A Nationals fan dons a "Baby Shark" fin during the 2019 World Series championship parade. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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The last time Gerardo Parra was with the Washington Nationals, the team went on a run to win the 2019 World Series title. In 2020, Parra played 57 games in the Nippon Baseball League in Japan, but as 2021 began, Parra was without a team. The 34-year-old elected to sign a minor league deal with the Nats that included an invitation to spring training. The veteran first had to work his way back from a knee injury that required surgery, so he only started with the Rochester Red Wings, the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate, on May 3.

Parra did not intend to stay in the minors for long. The two-time Gold Glove Award winner had played only a handful of games at the Triple-A level when his Rochester manager, former big leaguer Matt LeCroy, found out why it was so important for Parra to compete again. 

“I met with him at the beginning and I asked him what his goal was,” Lecroy tells City Paper. “What are your expectations? What do you want to accomplish here? He said, ‘I want to go back and play a big part of this big league team.’ I said, ‘Well, you got to grind. You got to fight through some pain.’ And he did that. He worked. He was diligent in everything he did. It paid off for him. He got healthy and then it all clicked for him. When [Nationals manager] Davey [Martinez] called for him, he was ready to go.”

With left-handed hitting outfielder Andrew Stevenson injured and a club that was struggling in mid-June, Martinez saw an opportunity to bring Parra back up. His baseball ability, his veteran leadership, and effusive clubhouse presence could potentially help ignite the club again.

In May of 2019, the Nats signed Parra while in a similar situation. The team was underachieving. In a key battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Parra crushed a grand slam that turned the game around and won it for his new team, the Nats. That season, Parra brought not only his bat but his easygoing attitude that loosened up a tight clubhouse. His walk-up song, “Baby Shark,” became a sensation at Nats Park and around the league.  By the end of the season, the entirety of Nats Park would stand for each of his at-bats and make the shark-like chomping motion with their arms outstretched as the song played over the loudspeakers.

Two years later, Parra delivered again in his first week back with the Nats. In another key game on June 28 that began a crucial homestand, Parra was part of a three-homer first inning barrage against the first place New York Mets. Parra’s drive hit the right field foul pole to give the Nats an early 3-0 lead. The Nats went on to win, 8-4, and have won seven of the nine games that Parra has played.

“I want to try to hit a home run every day,” Parra said postgame via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I think of that moment every time. I didn’t feel good the first couple pitches, because I don’t feel like I see the ball good. So, when I see a couple more at home plate, I got that ball inside and used my hands and I got it.”

As Parra rounded the bases, the crowd stood again with the classic Baby Shark chomping motion. Then when he arrived in the dugout, all of his teammates were standing and clapping with outstretched arms. 

He gave it right back to them, smiling down the line.

“[I was] surprised … because there are a lot of new faces,” Parra said. “I see everybody do it, even Stephen [Strasburg] too. When you see Stephen Strasburg and everybody do that I am happy. We are family, we enjoy everybody.”

The homer was a big deal. But Parra brings a lot more to the table as a mentor and a veteran player.

The Triple-A Red Wings have several Venezuelan players on the team this season, including catcher Wilmer Perez, and infielders Humberto Arteaga, Jecksson Flores, and Adrián Sanchez. LeCroy watched as the young players in Rochester gravitated toward the welcoming Venezuelan-born Parra. 

“It was like kind of like a pop star,” LeCroy says. “All those kids that are here that know of Parra that were from Venezuela. They were always in his back pocket, learning and trying to learn as much as they can about the game. Wherever he was in the dugout there was a couple of guys there with him. We’d always laugh, it was like Michael Jordan. Everywhere he went, he had some guys with him. He grew up a big star. Definitely over in Venezuela, he was the guy. For these guys to be able to play and work with him every day, I know was pretty neat for them.”

Davey Martinez says Parra had the same influence on young stars with the Nats in 2019. Back then, Parra would help Juan Soto and Victor Robles in the outfield with their defensive positioning, footwork, and throws to the infield. This season, Martinez didn’t hesitate putting Parra to work to help Soto and Robles on the base paths too.

“He always has these conversations with them,” Martinez says. ‘It’s nice. I talk to him about things that I see and he shares what he sees and we kind of come up with a plan on how to attack different things, especially with the Latin guys. He’s very intuitive. He understands the game and he speaks really well, especially with Robles and Soto because he has been there. He was a young player at one point. He understands the game. When I ask him to have conversations with them, he does a great job doing it and his presentation is really positive.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2019 Nationals World Series run feels like it happened more than two years ago. Imagine what it felt like for Parra. He played baseball in Japan in 2020, came back to the U.S. and hurt his knee. But Parra did not give up on his drive to continue playing baseball. He did not sulk at the thought of playing minor league baseball again. He went to Rochester, got his game and body back to 100 percent, and delivered again for the Nats. 

“It’s awesome,” Martinez says. “It’s only a testament to how much he loves the game of baseball. And having him here, how much I appreciate him, we all appreciate what he does. He’s a guy that brings laughter and joy to our clubhouse every day. He’s not afraid to speak up as we all know. If he’s got something to say he’s going to say it. And I love that about him. He’s going to go out there and give everything he has every day.”