Widow of slain Capital Gazette reporter John McNamara spreads his ashes at Nationals Park

WASHINGTON — The wife of slain Capital Gazette reporter John McNamara barely allowed herself to believe that the Washington Nationals would one day allow her to scatter his ashes amid flowers overlooking the stadium’s lush baseball outfield.

But Andrea Chamblee knew she had to try. It was his wish, after all, and baseball — which renews itself each spring — is all about hope.

While many fans try, most big-league clubs don’t permit such a practice. But Chamblee, like a batter digging in at home plate, persevered.

On Saturday she — and he — got their wish. Hours before fans began arriving for the club’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the gates opened and Chamblee and several dozen friends and relatives were led to outfield seats.

There, she opened a hand-carved wooden box, leaned over a railing and gently spread the ashes in a planter of begonias where the stands meet the left-field wall. The perch commands a wide view of the field and diamond below.

“The baseball park was a sacred place for John,” the tearful widow said. Then she smiled. “Now I have to get season tickets.”

McNamara, 56, who covered news and sports, was one of five Capital staff members killed when a gunman invaded the newsroom in Annapolis on June 28.

Like many Washington fans, he had waited 34 years for a big-league baseball team to return to the city and had rejoiced when the Nationals arrived in 2005. He felt at home in the stadium and around sports generally.

Among his possessions preserved by Chamblee is a faded ticket from the last Washington Senators game in Washington on Sept. 30, 1971. The team moved to Texas and became the Rangers the next season.

After McNamara died, Chamblee remembered a New York Times story they had discussed in 2017 about a cross-country trek by a New York Mets fan to flush some of his childhood friend’s ashes down the toilets of major-league stadiums. His friend was a plumber.

“John asked if I would do that for him,” Chamblee said. “I told him I would, except for the part about the toilet. He thought for a minute, and said, ‘See if you can get them into Nats Park.’ He said he waited years for a team to come back to DC, and he would like to spend eternity looking over this beloved ballfield. Of course, it was a joke then.”

McNamara had been feeling mortal following a scary traffic accident some years earlier and the recent death of family members and a close friend.

Chamblee began by contacting the team and the commercial real estate business of the Lerners, the family that bought the Nats in 2006.

Soon, she said, a club representative contacted the Capital Gazette to verify that Chamblee was who she claimed to be “and that it wasn’t a prank.”

She was thrilled when she got the good news shortly afterward. The confirmation came without details, though. As she headed to the ballpark Saturday, she didn’t know where exactly the ashes were to be spread.

Most major-league teams don’t indulge similar requests, at least not officially.

“They’ll usually say it’s for health reasons,” said Matt Liston, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and sports activist who has surveyed big-league baseball and football teams about their policies for a sports show called “Mr. Impossible” on www.uninterrupted.com. “But there’s no risk.”

Nationals communications officials declined to comment for this article. Orioles officials did not respond to a request for comments.

“There may be some requests, but not that I’m aware of,” said Mike Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

But Liston said there is plenty of fan demand.

In 2002, an airplane pilot tried to drop a Seattle Mariners fan’s ashes over Safeco Field and triggered an anthrax scare. In 2008, the ashes of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw were spread on the pitching mound by his son Tim, the country singer.

“I ended up connected with a lot of people who deeply desired this and they weren’t able to do it,” Liston said.

Several years ago, he received an email from a woman asking for help spreading her father's ashes in Dodger Stadium. The team declined, but Liston enlisted Hunter Pence, a San Francisco Giants outfielder, to wear the ashes on a necklace during a game there. Pence said he was happy to oblige.

“I’m an avid Chicago Cubs fan,” Liston said. “I can relate.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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