Nationals fan has autographed ball from every 2019 champion

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For Will Rupp, a reminder of better days for his beloved Washington Nationals is never far away. Among Rupp’s collection of memorabilia — which includes a Jayson Werth game-used batting glove, a Bryce Harper signed bat and a Stephen Strasburg jersey — is a glass display case featuring baseballs autographed by every member of the Nationals’ 2019 World Series roster. All but six of the players have retired or moved on to other teams.

“It became a personal mission,” said Rupp, who bought roughly three dozen official World Series baseballs after the Nationals won the title and completed his collection, with some help from friends, over the past 2½ years. “It’s something to have to remember the season by. … I’ve always thought of it like a fan’s trophy. It’s also been a really cool thing for my son and I to bond over.”

Rupp’s mission got off to a seemingly inauspicious start — it rained for most of the three-hour drive from his home in Oviedo, Fla., to the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach on one of the first days of spring training in 2020. The trip paid off quickly, though, when Sean Doolittle stopped to chat that day and signed a baseball with the inscription “WS ’19.”

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About a week later, Rupp snagged another half-dozen signatures at West Palm Beach’s World Series parade to honor the Nationals, including those of General Manager Mike Rizzo, Manager Dave Martinez and owner Mark Lerner. Rizzo and Lerner wrote “Fight Finished” beneath their names.

Rupp added to his collection over the next month before the coronavirus pandemic caused the remainder of spring training to be canceled. It helped that Rupp and his wife, Lauren, were regulars at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and some players came to recognize them. While the drive to Viera, Fla., Washington’s previous spring training home, was significantly shorter, Rupp continued to make the trip to West Palm Beach three or four times per week every spring.

The Nationals hold special meaning for the Rupps, whose first date was the same day as Harper’s 2012 major league debut. In 2018, with an assist from Martinez, Lauren arranged for Harper to surprise Will with the news that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Harper, who was preparing to begin his final season with the Nationals, signed a bat for Will and then handed him a sonogram picture. Martinez met the Rupps’ son, Logan, at spring training the next year.

There’s a story behind every signed baseball in Rupp’s World Series collection. When he tracked down Matt Adams in 2020 at the Mets’ spring training home of Port St. Lucie, the first baseman asked if he wanted Rupp to sign with his new number (21) or the No. 15 he wore with the Nationals. (Was there any question?) A friend convinced Adam Eaton to sign by reciting the fight song of Miami University in Ohio, where the outfielder played college ball. Another friend called for Asdrúbal Cabrera in Spanish. Rupp got Tanner Rainey’s attention in the bullpen and tossed him a ball to sign after a spring training game. Juan Soto agreed to sign a baseball for Rupp at the parade in exchange for a high-five from Logan.

Rupp said he got a kick out of Joe Ross writing “19 Champs” above — and almost as big as — his signature. His favorite inscriptions are Daniel Hudson’s “Last Out” and Howie Kendrick’s “Gm 7 2-Run HR.” Kendrick’s was one of several baseballs Rupp paid to have autographed at a private signing.

Certain players, including Brian Dozier, who signed with the San Diego Padres after winning the World Series as a National, proved more difficult to cross off his list. Rupp traded an extra Soto signed baseball to a friend who managed to get Dozier’s autograph at spring training in Arizona.

By the end of May 2020, the only players from the 25-man World Series roster Rupp was missing were Fernando Rodney, Victor Robles and Strasburg. He got Rodney’s signature through a private signing and bought a Strasburg-signed ball with a “19 WS MVP” inscription. Robles, the final missing piece, signed for him at spring training this year.

“To finally complete the set, getting [Robles] on a ball was just as great as Max [Scherzer] or Soto,” Rupp said.

Rupp tweeted a photo of his collection last month. The case features space for 30 baseballs, and two are empty. Rupp said he considers his collection complete but is contemplating trying to get the Nationals’ 2019 TV broadcast team of Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo to sign one ball and the team’s longtime radio crew of Charlie Slowes and broadcast Dave Jageler to sign another to fill out the display.

“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do,” Rupp said, “but that’s my next mission.”