Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals are ready for opening day —
and six months of travel fatigue, nagging injuries, and constant scrutiny
Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals are ready for opening day — and six months of travel fatigue, nagging injuries, and constant scrutiny
On another cloudy morning of an endless winter, Ryan Zimmerman left his newborn daughter with his wife, hopped in his Chevrolet Tahoe, opened the gate at the end of his McLean driveway and drove down the road to the house of Jayson Werth, his teammate with the Washington Nationals, all of five minutes away. It was 9 a.m. on Jan. 15, a Wednesday. It could have been the Wednesday after Christmas. It could have been the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day. It could, absolutely, have been Groundhog Day.
At Werth’s house, John Philbin and Matt Eiden, the Nationals’ strength and conditioning coaches, met with the pair of veterans, another day in the life. “I tell Matty,” Werth said, “I’ll wake up when you ring the bell.”
A veteran's mental game
Zimmerman discusses the many challenges of baseball's 162-game grind. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
And with that, in Werth’s home gym — an offseason amenity built with the baseball season in mind — the two coaches did what they did nearly every day of the winter: They goaded Werth and Zimmerman into lifting massive amounts of weight to put massive amounts of muscle on their bodies, all with the stifling heat of August and the chill of October in mind.
Spring training was a month away, the season still more than 10 weeks off. When the games begin, all that muscle will deteriorate, eroded away by the pounding surf that is the baseball season.
“All you can do is try to maintain,” Zimmerman said, “and survive.”
There is no sport with an everydayness, a drum-drum-drum beat like baseball. The Nationals open their season Monday in New York, then have Tuesday off, protection against a rainout. Over the ensuing 26 days, they play 25 games. Six times this season, they have stretches of at least a dozen days, each with a game. Their first and only back-to-back days off — a worker bee’s regular weekend — come in July. All told, 162 games in 182 days.
All sorts of professions come replete with their own rhythms. In professional sports, baseball’s is uniquely unyielding. It might not feel that way now, with opening day such a symbol for spring, for hope. But the players knowwhat lies ahead. They all refer to it the same way, with unmistakable reverence: The Grind.
“I don’t think people realize what goes into a baseball season,” Zimmerman said. “People think we just stand around on the field. We don’t. No other sport plays every day.”
Hockey and basketball play a hair more than half as many games. Banged-up? Make it through one night, and take it easy at the next day’s practice. A bad week is four games — which, in baseball, would involve a couple of rainouts. Banged-up baseball players?
“You can’t hide it,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t hide.”
When he said this on Jan. 15, his 90-minute workout at Werth’s home was finished. The kitchen of Zimmerman’s house was drenched in afternoon light, the clouds having moved away. Zimmerman is 29 now, far removed from the day when he was drafted, the day that summer he made the majors at 20. As an adult, the pattern of the baseball season — and the year that is propped up around it — is all Zimmerman has ever known.
“I think the only way to learn is to go through it,” he said.
When he answered the door, he cradled the lightest weight he would handle all month, little Mackenzie, a healthy 8 pounds 5 ounces when she was born back in November. He handed her off to his wife of barely a year, Heather, a newcomer to the churn.
The boy of summer
Throughout Ryan Zimmerman's career, July and August have typically been his hot months (highlighted in red), while June has been cool (in gray).
April includes March; September includes October.
“At first I kind of wished he had more of a normal job, I guess,” she said. “Baseball was such a completely different lifestyle than I’d ever been aware even existed.”
Miley, the couple’s English bulldog, wandered in. In less than a month, the family would move to Viera, Fla., for six-and-a-half weeks of spring training. Zimmerman leaned over to scratch Miley.
“It’ll all start again,” he said. Excitement mixed with a small degree of dread. It’ll all start again. When it does, there’s no escape.
‘You have to get as big and as strong as you can’
Just after 7 p.m. on March 10, Zimmerman emerged from the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium for his second at-bat of a game that will never be remembered, even by those who played in it, the Nationals and Houston Astros. The sun was setting in Viera, the hodgepodge of strip malls and new-home developments where the Nationals make their home each spring. Zimmerman took massive cuts in the on-deck circle, trying to get loose for an irrelevant at-bat in an irrelevant game.
“It’s just spring training,” he said. “It’s hard to get up and get excited for playing down here. It drags on towards the end.”
This would seem to be the beginning of the process, a time when each pitch is building to the season. Yet in and of itself, none is especially significant. “Guys hit .600 in spring training,” Zimmerman said. “Guys hit .200. It doesn’t matter.”
Zimmerman didn’t swing a bat before he arrived in Florida. But this is routine enough that, with 4,366 lazy on-lookers around him, he got a fastball on the outside part of the plate and drilled it to right field, the opposite way, a double.
