For a Washington Nationals team heading to the franchise’s first World Series thanks to clutch hitting and lights-out pitching, it’s easy to overlook the importance of the dugout dancing.
But just about everyone with the Nationals, including manager Dave Martinez, said the conga lines, the music and the sheer fun the team’s Hispanic stars brought to the club this year played a big role in the Nationals’ success.
In May, with his team treading water at 19-31, Martinez was sure the Nationals could turn things around and save their season — they just needed to stay the course, loosen up and enjoy the game more.
Enter Gerardo Parra.
The Venezuelan-born outfielder, signed by the Nationals on May 9 to fill in while several key position players were injured, is credited by everyone from the front office to the dugout with imbuing the team with an infectious energy that helped change the season’s trajectory.
“What he’s done in that clubhouse has really changed the way these guys go about their business,” Martinez said. “I mean, it was business. There wasn’t a whole lot of [fun]. He made it fun for this team.”
In the age of analytics, dancing in the dugout after home runs or eating together in the clubhouse cafeteria before games doesn’t necessarily translate to winning.
But Parra’s exuberance — along with the outgoing personalities of fellow Venezuelans Anibal Sanchez and Asdrubal Cabrera, and the swagger of the Nationals’ two young stars from the Dominican Republic, Victor Robles and Juan Soto — helped rescue the 2019 Nationals, who play Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday against either the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees.
“Sanchy and Parra and all of our Latin guys, what they can do, they just bring an energy, just a personality that we just rallied around,” Max Scherzer said as the team celebrated sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series on Tuesday night. “It just became contagious, and everybody had a hand in it. One thing led up to another, and just our clubhouse shenanigans and the way we can just have fun together.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, is that this team plays for each other and has fun together.”
Of course, it helps that some of the team’s Venezuelan- and Dominican-born players are also playing out of their minds.
Sanchez had a no-hitter broken up after seven innings of Game 1 of the NLCS. Soto has nine hits, two home runs and seven RBIs this postseason. Robles returned from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss more than a week of the playoffs and blasted a solo home run in Game 3.
Conversely, Parra doesn’t crack the lineup much anymore. During May and June, the 32-year-old was crucial for Washington as a stopgap in the outfield and at first base while other players dealt with injuries. Now his role is more about what he does off the field than on it — though he did pinch-hit in Game 4, ripping a single to right for his first hit of the postseason.
Martinez joked that he sent Parra in to pinch-hit only “to get the fans going again.”
Parra became an unlikely phenomenon among Nationals fans when he changed his walk-up music — the track played over Nationals Park speakers when a player comes up to bat — to the popular children’s song “Baby Shark.” His young daughter loved the song, and when Parra was swiping through music on his phone looking for something new, the earworm kept coming up.
Most big leaguers, suffice it to say, do not swagger up to the plate with children’s music blaring in the background, but Parra sees things differently. His approach to baseball, and life, is based on a simple philosophy: Keep it upbeat.
“Stay positive. Just be happy every day, believe in myself,” Parra said. “We have a great team. Be happy every time.”
While fans grew to love “Parra Shark,” as the craze became known, Parra turned the clubhouse culture inside out in other ways. He got the Nationals dancing to celebrate home runs. The type of dance was left up to the hitter. He pumped energetic music — usually Latin dance or electronic music — through the clubhouse speakers.
Martinez recounted one point during the season when Parra was slumping at the plate. It affected his energy. Parra didn’t feel he was helping the team anymore.
“I go, ‘No no no no,’” Martinez said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re 2 for 100; your job is to bring the energy every single day. That’s who you are.’ I said, ‘You play that music loud. You pump up the guys’ … and he just looked at me and he goes, ‘You’re right.’ He said, ‘I’m not doing my job.’”
It’s more than Parra’s job now. When the Nationals clinched a postseason berth Sept. 24, Sanchez was blowing a whistle at the front of a conga line that slithered throughout the clubhouse. When Stephen Strasburg left the mound in Game 3 of the NLCS, Parra greeted him with a hug — and Sanchez joined in behind him, no matter how awkward it made the usually stoic ace feel.
“The group hug, yeah, that’s GP and Sanchy,” Adam Eaton said. “They’re touchy-feely. It’s nice. They like trying to make Stras feel as uncomfortable as possible. It’s great. When Stras is uncomfortable, good things happen, so we love it.”
The energy has been undeniably infectious and has rubbed off on the American-born players in several ways.
“I’m seeing Strasburg dancing salsa, Scherzer dancing merengue. It’s unbelievable,” Johnny DiPuglia, Nationals vice president of international scouting, told NBC Sports Washington. “Before, when you would go in there and speak Spanish, people would look at you like a UFO. Now, you have to know some words of Spanish just to fit in. I think it’s wonderful.”
Scherzer showed off his Spanish skills after the Nationals won Game 4 of the NLDS when he and Ryan Zimmerman were asked a loaded question about having a team full of veterans.
“Yeah, we joke about that. We’re a bunch of viejos,” Scherzer said, using the Spanish word for “old men,” though MLB’s official transcript decided he said “yahoos.”
Whatever language the players want to speak, and however they want to celebrate, something is clearly working. Entering the World Series, the Nationals have won 16 of their past 18 games dating back to the regular season.
As Anthony Rendon recently put it, “We have taken our victory party to a whole new level.”
• David Driver and Matthew Paras contributed to this report.