WASHINGTON — Mr. National himself may not be suiting up for Opening Day this year, but he still had plenty of advice for the man taking the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nats Park. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman sat down with Dr. Anthony Fauci to advise the infectious disease specialist on strategies before he makes his Opening Day debut on July 23.
"Are you more nervous to throw out the first pitch, or have you been more nervous over the last three or four months dealing with everything you've had to deal with?" the Nats' first-ever draft pick asked Dr. Fauci, who happens to be a huge fan of the reigning World Series champions.
Dr. Fauci has endeared himself to the nation in 2020 as he's navigated the U.S. through the coronavirus pandemic. And with his signature humility, the doctor admitted to having a few game-day jitters over the prospect of his first experience throwing a pitch in an MLB game.
"I'm quite nervous about it," Fauci said with a chuckle.
"Well don't worry about it, if you bounce it there's no one there to boo you," Zimemrman responded, alluding to the empty stadiums that will be the norm in the shortened MLB season.
The franchise's 16th season will be the shortest since 1878, at 60 games, with the teams playing in fan-less stadiums to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Thursday's game will air on ESPN starting at 7:08 p.m.against the New York Yankees.
So what was the face of the franchise's best advice for Dr. Fauci?
"I've had a chance to catch a lot of pitches, some from presidents and very important people like yourself," Zimmerman said. "You talk to them afterwards and they always say 'I wish I would have warmed up more.'"
Zimmerman suggested the doctor get plenty of warm-up throws in and to aim a little higher than he thinks he needs to.
"You gotta go to the mound," Zimmerman advised. "Don't throw from in front of the mound. Just go for it."
Thursday's pitch won't be Fauci's first time on the diamond -- he played shortstop on his high school baseball team. He admitted that he's been preparing for his big moment over the last few days, and called his current baseball skills "humbling."
"I could go to the gap between short and third, pick out something that was almost in the back grass and fire it to first base pretty well," Fauci said. "Last night, I went up with my wife to one of the schools near my neighborhood in D.C. It felt like I was throwing a brick, Zimm. Whatever happened to my strength?"
Both of the D.C. legends expressed gratitude at having baseball back in the nation's capital, even if the season looks a bit different.
"There's something about the game of baseball, you either love it or you don't. And when you love it, you really love it," Fauci said. "The pace of the game, the feeling you get when you go to a stadium, particularly a stadium as beautiful as Nats stadium, there's nothing better."
Zimmerman, who made the choice to sit out the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, said he's been using the time away from the game to pass on his love of the sport to two of his biggest fans.
"I've been watching the games they've played the last couple nights with my daughters, and it was the weirdest experience because I've never watched a game with them before," Zimmerman said. "It was kind of cool to teach them about the game of baseball. That being said, I've missed every second of it. It was a tough decision for me, but I think the right decision for me and my family."
The first baseman expressed his hope that things go smoothly health-wise for his teammates playing this season.
"I think the players have held each other accountable," Zimmerman said. "I think if we continue to do that, as players and as a country as well, thinking about each other and not ourselves, I think all of us can get through this. Hopefully, baseball can help us all get through this, and that's why we are doing this."
And for those worried that the 35-year-old might choose to hang up his cleats, rest assured, he's not done yet.
"I fully plan on being back," Zimmerman emphasized. "I can't go out like this."
Zimmerman left Fauci with a few parting words to help him go 1-0.
"Go to the mound," he reiterated. "Wish I could be there to catch it, but we'll have to get you another chance next year."