Nationals sending Shenandoah All-Star a gift after viral video of fan snagging ball in front of 9 year old

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Shenandoah All-Stars at Nats game
A man runs over and reaches in front of a 9-year-old from Shenandoah to snag a baseball thrown by outfielder Joey Meneses during a Washington Nationals game on Aug. 30.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Sept. 8 — It was a day packed with memorable moments, from riding the Metro for the first time, to an introduction to escalators at Nats Park, and for some of them — their first trip to the nation’s capital.

“I don’t think you ever saw them without a smile on their face,” team mom Gina Hilliard recalled. “Their eyes were so big.”

All 10 members of the Shenandoah 10U All-Star softball team, and their coaches, were recognized on the field before the game. Later on, some of them would have their picture taken with the “Presidents” and one even got the centerfielder to play “rock, paper, scissors” with her before the start of an inning.

It was a magical day at the ballpark, with only pleasant memories…until the top of the ninth.

On July 25, the Washington Nationals notified the Shenandoah Recreation League that their three state champion All-Star teams would be invited to home games in late August to celebrate Youth Champions Day 2022. Shenandoah’s Babe Ruth 12U softball All-Stars and their Cal Ripken 12U baseball All-Stars — who both advanced to their respective world series this summer — were invited to Nats Park for free admission and some “Nat Bucks” for the concession stand on Aug. 31. Ten-year-old groups were recognized the day before, when Shenandoah’s 10U All-Stars went to see the Nationals host the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

The Virginia 10U Babe Ruth state champions from the Shenandoah Valley lined up on the warning track in centerfield of Nats Park and were recognized among a half dozen teams from large municipalities all across Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District.

“They were showing up on the big jumbo screen,” Hilliard said with a sliver of excitement still in her voice 10 days later.

After the pre-game introductions, her daughter Avery, 9, got a milkshake and settled in among her teammates. Every player had made the trip, along with three of four coaches. The group from Page County, Virginia totaled 26 with parents and family, and this wasn’t their first time traveling together. All but two of the girls had played on last year’s 8U All-Star team that traveled to Florida to participate in the Babe Ruth World Series.

“During the game, I told the girls the outfielder’s names and between innings we would call to them and see if he would throw a ball out,” Hilliard said.

The girls were successful a couple of times. The brother of one player had brought his glove and the team took turns trying to snag a souvenir.

“The A’s right fielder didn’t pay any attention to them until a dad called out his name,” Hilliard said. “He overthrew the girl, but the dad caught it and gave it to his daughter.”

Just prior to the top of the ninth, it was Avery’s turn with the glove.

The 9-year-old got the attention of Nationals’ right fielder Joey Meneses, who tossed over a ball. Avery stuck out her glove and leaned left to follow the arc of the throw.

An adult male wearing a Nats’ jersey, who had been sitting at the end of aisle across the steps from the team, noticed what was happening, “stood up quickly” and stepped directly in front of Avery to grab the ball at the last second.

“What?” proclaimed one of Avery’s teammates.

“He showed no remorse,” Hilliard said, “but he didn’t keep it either.”

Avery’s mom (and the Team Mom) said the man initially sat down as some comments were made in the crowd about his actions. The father of one of the girls went over and spoke calmly with the man.

“The response he got was basically…’I bought a ticket just like you did and I deserve that ball as much as anyone else’,” Hilliard said.

And yet, the man would then stand up and throw the ball to fans turned around in the lower deck.

“It was the topic of discussion on the way home,” Hilliard said. “They talked about the highlights of their trip…going on the field, catching a ball, meeting the “Presidents” and playing rock-paper-scissors with a player…even a sweet double play that the Nats turned…but everybody’s negative was that guy stealing the ball from Avery.”

On Wednesday, the day after the game, the team mom posted photos from the trip on Facebook and thanked the Nationals for their invitation and recognition. Then on Thursday, Sept. 1, she posted a video of the incident on Facebook, and later Twitter, with a message: “@Nationals can you get Joey Meneses to sign a baseball and send it to my daughter?”

As of Wednesday, Sept. 7 around 5 p.m., Hilliard’s initial Twitter post had been viewed more than 5.1 million times. It was retweeted by several big fan sites. On Instagram, the Bleacher Report had 6.5 million plays on the video, with 312,000 reactions and 10,622 comments. The ESPN video on TikTok had 1.4 million views.

The video exploded on social media on Tuesday, Sept. 6 when at 2 p.m. it appeared on the @WashProbs Twitter account — @Nationals then responded on Twitter at 3:35 p.m. The video had millions more views within the next 24 hours.

“At first, it didn’t go viral or get picked up…and I didn’t hear anything,” Hilliard said. “Then around lunchtime on Tuesday my phone just started dinging with notifications.”

“I just wanted to get it out there and see if the Nationals would reach out,” she continued. “I did not imagine it going this far and getting contacted by all [this media]…It’s been a little crazy.”

The Nationals stepped up to the plate and are now trying to make right, the wrong caused by a rude fan.

“Gina, we are so sorry to hear that your experience that night was negatively impacted,” reads a response to Hilliard from the Nationals. “All of our fans should be able to enjoy the games they go to. We very much appreciate the support from you, your family and the rest of your championship softball team! And congrats on such a great accomplishment!”

“We will send something your way and hope that this can serve as a symbol of a good experience at the park rather than a bad one!” the message continues. “Baseball should be fun, especially at Nats Park.”

Hilliard now plans to share another video with the Nationals — this one of Avery’s reaction when she receives her “gift.” Although she has no idea what it will be, that hasn’t diminished the excitement that the 9-year-old softball player is feeling.

“She was shocked…she said ‘They really responded?'” Avery’s mom recalled. “Her reaction was…’What are they sending the rest of the girls?'”

Avery also has something to say to the man who stole her moment in the right field stands.

“She basically said she would tell him she was disappointed and wanted to know why he would do that, and then give it away,” Hilliard said of her daughter’s reaction. “Avery just happened to have the glove during that turn.”

Mom says she is pleased with the Nationals’ response. She hopes the rude fan doesn’t receive “death threats” after the overwhelming negative comments posted online, and she asked the media to put a positive spin on the moment.

“This unfortunate circumstance put a little damper on the night, but the Nationals are making it good,” Hilliard said. “It was still a good time. It has all worked out. The Nationals have stepped up and done a class act job.”

See other photos from the Shenandoah Recreation League’s

visit to Nationals Park on their Facebook page.



Shenandoah’s 10U All-Stars win state championship in Wise; 8U finishes 3rd

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