WASHINGTON – Ryan Zimmerman was a big basketball fan growing up in Virginia Beach and his favorite player was Penny Hardaway, the third overall pick out of Memphis in 1993 by the Golden State Warriors.
Hardaway would go on to play in 704 NBA games and averaged 15.2 points per contest.
Zimmerman, of course, left Kellam High in Virginia Beach and headed to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for his first academic year in 2002-03.
As a boy, Zimmerman wore No. 1 in youth sports since he was a fan of Hardaway.
But once Zimmerman arrived in Charlottesville, new teammate Matt Dunn of George already wore No. 1 for the Cavaliers.
So Zimmerman went with No. 11.
“Super boring story,” said Zimmerman on Saturday, before that very No. 11 was retired here at Nationals Park before the game with the Phillies.
Zimmerman said Saturday he appreciates the fact he grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia during an era when that area promised several major league players.
That list includes former Mets’ All-Star third baseman David Wright; Michael Cuddyer, who led the National League in hitting at .331 with Colorado in 2014; and Justin Upton, who was released in Spring Training by the Angels but was recently called up from Triple-A Tacoma by Seattle.
In games through Friday, Norfolk native Upton had 324 homers in his career. That is one less than Willie Horton, who has the most by a Virginia native.
“Some of my best friends are from Virginia Beach,” Zimmerman said on Saturday, noting his parents and a brother live there. “Virginia Beach will always be a part of me.”
Zimmerman, who was born in North Carolina, keeps in touch with many of his former college and pro teammates – and that includes Dunn.
When Zimmerman was called up from Double-A Harrisburg to the majors in September of 2005, it was Dunn who met him at the airport in Georgia.
Zimmerman played in his first game with Washington at Atlanta on Sept. 1, 2005, and was retired as a pinch-hitter as the Braves won, 8-7.
His manager was the late Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer.
“I was terrified,” Zimmerman said of being 20 years old and playing for a legend. “I had to go in and introduce myself to Frank Robinson. I remember that day; you are scared to death.
“You don’t want to do anything wrong; he was such a leader by example.”
Zimmerman noted after Robinson left the Nationals he would still stop at the team hotel or the clubhouse when Washington was in Los Angeles.
“He made a point to stay in touch,” Zimmerman said.