2022 is going to be a step into the unknown for the Washington Nationals. It will be their first season without Ryan Zimmerman on their books since the franchise moved to the nation’s capital in 2005 after the franchise icon announced his retirement on Tuesday.
The first-ever draft pick for this iteration of the Nationals finally called it a career after nearly 17 years with the organization, an organization that he saw the lowest of lows and the highest of highs with during his exceptional tenure in Washington.
When you spend that long in one place and leave an ever-lasting mark on the city, everyone associated with the Nationals has a Ryan Zimmerman memory or a few on and off the field.
As an FBB staff, we once again gathered around the virtual roundtable to wax lyrical about our most memorable Zimmerman moments from the last 17 years...
I remember watching Ryan Zimmerman hit the first walk-off winner in Nationals Park’s history from the very last row in the ballpark above first base back in 2008. If I think about it I can remember most of his 11 career walk-off HRs, and I remember Dusty Baker’s reaction in 2015-16 when someone first told him how many walk-off winners Zimmerman had to that point in his career (10).
“My friend told me — which I couldn’t believe — he said [Zimmerman] had ten walk-off home runs,” Baker recalled.
Dusty didn’t believe his friend.
“I went over to ask [Zimmerman] in Spring Training, I said, ‘C’mon man, is that real?’ And he said, he told me, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Well.’ I was thinking walk-off the other day and every time he goes up there I’m thinking walk-off.”
I remember loving watching him charge slow-rollers to third base and fire underhand tosses to first. I remember feeling the pain with him when accumulated damage in his right shoulder hindered his ability to throw and forced a move away from the hot corner.
I remember the moment he shook Frank Howard’s hand before Game 4 of the NLDS in D.C. in 2012.
I remember asking him what it meant to him that the Nationals let him use Nats Park for his ziMS Foundation events and him telling me they had to because it was in his contract, and then talking about how much it did mean to him that so many in the organization and so many of his teammates took part.
I remember watching him react to the World Series win (his first, obviously, and the first by a D.C-based team since all the way back in 1924), and more than the club’s on-field celebration or the clubhouse one, I remember Zim at the parade in D.C. echoing every Nats fan’s thoughts when he told his teammates and the entire nation’s capital, “We’re 2019 World Series champs, and nobody can ever take that away from us.”
Ryan Zimmerman is the baseball hero Washington fans deserved after suffering 33 seasons without a team. When baseball finally did return to the nation’s capital, the Nationals had to fight for appropriate attention in the Washington sports market. As the Nationals’ first draft choice in 2005, Zimmerman would come into a town where Joe Gibbs, Clinton Portis, and Gilbert Arenas were the biggest stars, less than two years removed from our own Michael Jordan era. Zimmerman’s Sept. 1, 2005 major league debut came 34 days before another heralded No. 1 choice, a kid named Alex Ovechkin, took the ice for the first time as a Capital.
Fans whose dearest baseball memories were of Frank Howard cranking balls into the upper deck of RFK Stadium needed a new hero badly. Frank Robinson kept an admirable group of veterans in contention for the NL East lead until about a month before Zim came up. But the new kid caught our eyes and captured our hearts immediately with reflexes at third base that reminded us of (Yes, I’m going there!) Brooks Robinson. By the time the Legend of Mr. Walkoff was born on June 18, 2006, a Father’s Day Sunday matinee against the dynastic New York Yankees and future teammate Chien-Ming Wang, Zimmerman was the up-and-coming superstar we needed on a team we knew was terrible and would be for a few more years.
Zimmerman represents to Washington what Cal Ripken did to Baltimore, even without the “Iron Man” reputation. While Zimmerman’s Hall-of-Fame trajectory as a third baseman was stalled by injuries, he won his teammates’ respect and ours by “playing the game right,” demonstrating major league habits for everyone to see and adopt; acting not only responsibly, but admirably, off the field; and becoming an all-around model ballplayer, family man and citizen. In, 2007, I was proud to make my 6-year-old son’s first Nats gear a No. 11 jersey.
