A lot of things about the 2020 season were different for the Washington Nationals, just as they were for every other team in baseball.
Fewer games, an altered schedule, no fans in the stands, different rules, and quarantining in hotels for the entire season all created a surreal environment for baseball, straining its reputation as a timeless game.
But for the Nats, there were even more differences. Coming off the city’s first World Series championship since 1924, there was no chance to raise the banner in front of their fans, no chance for championship swag giveaways, and no chance to mingle freely with the community that supported them for the first 14 years of their existence in the nation’s capital.
But on the field, there was something bigger missing: The presence of Ryan Zimmerman, who announced Friday that after opting out of the 2020 season, he will return for 2021.
“I guess I would say I definitely always thought I would come back,” Zimmerman said Saturday, adding that he’s been working out on his own since September.
“I’ve been preparing for a while and I’m definitely excited to have the chance to do it again.”
The 36-year-old exercised his right to opt out of the COVID-tainted 2020 season to protect his family, which included his new son, Henry, and his mother, Cheryl, who lives with multiple sclerosis.
In fact, 2020 was the first season in Washington Nationals history when the team’s first draft choice after moving to Washington in 2005 wasn’t in the lineup for at least 20 games. It’s also likely a big part of why the team finished with a losing record for the first time since 2011. The eight straight winning seasons were the longest stretch a team has finished better than .500 in Washington baseball history.
Zimmerman’s absence wasn’t the only reason the team finished 26-34, fourth in the National League East, but it was a factor.
Although there were veterans in the lineup, something was missing from the team, and something was missing from Zimmerman’s life as well.
“I realized how much I missed, not the game, I don’t take it for granted,” he explained, “but I missed more just the day to day, being in the clubhouse. The competitiveness of being on the field, I think, is what I missed the most. The grind of getting your body ready to play every day. Things that don’t sound that fun, but when you don’t get to do them you kind of miss them a little bit.”
And coming back to Washington was just natural for him.
“Playing anywhere else I think would be really weird,” Zimmerman said. “It really wouldn’t be worth it.”
Even though he’s never been named “captain” or worn some kind of marker on his jersey, make no mistake about it, Zimmerman is a leader for the Nationals. He’s been with the team since the beginning, turned in All-Star worthy performances during 100-loss seasons, made clutch plays in the postseason, and played a key role in the 2019 World Series run, with a pair of home runs, seven RBIs, five walks, and five runs scored.
But the place where his leadership counts the most is in the clubhouse, where he leads by example, preparing and playing the game the right way, showing the younger players how it’s done.
Preparing for the upcoming season after a year off is a challenge, he said, but one he’s ready for.
“As much as you can mimic it or try and simulate it during the offseason, it helps you when you get to Spring Training. The last two months or so, that’s kind of been what I’ve shifted to,” he said. “I feel great, and I’m excited to get down there.”
Zimmerman was an everyday third baseman for the first nine years of his major league career, but he’s dealt with injuries almost every year since 2011, including a shoulder problem that led to his move across the diamond to first base in 2014.
Since the 2017 “Ryanaissance” season, when he finished at .303/.358./573 with a career-high 36 home runs and 108 RBIs, he’s been limited by more injuries and played situational roles at times. Zimmerman still trains and prepares to play every day, but this season, he expects to back up switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, play designated hitter when it’s called for, and pinch hit.
“I’m kind of looking forward to — not knowing when I’m going to play each week, but you’ll be able to map out sort of the weekly schedule, see who we’re playing, see who the projected starters are for the other teams,” he said.
“I’m kind of looking forward to learning and getting into I guess late-game, situational kind of thinking along with Davey and thinking, ‘If this guy gets on or if they bring this guy in from the bullpen, maybe I do a pinch hit here.’“
But the intangible that defines Zimmerman’s leadership is that he always seems to be on the field or in the lineup at key times. That knack for making key plays when they need to be made is why his, one-year, $1 million 2021 contract isn’t just a low-risk, high-reward deal, it’s a bargain at many times the price.
Zimmerman will help the team win even if he doesn’t hit a single home run or make a single spectacular diving stop. He will help the team win by being the leader and model citizen he’s been for his entire career.
The Nats and their fans should welcome him back with open arms for 2021, and maybe longer.
“I appreciate this fan base and this city. Much has been made about that, we’ve grown up together and all that kind of stuff, but this is about coming back because I still think I can play the game at a high level, and I still think I can help the team win. If I can kind of settle into this role, and do well this year, by no means does this have to be my last year.”