Washington Nationals score with Base HIIT as part of military outreach
Stars and Stripes November 6, 2023
WASHINGTON — On a chilly, late-October morning, about 200 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen huddle near the center field gate at Nationals Park, the home of the Washington Nationals. As the sun slowly rises above the Potomac River, the gate opens. Excitement pulses through the brisk air. Awed murmurs ripple through the crowd. It isn’t often you get to partake in a physical training session at the home of the 2019 World Series champs.
The service members are participating in the season’s final session of Base HIIT (high intensity interval training). The idea for Base HIIT, part of the team’s military outreach through its Nats on Base program, was conceived in September 2021.
“We were looking for ways of really going beyond and engaging service people in a new fashion. We thought, you know, we’ve got this gorgeous ballpark, this green grass, and there’s a lot of elements here that we could adapt for a workout,” said Gregory McCarthy, the Nationals’ senior vice president of community and government engagement. “The military generally has to do PT, and we have this asset. I wonder if they’re interested.”
After contacting local base and post commanders, 200 service members attended the first Base HIIT session last year.
As the participants make their way to the field, many stop for a quick selfie or to admire the park. Sean Hudson, director of military affairs for the Nationals, explains the session’s rules in rapid-fire succession. There are nine stations spread across the outfield and the stadium stairs. The participants are separated into nine groups. They spend five minutes at each station, with 90 seconds of rest as they move to the next station. After a quick warmup, with giddy smiles plastered on their faces, the service members separate into groups and begin.
The stations include stair running, medicine balls and the menacing Wheel of Death. In the Wheel of Death, participants in the plank position face each other in a circle. Each does a pushup and then high-fives the person across from them with each hand. Remaining in the plank position, they move to the right and begin the process again (pushup, high-fives, move to the right) until there is only one left. The last participant remaining competes in a Wheel of Death final at the end of the session.
Many of the Base HIIT exercises are adapted from Nationals team workouts. The stations are the same across all sessions to help build branding and consistency.
“It’s helpful to have a standard format and, maybe with one exception, I think we pretty much have the blend that we want. I think we’ve landed at a place that we’re very comfortable with, and the feedback has been quite positive as well,” McCarthy said.
The Wheel of Death is one McCarthy helped adapt from prior boxing lessons and has become one of the signature workouts. Winners from each round compete in a final round for a grand prize of tickets to a game in the luxurious Terra Club, which includes a chef-prepared meal, all-inclusive food and drinks and seats directly behind home plate.
For service members, the thrill of doing PT in a major league ballpark is worth the pain of the workout. It gives them 90 minutes of fun and challenges. For the Nationals staff who volunteer as workout leads and organizers, it provides a chance to see a different side of the military.
Most teams host a Salute to Service night or do quick military recognitions during games, but the Nationals have a different view. Nats on Base is one of the only programs of its kind in Major League Baseball. The team aims to reach service members not only on the field but also in other facets of their lives. In addition to Base HIIT, the team offers professional leadership sessions and creates open dialogues with the community around them. It gives both organizations a chance to learn about their challenges and discuss how they are alike and different.
“It’s really nice for our people here to engage in a professional sense with the military,” McCarthy said. “I think we probably learn more from it than the military does, so I think we enjoy it more, actually.”
As the 90-minute session winds down, Hudson gathers the nine Wheel of Death finalists to compete one last time. One by one, they fall out. The sideline cheers for the final four, then three and then the final two — a sailor and a Marine. Phones are whipped out, and the cheering gets louder as their teammates close ranks around them. Finally, a victor is crowned. James Kovacs, from the Navy, takes home the tickets and — even more important — bragging rights.
With Base HIIT completed for this year, Hudson and McCarthy mention the possibility of offering a session for spouses or families in future seasons. They both acknowledge the challenges experienced by military families and feel it could be a fun way of giving back. McCarthy also hints at the possibility of introducing the programs to other communities and teams.
Base HIIT and the Nats on Base programs have built a strong bridge between the military and the community. For McCarthy and his team, creating and getting involved in these programs is just one perk to the job.
“They have a hard life. They have a hard career. They make a lot of sacrifices. If we can provide a couple of hours of something, that’s what motivates us,” he said.