After doctors diagnosed Ryan Zimmerman's mother with multiple sclerosis in 1995, the brutal disease slowly deteriorated her motor skills, ultimately forcing her into a wheelchair in 2000. But it wasn't until 10 years ago while sitting on a living room couch with his family that the Nationals third baseman decided to make a difference on a national scale.
The idea was called ziMS Foundation. And while it still is run out of the Zimmerman family living room a decade after its conception, the foundation has donated more than $1.5 million to MS research.
The foundation's marquee fundraising event, A Night at the Park, was hosted for the fifth straight year Monday evening at Nationals Park and featured an exclusive concert from country artists Billy Currington and Jerrod Niemann as well as an expansive silent auction.
"It's hard to put together charity events that raise a substantial amount of money," Zimmerman said. "This gives us the stage or the podium to take it to that next level."
Zimmerman first started fundraising nine years ago by running a charity golf tournament in Virginia Beach, Va., where his family moved when he was in the sixth grade. It wasn't nearly as successful as A Night at the Park, but it was the beginning of a long and prosperous journey. The ziMS Foundation continues to run the golf tournament, which raised $110,000 in 2012, along with a number of smaller events throughout Virginia.
In March 2013, less than a month before the fourth annual A Night at the Park, the foundation gave a $150,000 check to the department of neurology at the University of Virginia, eclipsing $1 million donated. In total, ziMS has donated $362,000 to the university's department of neurology and made donations exceeding $100,000 to the National MS Society, Hampton Roads Chapter and National Capital Chapter.
"My mom is the reason I started the foundation, but we've met so many people over these last 15 to 20 years that the money goes to, people that really need," Zimmerman said. "This disease is a terrible disease. You never know what's going to happen. And the people we've met makes the foundation that much more special."
Zimmerman and his brother, Shawn, were forced to grow up faster than most children in order to care for their mother. But Zimmerman said that didn't prevent him from having a wonderful childhood, largely due to the strength of his mother, Cheryl, who was in attendance Monday.
"My mom does a good job of making sure it doesn't affect me or my brother," Zimmerman said. "She doesn't want to be treated differently. ... Her attitude about it has kind of given me and my brother a different perspective on life that we never would have had if she didn't have to go through this."
A number of Nationals players attended the event in support of Zimmerman, who recently returned from injury and sparked the team's resurgence. Even so, many of Zimmerman's teammates are more in awe of what the slugger is able to do off the field as opposed to his on-the-field achievements.
"It's heartwarming to see Ryan do this," Scott Hairston said. "This just shows the character of him. He's not just a baseball player. He's a first-class human being."
"He's our superman," Gio Gonzalez said. "This is unbelievable. Words cannot describe the type of person he is."
Zimmerman arrived in Washington, D.C., when he was a 20-year-old kid. In the 10 years since, he has since grown into one of the most feared hitters in the game.
Zimmerman said he appreciates the fans who have shaped his growth as a player. But more importantly, he said the entire D.C. metro community has been instrumental in the growth of his foundation and his ability to help hundreds of thousands of people struggling with MS.
"One night, we decided to do something in the living room like that and now we're basically a nationwide foundation," Zimmerman said. "That's the best part: being able to help as many people as we can and being able to touch other people's lives, not just my family's."