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WASHINGTON — Standing at home plate before a recent World Series game, umpire Gary Cederstrom eyeballed the man in the Washington Nationals colors who’d held out a slip of paper, the lineup for that night. The man, Ali Modami, grinned back. He gets that look sometimes.
“What do you do?” Cederstrom asked him. “Is this the only thing you do?”
Modami throws batting practice for the Nationals. He has since 2011. To cold hitters who want to find their swings. Hot hitters who need to keep their swings. Hitters with routines. Pinch-hitters. Bored hitters. They all come to Ali-Mo, morning, afternoon and night, “Throw me a few?” He windmills his left arm a few times, sets up about 45 feet away, plucks a handful of balls from the bin and throws, not until he is tired, but until they are.
“That guy,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Saturday night, “probably throws more baseballs than anybody I’ve ever known.”
Modami, 39, laughs with them and plays roles in their dugout home run celebrations and picks up the little jobs nobody else does, always leading with, “Whatever you need.”
As Zimmerman pointed out, “Us prima donnas need all the help we can get.”
So, back to the reason Ali Modami was at home plate with six umpires and a coach for the Houston Astros the other night with the lineup card. The Nationals win when he does, almost always.
On a Friday evening late in May, Nationals manager Davey Martinez — all of the Nationals, really — needed something good to happen. The team was 19-31. It had just been swept over four games by the New York Mets. The Nationals returned home to play the Miami Marlins, desperate for a little luck, desperate to turn their season around, desperate for a win.
On a whim, Martinez gave the lineup card to Modami, gestured to the gathering umpires at home plate, told him to deliver the card to them.
“I was just thrilled,” Modami said.
He was born in Brooklyn. He was raised by a single mother, Fern, who worked in health care. They moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Ali played first base for Chaparral High School, then attended Oklahoma State, where his baseball coach was Tom Holliday, Matt’s father. After a couple seasons in the independent leagues, Modami returned to Scottsdale, where he went to work at a sporting goods store. He fell in with a handful of professional ballplayers at his gym — among them Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier, Nomar Garciaparra, Lou Merloni, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell. When the Philadelphia Phillies had an opening for a batting practice pitcher, Modami contacted Burrell, who put him in touch with the Phillies. He tried out and got the job. When Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals, he followed Werth here in 2011.
Eight years later, Martinez sent him out with the lineup card. The Nationals won that night. And the next. They won the game after that. Martinez called off his regular lineup-card rotation, which included himself, and rode the pregame ritual of Modami’s hot hand across one of the great summers in franchise history.
He met Willie McGee one night in St. Louis. He met Bruce Bochy in San Francisco. He shook hands with former players he idolized and managers he respected and coaches who’d become the fabric of the game.
And the Nationals kept winning, from 10 games out in the National League East on that late May night to four back at the end, into the wild-card game, through two more series, into the World Series. Before Game 1 in Houston, Modami approached Martinez and looked to pass off his duty.
“This is your World Series,” he told Martinez.
“This is our World Series,” Martinez said. “I’ll only do it if you do it.”
So they went out together. And won. And won again in Game 2, before losing in Game 3.
In all, the Nationals are 83-40 when Modami leads them out.
“For the superstitious people in the world,” Modami said, “I guess it’s good.”
Reached by text Saturday night, Werth asked when a story might run.
“Don’t want to jinx it,” he said.
Too late. Lost last night.
“He is great,” Werth said. “Just a gem.”
If they would call this a magical season, and they would, then there would have to be the parts that could not be explained. Injuries healed and base hits fell and winning streaks rose from ashes, all the way into the final days of October. And, in a way, Ali Modami has led them out. Built wide and low, with a wonderful smile and easy laugh and an accent that is all Brooklyn, Modami has found it all to be a thrill.
Besides that, he said, “I’ve learned the ground rules in every stadium now.”
So, what’s he do? Well, a lot of some things, a little of other things, and a sprinkle of things that just can’t be explained.
“It’s a special thing,” he said. “I’m honored.”
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