WASHINGTON - When my family returned to the Washington area in the summer of 2004, after spending the academic year in Hungary, I picked up a print copy of Baseball America and was surprised to read that an infielder from the University of Virginia was among the top college prospects for the 2005 draft.
I grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and followed the Cavalier’s program from a distance, but wasn’t familiar with the name listed in Baseball America: Ryan Zimmerman, who announced his retirement yesterday.
Baseball America, as is usually the case, was right. Zimmerman had a strong year in 2005 for Virginia and was drafted in the first round by the Nationals. And you probably know the rest of the story.
I was able to land a few one-on-one interviews over the years with Zimmerman while covering the team for various publications.
Early in his career, if my memory has not failed me, Zimmerman told me at one point he planned to play baseball at JMU in my hometown of Harrisonburg.
But the stock of Zimmerman grew in high school, Virginia got into the recruiting picture and he was able to face tough pitchers in the ACC while in Charlottesville.
During his career, I did a few stories on Zimmerman for Cavalier Corner, which covers the University of Virginia, and also a feature for the Daily Press of Tidewater early in his career.
I also talked to Zimmerman during spring training in 2011 while doing a story on Mark Reynolds for The Washington Times.
Reynolds and Zimmerman had been teammates at the University of Virginia and in 2011 Reynolds was in his first season with the Orioles.
Zimmerman was a year ahead of Reynolds at Virginia and the two got together for meals when their teams would meet.
They were part of a major league pipeline from the Tidewater region which included David Wright, B.J. and Justin Upton, and Mike Cuddyer, among others.
“Funny how that worked out,” Zimmerman told me in 2011. For good measure, New York native Brendan Harris, a former Nationals’ backup third baseman, played in college at William and Mary and was in spring training with the Orioles as a non-roster invite as well that year.
In the one year he played for Brian O’Connor at Virginia, Reynolds was the shortstop for the Cavs while Zimmerman played third. “The biggest thing with Mark is the homers and how much he strikes out,” Zimmerman said before a spring training game in Viera, Florida in 2011. “He can hit the ball the other way. If he wanted to hit 20 homers and hit .300 he could do it. But he understands what his role is. So he tries to hit more homers.”
Zimmerman, like many players, sometimes was hesitant to talk about himself. But when asked to comment on a teammate, Zimmerman would come through with a good quote.
After the Nationals won the World Series in 2019, I was able to write a story for Cavalier Corner on Zimmerman and former Washington reliever Sean Doolittle, another former University of Virginia player.
They had reached the ultimate goal as big leaguers and won a World Series title as teammates in Washington.
Zimmerman would play parts of the next two years, but his march towards retirement probably began on that night in Houston when the Nationals won Game 7.