WASHINGTON -- Opening Day is a time for celebration, but it also was a time for reflection on Friday afternoon at Nationals Park. Before their home opener against the Braves, the Nats made room amid the usual pomp and circumstance to honor those affected by last year's shooting at the nearby Washington Navy Yard.
On the morning of Sept. 16, 2013, a gunman entered a building at the Navy Yard, which sits just to the east of the stadium, out beyond right field. He killed 12 people, and the resulting chaos and grief led to the postponement of that night's Nats-Braves game.
That day, one of the stadium parking garages was used as a place where Navy Yard workers could reunite with their families, and the Nats donated food to evacuees. On Friday, the club reached out again, unveiling a plaque in Nats Park to memorialize the event, as well as conducting a pregame ceremony.
"We're part of the neighborhood, and it was important that we be there for them like they are for us all the time as they serve their country," Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said. "I wish we could have done more, but we were a helping hand.
"We'll never be able to replace their loved ones, but all we can do is be a good neighbor and let them know they have a hug all the time from us."
Before fans streamed through the Nationals Park gates, the club held a special ceremony in the Center Field Plaza to unveil the plaque, which is inscribed with the message, "In remembrance of the lives lost and the lives forever changed by the events of September 16, 2013. For our neighbors at the Navy Yard, we stand beside you." Family members of the victims attended, along with Lerner, Washington mayor Vincent Gray, Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and several senior military leaders.
Lerner and Gray spoke, along with U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who called the Nats "the good neighbor who was there to take care of us."
The Nationals also made remembrance of the tragedy a focal point of the pregame festivities, which featured the participation of several dignitaries. Vice Admiral William Hilarides, Commander Naval Sea Systems Command, raised the flags. Lanier delivered the lineup card, while Rear Admiral Markham Rich, Commandant of the Naval District Washington, delivered the game ball to Nats starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The United States Navy Band Sea Chanters, the Navy's official chorus, performed the national anthem.
People affected by the Navy Yard tragedy also were included. Navy Captain Chip Zawislak threw the ceremonial first pitch to Nationals manager Matt Williams, accompanied by fellow survivors Jennifer Bennett, Michael Jackson and Makonnen Eyob. On that morning, Bennett had nearly lost the use of her left arm as a result of a shotgun blast, but the three men helped save her life, and she returned to work in February despite undergoing multiple surgeries.
In addition, first responders representing the agencies that reacted to the shooting were the day's "starting eight," who ran out onto the field ahead of the Nationals' position players before the top of the first inning. Danielle Knight, who lost her mother, Mary Knight, in the shooting, made the enthusiastic announcement to "Play ball," and the game was underway.