Editor's note: This story published when the Washington Nationals won the National League Championship Series. They went on to win the World Series on Oct. 30.
The pride in University of Virginia baseball head coach Brian O’Connor’s voice practically exploded out of the phone.
On a recruiting trip to Florida, O’Connor was busy procuring the next wave of Hoos. But he was more than glad to spend a couple minutes talking about former UVA stars Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle.
Zimmerman, who played third base at UVA from 2002 to 2005, and Doolittle, who starred on the mound and the plate for the Hoos from 2004 to 2006, have led the Washington Nationals to a surprising 2-0 advantage in their National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, heading into tonight’s game three. [UPDATE, Oct. 16: The Nationals won games three and four to sweep the Cardinals and earn the first National League pennant in team history, and are now headed to the World Series.]
But O’Connor didn’t spend much time talking about any of that.
Instead, the Hoos skipper talked about the people Zimmerman, now a first baseman, and Doolittle, a relief pitcher, have become.
Q. What’s it like to watch two players who you know so well perform on such a huge stage?
A. It’s rewarding knowing that they came from the baseball program here at UVA and knowing not only the type of impactful players they are one the field, but how engaged and impactful they are off the field as well. So I’m certainly excited for them and the opportunity they have in front of them.
Q. What are they like off the field?
A. They each, in their own individual way, are engaged in not only their local communities, but also nationwide. Ever since Ryan has left the University, he has been committed to his ziMS Foundation that raises money for [multiple sclerosis], but he is also very engaged in a number of different things in the Washington, D.C., area that impact kids.
Our entire coaching staff went up to game four [of the National League Division Series] in Washington the other night against the Dodgers, and as we’re pulling off the interstate to go into Nats Park, right on the right is Ryan Zimmerman Field. It’s this field that bears his name right there that I’m sure is used by youth in the community. That was just so cool.
Obviously, everybody knows Ryan Zimmerman the player as the original Washington Nationals player, who has been with the franchise since it started, but when you see how he’s doing things that like that impact the community, it really speaks a lot to who he is. I always admire people who are in the limelight who take the time and use their resources to impact others.
Both of these guys have been very fortunate in their careers, and they recognize their responsibility back to others. Sean was really engaged in the community in Oakland when he played for the A’s, and he’s carried that over to what he’s done in Washington.
Q. It’s pretty inspirational to see what Ryan has done for his mom and others who suffer from MS.
A. Ever since he left here, he’s just been totally committed to raising money for this great cause that is obviously personal to him. He’s had a longstanding connection with UVA Hospital and, through his foundation, has raised a lot of money for a lot of causes. And there have been a lot of people here in the Charlottesville community who have really jumped on board and helped.
Last night, the @ziMSFoundation hosted the 10th annual @anightatthepark, featuring a special performance by @ChaseRiceMusic, and raised more than $300K to support a search for a cure for MS. // @CAA_Baseball pic.twitter.com/6pQcP93L00— Nationals on MASN (@masnNationals) May 14, 2019
Q. Sean has been in the news recently for all the work he’s done pertaining to his love for books and children’s literacy. Do you ever recall him reading, say, “Moby Dick” in the dugout?
A. No, I can’t say I ever saw that [laughing]. But, you know, Sean came here, and there are just some players that you can tell there is just something different about them – in a very great and special way. And that was Sean.
You could just tell that he had something special about him. He was a fierce competitor on the field and highly talented, but he had interests other than what was going on the baseball field. So his engagement in so many different areas is not surprising to me at all.
Sean and his wife come back every year to teach a one-day class. It speaks to his engagement and his time here at the University.
I had a blast visiting with young Nats fans yesterday at the @dcpl in Cleveland Park. We talked about our favorite books (Where The Wild Things Are!) and then we had story time (Curious George!). One of them even wrote a book about the Nats and gave it to me! #LibrariesAreCool pic.twitter.com/X1rMTDu69s— Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) July 28, 2019
Q. And Ryan and Sean have both made large financial contributions to the UVA program in recent years.
A. It speaks to how much the two of them – and other former players – feel about their experience here at the University. Both Sean and Ryan look at their time here as being so impactful for where they are right now, and they recognize that by giving back. They have both, significantly, from a financial standpoint, paid it back to the players and student-athletes who followed behind them.
And they’ve given so much of their time. Any time I’ve called those guys – whether it’s Step Up to the Plate [UVA baseball’s annual fundraiser] or just to talk to our team – they’re all in.
I’m just super-excited for both of them. I’m going to do everything I can to get back to D.C. and support them again.