Zimmerman is shown in the minor leagues, in 2005. When he was 21 or 22, he says, he might take a couple of weeks off after the season before working out again. Now he takes at least a month to refresh. (Jonathan Ernst for The Washington Post)
Part of the grind, though, is the work it took to get even to that point, to rinse clean the cobwebs from the previous season and begin anew. When he was 21 or 22, Zimmerman might take a couple of weeks to let the season go before he began working out again. “I’d get bored,” he said. Now, headed into his ninth full season, he takes a month – at least. No bats. No balls. No weights.
“During the season, you don’t really feel it,” Zimmerman said. “But as soon as the season is over, that first week you’re just kind of still in shock. And that second week is where you’re like, ‘Man, that was a long, long run.’ ”
But by the holidays, Zimmerman and Werth — the only Nationals who live near Washington year-round — work with Philbin and Eiden five or six times a week. There is nothing subtle about this portion of the baseball year. In so many ways, it is down time. Increasingly, though, it has become essential to bulk up.
The major league baseball season has an unmistakable, unrelenting rhythm. For the Nationals, home games are typically at 7:05 p.m. Here is Ryan Zimmerman’s routine for a homestand during the season.
9:30-10 a.m. Wake up. “Depending on how many times I hit snooze.”
10 a.m. Breakfast at home in McLean. Fruit, coffee.
Late morning Run errands, if there are any. With a new daughter born in the offseason, this will become family time.
1 p.m. Leave for Nationals Park.
1:30 p.m. Upon arrival, eat lunch provided by the team’s chefs – always a beef, chicken or fish, with vegetables and a starch available. Fruit always available.
2 p.m. Change into gym shorts, t-shirt. Get physical therapy done on any injuries. Perhaps take a dip in the hot and cold tubs, which can reduce swelling around injuries and stimulate blood flow.
3-3:30 p.m. Weight room work, mostly core strengthening. During the season, Zimmerman will try to get a full workout in two or three times a week.
3:45 p.m. Media is allowed in the clubhouse. Zimmerman tends to any pregame interviews or obligations, hoping to be done and changed into baseball pants and shoes by 4 p.m.
4 p.m. Down to the batting cage to “take flips,” which are balls tossed by a coach who kneels to the side of a hitter. He will watch video of that night’s opposing pitcher, going over the scouting report with the hitting coach.
4:20 p.m. Team stretch on the field, followed by throwing to get loose.
4:35 p.m. Batting practice begins. Zimmerman almost always takes groundballs at third while the first group hits, then hits with the second group.
5:15 p.m. Back in the clubhouse. If it’s hot out, shower, change back into shorts.
5:45 p.m. Pregame snack. “A lot of times I’ll have peanut butter and jelly and a bowl of fruit.”
6 p.m. Any pre-game taping of injuries or last-minute therapy/massages.
6:20 p.m. Back to the batting cage to play catch and maybe take some more flips, trying to get loose again.
6:50 p.m. Put on full uniform and head to the field. Run sprints in the outfield to loosen legs, then play catch to keep arm loose.
7:05 p.m. First pitch.
10 p.m. approx. The game ends. Zimmerman showers, dresses, meets with the media. Occasionally he will lift weights after the game, and he has the staff pack him a dinner to bring home. “If I’m lucky, I’m eating by 11:30 p.m. or midnight.”
1-1:30 a.m. Bed.
“And then the next day, you do it all again.”
“You have to get as big and as strong as you can,” Werth said. “I think what people don’t realize is once the season starts, you just lose weight all the way to the end. . . . The grind is going to wear you down weight-wise and strength-wise. So that’s our goal: Work as hard and try to get as big and strong as possible.”
Zimmerman said he has been able to maintain his ideal weight, about 220 pounds, through each of the past six seasons. But it is because of the strength he builds in the offseason, so much lifting that when he begins throwing, “it’s literally like learning how to throw again because you’re so stiff.”
Philbin, known in the clubhouse as “Coach,” is there to guide, both in season and out. A former Olympic bobsledder who spent eight years as a strength coach with the Washington Redskins, he knows the violence of the NFL and what football players endure to recover from it and then build — over six days — to another game. Yet there is nothing, Philbin said, like the baseball season.
“It’s just a different animal,” he said. “They’re not obviously in a contact sport, but yet physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually they have to get up and be at their best on a daily basis. And that can take its toll over time, because you mentally have to be there, too.”
Which is why time is so carefully managed during spring training. After Zimmerman doubled against the Astros, first baseman Adam LaRoche lofted a fly ball to left, and Zimmerman began jogging around third. With the inning over, he continued his amble to the dugout, then the clubhouse, then home — before the game was over, his night was done.
