Ryan Zimmerman emerged from the dugout ahead of his teammates in the top of the eighth inning of Sunday’s season-ending 7-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox, then turned as Josh Bell stopped him and tapped him on the shoulder just short of the first-base line.
Zimmerman embraced Bell near the first base line at Nationals Park, shook his teammate’s hand, exchanged hugs with more teammates heading out to take their positions, then stepped back to take in the moment.
Almost 34,000 fans were on their feet, the Nationals’ bench had emptied, and the entire Red Sox team had emerged from the opposing dugout to salute him, showing him the admiration he’s earned over 16 seasons of playing major league baseball for the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals’ career leader in home runs, RBIs, hits, doubles, total bases, and games played was clearly moved. He tipped his cap to the crowd, touched his heart in salute to his opponents, waved to his family in the stands, and then waved again to the crowd before embracing Davey Martinez and descending into the dugout to exchange hugs and high-fives with each of his teammates.
“We don’t ever plan on that happening,” Zimmerman told reporters afterward. “I think it just kind of shows you how much this city means to me, how much this organization means to me. So, I wouldn’t say I was surprised.”
Martinez said he wanted to make the day special for Zimmerman and catcher Alex Avila, who also received a standing ovation in his final major league game.
“I planned it, but I wanted to wait and see where we were at in the game, but for me it was really the right thing to do for both those guys,” Martinez said.
“I can’t speak enough about Zim and what he’s meant to Washington, this organization, to me, teammates, it was a good moment.”
It wasn’t the first ovation the “Face of the Franchise” has received this weekend, but this one felt different.
This is how heroes say goodbye.
The crowd saluted Zimmerman every time he came to the plate in his 110th game this season and the 1,799th game in his career.
Now, “Employee No. 11” was getting a superstar’s curtain-call exit from a tie game in the eighth inning.
He wouldn’t get to be “Mr. Walk-off” this time, but that was OK.
Zimmerman was giving his fans a walk-off present in the last game of what might have been his final season.
He made the decision the night before in a conversation with his wife, Heather.
“She was like, ‘You need to do something,’ “ Zimmerman said. “We’re so conditioned to downplay everything and keep everything even keel. That’s what we’re taught to do as baseball players. So because I’m not sure, really I didn’t want to make a big deal out of something.
“But the last couple days with the pinch hits, when the fans would stand up every time, and you know, just kind of the energy and the feeling in the park, I think it was good to do that more for I would say them than me.”
So Zimmerman’s fans responded by thanking him. All weekend long.
Not just for two All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, a pair of Silver Sluggers, and a World Series championship. Not only for 284 career homers — with 11 walk-offs.
What Nationals fans were really telling Zimmerman was, “thanks for being there,” because, from the beginning, he was.
As the Nats’ first draft choice, No. 4 overall in 2005, he was given a hero’s welcome after baseball returned to the city for the first time since 1971.
Zimmerman has played every season of the Nats’ existence in Washington, except for the COVID-shortened 2020 season, when he opted out to protect his family.
Zimmerman doesn’t take that for granted.
“Obviously, I have a special relationship with this fanbase and the community,” Zimmerman said.
“I think my situation and my really my whole career, growing up in Virginia Beach, going to the University of Virginia, getting drafted by this team as their first draft pick, just really lucky to be in that situation.
“Very rarely do you see people play for the same organization their whole career, not because the team doesn’t want to, it’s just kind of how it works out nowadays.
“It’s been my pleasure obviously, but I think the organization has taken some chances on me when I maybe wasn’t the best player of the best person for the job, and they stuck behind me, even when I wasn’t doing that well, so it takes sacrifices on both sides.
“I think it definitely makes it a little bit sweeter, especially nowadays just because you don’t kind of see these relationships anymore.”
Zimmerman could not give the fans a hit in the game, but he did record an RBI, the 1,061st of his career, on a third-inning, bases-loaded walk that gave the Nats a 2-0 lead.
Zimmerman’s final hit of 2021 came on Saturday, a bloop double that Zimmerman legged out, diving into second base. Martinez held the play up as an example afterward, but Zimmerman said it was nothing special.
“That’s just the way I was taught to play the game. It’s the way I was taught to play the game when I started back home. I think when I got called up, I was lucky to have some veteran guys that said, ‘This is how you play the game at this level. Don’t take things for granted.’
“I always remember something Derek Jeter said: ‘If I can run hard four times in a game and I’m 40 years old,’ or whatever he said, ‘then so can everyone else.’”
Zimmerman said he truly hasn’t decided whether he will continue playing, and he’s not really in a hurry to make up his mind.
His two daughters are now school age, and his son will be 2 next year.
“Do I want to keep playing? I think I can keep playing,” Zimmerman explained. “I think I had a really good year with the role that I was supposed to do, and now it’s a decision of whether I want to keep doing that, or do I want to be around my family a little bit more.
“I think the only thing I kind of told Davey is I started the season around 50/50 and it hasn’t gone up.
“I still feel like I can be productive. I am lucky I get to see my family way more than most people do. Most people don’t live in the city they play in. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I think a lot of people think we get to fly our families everywhere and do things, but a lot of people make huge sacrifices to play this game, and probably the biggest sacrifice is not being able to see their families as much.
“Obviously, I think we’ll see what they do as far as being competitive next year as well.”
No matter what Zimmerman decides, he still has the memories.
“Competing and playing baseball and being able to go out and compete at the highest level for the game that you grew up playing is obviously awesome,” he said. “But I think the guys in the clubhouse, the friendships you make, the camaraderie, the traveling together, those things are what I think I’ll miss most, and guys who have played for a while and retired they say that’s kind of what they miss the most.
“Driving in today, walking in today, you think about that stuff, but I’m pretty lucky to have been able to do it for as long as I have,” he continued. “I think it’s an exciting day. My family was here, so if this is the last day it was a hell of a day.”
Still, it must be nice to know Zimmerman will never want for a job, at least as far as general manager Mike Rizzo is concerned.
“Ryan Zimmerman has a place on this roster as long as Mike Rizzo is the GM,” Rizzo told reporters before the game.
”So whenever he wants to take a major league contract, just call me up and we’ll give him one.”