June 13, 2021

Meet the Nats fan who starred in MASN’s classic Wil Nieves commercial. (Who? Exactly.)

A MASN staffer at the shoot gave Margelis an ice pack and sat him down on a couch. He eventually finished the read and, much to his surprise, received a callback. His wife drove him to the same studio in Hunt Valley, Md., a few days later to record a 30-second spot about 30-year-old Nationals backup catcher Wil Nieves’s first career home run, an opposite field walk-off blast on April 25, 2008.

“Bottom of the ninth moment, the Nats and Cubs are tied,” Margelis says in the commercial, which was shot in front of a green screen and features video and play-by-play of Nieves’s clutch homer, his first at the major league level in 12 professional seasons. “Who comes up? Wil Nieves. Who? Wil Nieves.”

If you’re a Nationals fan who spends time on Twitter, chances are you’re familiar with the Wil Nieves bit. Since Margelis’s commercial debuted during the 2009 season, no mention of the journeyman catcher is complete without someone replying, “Who?,” or vice versa, in homage to the ad. As Jacob Rasch, co-host of the Nationals-themed “Raschcast” podcast, observed in 2018, “’What was Nook Logan thinking?’ and ‘Who? Wil Nieves!’ are the two shibboleths of Nationals fandom.” Real ones know, though one of my esteemed colleagues was somehow late to the party.

“I was just so honored to be a part of this thing,” said Margelis, who is aware of the commercial’s enduring legacy among longtime fans. “I had no idea it was going to blossom into this.”

Twelve years later, Margelis, who lives in Burke, said people still occasionally come up to him at the coffee shop he frequents to ask, “Aren’t you that guy from the MASN commercial?” or to request a photo. Occasionally, knowing fans will hit him with a simple and enthusiastic, “Who?” Margelis said he was leaving a game at Nationals Park a few years ago when a young fan, propped on her dad’s shoulders, pointed at him and said, ‘Look, Daddy, it’s Wil Nieves!’”

It’s Margelis’s thick mustache, which one YouTube commenter erroneously suggested was fake, that makes him recognizable.

“I’ve had that since I was like in 10th grade,” Margelis said.

MASN creative director Dick Goggin developed the “Defining Moments” campaign, which won multiple Emmy Awards. Fans were invited to submit their favorite Nationals and Orioles moments online, and the network held open casting calls at Nationals Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

“We wanted to get real fans involved in the process — sharing their own stories and displaying a genuine passion for the game,” Goggin said in 2010.

Margelis was at NatsFest in January 2009 when a MASN employee invited him to read a script about San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg, whom the Nationals would select with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. That screening led to his more formal audition, when he suffered his nose bleed. In most cases, the fans featured in the commercials described moments that other fans had submitted. In an email, Peter Churchman, who directed the campaign, wrote that his personal favorite commercial in the series was “7th Inning Haiku,” which featured a fan reciting poetry about Lastings Milledge tracking down a flyball.

As Baseball Prospectus’s Craig Goldstein and observant viewers have noted, the Nieves ad features at least one factual error. While the script mentions two fastballs preceding Nieves’s homer off Cubs reliever Bob Howry, the strike he takes is clearly an off-speed pitch. The video of the pitch sequence is also out of order, but the goofs only add to the spot’s charm.

“I was exhausted from rehab, but it was such a great experience,” said Margelis, a longtime season plan holder in Section 308 who received $500 and a baseball signed by Nieves for his time. “It was my first commercial, and I still love talking about it, until my wife brings me back down to earth.”

Nieves hit nine more homers in the big leagues, including four with the Nationals, and retired after the 2015 season. He could not be reached for comment, but is familiar with the commercial, even if unknowingly. On Cameo, an app that allows users to buy personalized video messages from celebrities, including former pro athletes, someone paid Nieves $15 to recite the ad as part of a birthday message.

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m going to give you a little hint,” Nieves says before launching into the familiar script.

Now, up to the plate steps Wil Nieves. Who? Wil Nieves, who has never in 12 years hit a homer …

Now we know who Wil Nieves and George Margelis are.

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