Zimmerman’s continued leadership and likelihood to win a ballgame in the ninth inning, given the chance, were our biggest reasons to follow the Nats into their new ballpark, which he, of course, christened with a walk-off homer. Zimmerman kept us coming out through the lean years, until Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, and eventually Bryce Harper, came along to help him turn the team into a contender.
Even with injuries costing him significant time and forcing a position change, Zimmerman was a star on the Nats’ postseason-era teams as well. I will never forget waking up in the middle of one terribly hot July night in 2016 and turning on the TV, just in time to watch Zimmerman turn the first 3-3-5 triple play in major league history.
Zimmerman’s clutch hitting and instinctive defense became his trademarks, and helped the Nats win key games in division races, the postseason, and eventually the World Series. One of the top clutch hits of my lifetime is his eighth-inning, pinch-hit, broken-bat, just-hard-enough, single, two batters ahead of Juan Soto’s iconic go-ahead hit in the 2019 Wild Card win over Milwaukee.
At the championship parade, where we all exorcised decades of collective baseball grief, Zim and his family were most appropriately atop the last bus, waving to us with the Commissioner’s trophy in hand.
Ryan Zimmerman was a made-to-order, hometown baseball hero to a community who needed exactly that to feel “major league” again after losing two teams and waiting more than a generation for a third. Let’s hope his face is familiar to us for generations to come, and that seeing it will continue to bring us as much joy as it did when he stepped up to the plate with the game on the line.
Despite being on a team that was much-noted for its failure to get out of the first round of the playoffs, Zimmerman managed more than his fair share of postseason moments during his career.
The first postseason home run since the franchise moved to D.C. in 2012 and the go-ahead home run in Game 2 of the 2017 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. In 2019, he had the broken-bat single against the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Game to keep the eighth inning rally alive, and the huge three-run home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.
Maybe it’s predictable and obvious, but it’s impossible not to look back at his home run in Game 1 of the World Series against the Houston Astros with so much fondness.
In the game itself, the Nationals had barely had a whiff of Gerrit Cole to that point. Zimmerman stepped to the plate without fear and drilled the ball deep to center field to get the team on the board in Fall Classic and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the second inning.
“Everybody was a little bit down,” Juan Soto said of the vibe until that point. “After we hit the homer against a guy like that, everybody thought we’ve got a chance now. He’s been doing really well but he made a mistake, so he’s going to make it again and we’ll get it.”
Of course, the reason that this particular home run is memorable though is the grander context.
Zimmerman helped kick things off for a new era of baseball in The District in 2005 when he was drafted and called up to the big league squad later that season. It was almost poetic that it was Zimmerman who truly kicked things off for the franchise in the World Series.
The first World Series home run in franchise history, the first run scored in franchise history, the first RBI in franchise history. They all rightly belonged to Zimmerman after his huge swing.
“It’s been a long ride,” Zimmerman described. “And this year has been, especially the year — to start the way we did and the way we’ve been playing the last couple of months. First at-bat to hit a home run and run around the bases, you’re kind of almost floating around the bases.”
Just as he had been during the infancy of the Nationals, Zimmerman was always there as the steady hand that the team and fans could count on.
That home run settled everything down and got Washington a foothold in the game and series which ended with an emotional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Through all the trials and tribulations from the early days of this franchise’s Nationals, Zimmerman was always a shining, walk-off hitting star as he firmly embedded himself within the D.C. community. He embodied the Nationals and the Nationals embodied him.
Although we didn’t know it for sure at the time, when he stepped off the field for what we now know was the final time in 2021, the emotions of the journey once again poured out for Zimmerman and the fans with whom he grew up and formed an unbreakable bond with.
D.C. hasn’t known baseball without Ryan Zimmerman for a long long time. He’ll still be around and no doubt be celebrated with a jersey retirement, enshrinement in the Nationals Park ring of honor, and every other possible honor, but the void he leaves behind will be tough to fill...