Long before he became a professional ballplayer, Ryan Zimmerman thought about doing something to help raise awareness of multiple sclerosis, the disease his mother Cheryl first learned she had nearly 20 years ago.
Once he did reach the major leagues with the Nationals, Zimmerman realized he now had the opportunity to make a difference. So he and the rest of his family talked about it at their Virginia Beach home after his rookie season, creating the ziMS Foundation with no idea what it could ultimately become.
Nine years later, as he prepared to host his annual charity event at Nationals Park, with a record crowd of 3,000 expected, Zimmerman couldn't help but reflect on how far this whole endeavor has come.
"Growing up and seeing what my mom went through, and meeting other people who went through the same thing, I think me and my brother both thought if we ever had a stage or a springboard to do something about it, we would," he said. "Fortunately, I do, and I've been able to take advantage of that. To think that this foundation was started and still is run out of our living room, to be able to give back over $1.5 million to try to find a cure is pretty special for us."
"A Night at the Park," the ziMS Foundation's signature event, has grown considerably since its inception five years ago. Last night's proceedings drew nearly twice as many participants as the previous version, with two musical acts (country stars Billy Currington and Jerrod Niemann), multiple stadium levels reserved, a host of Nationals teammates and coaches in attendance and countless items put up for auction.
All told, more than $100,000 was raised from this one-night event.
"It's really hard to put into words," said Keith Zimmerman, marveling at the manner in which his son's foundation has grown. "It started almost nine years ago on the couch in our living room. We had some volunteers that said they were willing to help. Now to see that it's grown into an event like this in D.C., it's very hard to put into words."
Philanthropy has always come naturally to Ryan Zimmerman, perhaps because the majority of his childhood — and likewose for brother Shawn — was spent helping his family get through the daily grind of life while his mother slowly began to feel the effects of MS, which has deteriorated her nervous system and left her in a wheelchair for more than a decade.
Helping out around the house simply was part of his life from an early age, as was the realization that Cheryl was one of the few lucky ones among the millions of MS sufferers around the globe to have the resources for the round-the-clock care she eventually needed.
"One thing I've learned the most is that baseball and life are way different, and unfortunately sometimes it takes something like this to teach me that," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We had to do some things that kids normally don't have to, but by no means are we the worst-case scenario. My mom does a great job of not letting it affect me or my brother. She doesn't want us to have anything different in our lives than any other people do, and she doesn't want to be treated differently. Seeing her strong will and her attitude about it has given me and my brother a different perspective on life that we never would have had to if she didn't have to go through it."
Now a first-time father himself, Zimmerman has even greater perspective on life away from the ballpark.
And occasions like last night's event at Nationals Park remind him just how far he and his foundation have come in a relatively short amount of time.
"It's pretty special to know that one night we decided to do something in our living room like that, and now we're basically a nationwide foundation to help hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "That's the best part: To be able to help as many people as we can and be able to touch other people's lives, not just our family."