Last Thursday marked the third annual ziMS Foundation Night at the Park, an event I like as much for the story behind it as for the cause it supports. This year’s event included plenty of mixing and mingling, silent and live auctions, check presentations, and a musical performance by Guster, with all proceeds from the event benefiting Ryan Zimmerman’s ziMS Foundation.
To say the foundation had humble beginnings would be an understatement. The idea first emerged through casual conversations in the Zimmerman family’s living room in Virginia Beach, though doing something to contribute to Multiple Sclerosis research had been on Zimmerman’s mind for a long time – probably ever since his mother was diagnosed with the disease in 1995, when Zimmerman was a teenager.
“I always knew if I had the chance to do something, I’d want to do something to help with this disease, not just for my mom but for everyone we had met that had been affected by it…” said Zimmerman. “We started talking one night, literally in the living room of the house and that’s where it started.”
That was Zimmerman’s rookie season. The foundation organized a golf tournament in Virginia Beach and began to build relationships with researchers at the University of Virginia, now the foundation’s biggest beneficiaries, having received almost $500,000 since the foundation was created in 2006. Though the original golf tournament still takes place, Night at the Park has become the ziMS Foundation’s largest event.
The event is so important that, in a move I’m not sure I’ve seen replicated anywhere else in the sports world, Zimmerman and his agent worked to include the rights to use Nationals Park for this event in Zimmerman’s contract. The agreement ensures that, like Zimmerman, this event will be here in Washington for a long time, a fact he seems to take genuine pleasure in.
Zimmerman’s agent Brode Van Wagenen said that when they first approached the Nationals with the idea, “It was a bit outside the box. It hadn’t been done before.” But when negotiating Zimmerman’s long-term contract extension earlier this year, the team was extremely receptive to continuing the tradition. “Now that Nats had seen what we did they were happy to include it,” Van Wagenen said. “The fact that Ryan, as the face of the franchise, was looking to do this – it was an easy yes.”
If fans are hoping that Zimmerman’s teammates will be inspired to plan equally elaborate community events, the strong Nats turnout for the event is certainly a good sign. Well over a dozen Nats players attended, chatting with fans and bidding on auction items. Zimmerman was touched that his teammates came out. “We get 13, 14 off days the whole year, and maybe three at home where we get to stay at home for the off day,” Zimmerman said. “So for them to take time out and to come out and bring their families, or be away from their kids for a few hours on the off day – it means a lot to me.”
Zimmerman’s fans and teammates alike were more than happy to share the evening with him. Attendees bid generously on silent auction items ranging from a private South Italy villa vacation to sports memorabilia signed by everyone from Dwayne Wade and LeBron James to Joe Namath and RGIII, then even more generously on live auction items like a trip to the Grammy Awards and a lavish weekend in New York. The hour-long performance by Guster was, for most guests, icing on the cake.
When all was said and done, this year’s event welcomed 750 guests and raised over $200,000, a testament to the DC community’s commitment to Zimmerman and his cause.