was after his spot start.

Nationals Magazine Digest: June 2016

The latest issue of Nationals Magazine features a cover story about Stephen Strasburg's decision to stay in Washington.
The latest issue of Nationals Magazine features a cover story about Stephen Strasburg’s decision to stay in Washington.

The June/July issue of Nationals Magazine is now on sale at Nationals Park and the latest edition features a cover story about Stephen Strasburg and his decision to sign a 7-year, $175 million contract extension.

Charlie Slowes, the veteran play-by-play announcer for the Washington Nationals, writes about how Strasburg evaluated his family’s “life goals” when considering the contract extension. Strasburg and his wife, Rachel, Slowes writes, agreed that staying in Washington would help them achieve those goals. The story also highlights how Strasburg has developed over the course of his career and what he has learned from his relationships with his teammates.

Dave Jagler, Slowes’ partner in the radio booth, contributed the most interesting article to the magazine, but it is about Davey Lopes–who probably wouldn’t sell many magazines if he was featured on the cover. Lopes, the first base coach for the Nationals, was an accomplished base stealer during his playing career and the article explains how Lopes is using his experience to help the team’s baserunning. Jagler writes about the work Lopes does to discover visual keys which improve the chances of success for baserunner and his success stories. Give this article a read!

The magazine also provides readers with an update on one of the team’s most prized prospects–Victor Robles. In an interview with Nationals Magazine, Mark Scialabba, the Nationals director of player development, he highlights the talent and trajectory of Robles. Among the newsworthy comments, Scialabba explains that the 19-year-old prospect from the Dominican Republic will likely to remain an outfielder and that he will be promoted as he meets goals that were set for him during spring training.

The article about Joe Ross which is accompanied with sharp photography is also worth a read. It provides readers with his reaction after getting traded from by the San Diego Padres and how mastering a change-up has made him an effective pitcher.

 As a reminder, the latest issue of Nationals Magazine can only be purchased at Nationals Park. The April/May issue can be purchased online.

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.

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.

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.