Two months into a new Major League Baseball season, it still seems strange for the Washington Nationals not to have Ryan Zimmerman out on the infield dirt on a regular basis.
You don’t get a nickname like Mr. National if you and the franchise aren’t completely intertwined.
On Saturday, in what Zimmerman himself described as something like a wedding, with several of his former teammates all in one place, the franchise cornerstone and the Nationals made an everlasting commitment to each other as the team officially retired his No. 11.
The first-ever draft pick by the Nationals following their move from Montréal was a local kid who grew up a few hours down the road in Virginia Beach. A kid who would go on a journey from a fast-tracked rookie, to an elite player who fans grew to love, to committing his long-term future to Washington and becoming a franchise pillar, to finally becoming a World Series champion after 14 years with the team.
Zimmerman’s journey is so poetic and unique that it will likely never happen again in MLB history.
“It was just crazy that I grew up in Virginia, went to Univerity of Virginia, and then got drafted by the team right here,” Zimmerman said. “I’m a believer in karma. I think if you do good things, sometimes good things come back around.
“But I don’t know, those first three teams could have taken — well, the second and third could have taken me. Justin [Upton] was going one.”
Zimmerman couldn’t help himself. Even on a day to honor him, he had to get his quips in. It’s his way of playing down the magnitude of the day, his day, just as he did in his playing career. He never wanted the spotlight, he just wanted to be Employee #11 and play baseball.
Unfortunately for Zimmerman, he couldn’t escape the spotlight on this day. That’s what happens when you spend an entire 16-year major league career with the same team and retire as the franchise leader in games played, hits, RBIs, home runs, and most major statistical categories.
Eventually, those records will likely be surpassed, but Zimmerman’s standing with the team will always be special because he was the first player Nationals fans truly felt a bond with.
“Part of it is kind of right place, right time,” Zimmerman answered. “You think about the other guys that have been — Who is it? Yadi [Molina] has been there his whole career.”
Zimmerman then got lost thinking of other examples and jokingly asked the media for help.
“There are a couple of other guys. [Joey] Votto. But those guys have been with organizations that already have storied histories, have won World Series. That’s not their fault, it doesn’t diminish anything that they’ve done. I mean, it’s really cool what they’ve done and those guys are probably Hall of Famers if you think about it.
“But I think the unique story of my career is I was here from the very beginning and it’s just sort of being lucky to be here in the first year and then here and being able to grow, like I always say, with the fan base, with the organization, with the Lerners — the Lerners learned along with us. So I think that’s what makes me a little bit different, a little bit special, and it’s nothing that I did, I was just here.”
Zimmerman twice committed himself to the franchise, signing a five-year, $45 million deal in 2009, buying out two years of free agency. He then signed a six-year, $100 million extension ahead of the 2012 season, locking him in with the Nationals through the 2019 season.
Despite the injuries starting to pile up, especially before the second extension, the franchise cornerstone likely could’ve played himself into a bigger payday by testing free agency.
We’ll never know for sure if he could’ve gotten more money on the open market. What we do know is that it was always a priority for Zimmerman to try and stay in Washington and maintain the bond that he had with the organization, the city, and the community.
“I always was under the impression that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” Zimmerman explained. “It might seem like it but you’re going into a pretty unknown world when you do that, and if you like the place you’re in, you’re comfortable here, you know, I think being comfortable, you can’t really quantify that monetarily, and for me, which is not the case for everybody, that’s fine, but I was willing to give up maybe making more.”
In a ballpark not too far from home, with a fanbase and organization that he helped build since his and the team’s rookie year in 2005, it became home for the veteran infielder.
“I always liked knowing the people around here,” Zimmerman said. “I liked knowing the clubhouse people, I like knowing the Spring Training people.
“I like being comfortable, I think I perform better. I think everyone would sort of agree with that. I mean, you like going to a workplace where you feel good, and for me, I always felt good here and the relationship I created with the community and, you know, them supporting a lot of my philanthropic efforts, for me, it was an easy decision.”
As Zimmerman’s mother, Cheryl, said in his tribute video, the Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman “were meant for each other.” Now, the ballpark that he called home will carry his name and number forever...