Two days later, two men staffed a makeshift breakfast station at one end of the home clubhouse, and the Nationals lined up, Styrofoam plates in hand, before 8 a.m. Omelettes made to order, pancakes with berries. On the bulletin board at the other end of the room hung two lists: a group of Nationals headed to Kissimmee to play the Astros, another headed to Lake Buena Vista to play the Atlanta Braves. The night before, Zimmerman’s name had been typed onto the first sheet, a rare spring road trip for a veteran. That morning, it was covered by black marker, a work day transformed to an off day.
“You have to not be sore anymore,” Zimmerman said later, with the clubhouse nearly empty, its inhabitants having lugged their bags to two awaiting buses.
It was 9:15. Zimmerman had already spent time with athletic trainers, going over the various aches and pains, and put in a weightlifting session, shortened by Philbin’s orders to 25 minutes once games begin.
Zimmerman has twice had surgery on his left wrist, once had surgery on his abdomen and once had surgery on his right shoulder. Nationals Manager Matt Williams, in the first year in his position but a veteran of 17 years as a player, is well aware of all those dynamics with veterans — injuries and ailments, the balance between proper preparation and essential rest.
“You ask a young player, you know you’re not necessarily going to get the truth,” Williams said. “‘How you feeling?’ ‘Great.’ But the veteran guys seem to tell you.”
Even in March, even in Florida, veterans must have the push though July and August in mind, those moments after you’re stranded on base, and you stand in the middle of the diamond waiting for a teammate to deliver your glove, and it’s 92 degrees and your mind wanders, and then the next pitch is right there and you have to be locked in.
“It’s like saying ‘red truck’ and all of a sudden you see all the red trucks around,” said veteran infielder Jamey Carroll, who failed in an attempt to make the Nats at age 40. “You wonder how young guys will do this year, their first long season at this level with the extra pressure, the media, the travel, the stuff that I think adds up. No matter what you do, no matter how you handle it, it’s hard.”
By 10 a.m., Zimmerman walked out the back door to the clubhouse, done for one day. He had been in Florida more than three weeks. The season was still nearly three weeks away.
Suddenly, struggles in the field
By this point in his career — 1,137 games, 4,493 plate appearances, both more than anyone for the Nationals — there is little about the game that fazes Zimmerman, a fact that can come off as nonchalance. “He’s a very regimented, type-A person,” Heather said. “But he’s very low-key about it. He’s very quiet, and he just sort of has everything laid out in his mind as far as an agenda.”
Yet so many nights last summer, when he made the drive down Interstate 395 to the George Washington Parkway and toward home after games, the agenda in his mind was jumbled. From the day he was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, Zimmerman could do one thing better than anything else: field his position. And here he was, unable to do it. Each time a grounder found its way into his glove, the ensuing throw — made with his surgically repaired right shoulder — became a hold-your-breath adventure.
In April, with two outs in the ninth inning and the Nats up by a run against Atlanta, Zimmerman fielded a groundball. A good throw ends the game. Zimmerman threw it away. The Braves won in 10. It began a stretch in which he made four errors in five games. Just 22 games into the year, he had seven errors.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable on a baseball field,” Zimmerman said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Zimmerman's defensive ratings took a dive in 2013, with seven errors just 22 games into the year. Shoulder issues were eating at him, adding to the never-ending grind. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Here is the worst part of any season, when struggles — all endured publicly — make it feel stifling, inescapable. The previous June, Zimmerman’s shoulder wasn’t allowing him to drive the ball at the plate. “I was hitting third, and I was an out,” he said. He was saved by a cortisone shot, and that’s how he ground his way through the season: Live off the medicine until the medicine wore off, then get another shot.
Surgery was supposed to cure all that. It didn’t, not immediately anyway. The grind wears on the body in untold ways. But that may not compare to what it does to the mind.
Photos: Zimmerman through the years
At 29, Zimmerman isn't a kid any more. Conditioning drills, and moderation in other walks of life, are paramount. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
“That was awkward and obviously embarrassing to not be able to just blend in — in front of 40,000 people every day, when you’re getting paid millions of dollars — and do what you’re supposed to be able to do,” Zimmerman said. “Then I get through the surgery, and try to get myself to the point where I had a normal throwing motion, but to learn it again not in Florida on rehab but in New York on Saturday night, when we’re ahead 2-1 and there’s runners on second and third and someone hits me a groundball to where if I throw it in the [toilet] we lose the game . . . ”
He was sitting in his kitchen. He exhaled. “That’s mentally trying,” he said. Heather noticed her husband, who barely talks baseball at home, being a bit quieter about everything. Instead of going out to dinner with friends, they spent idle time on the couch.
“I don’t think ‘stressed’ is part of Ryan’s nature,” said his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA Sports, with whom Zimmerman is close. “Ryan has had the good fortune that the game has always come very easy to him. The game is often played in slow motion for him. As a result, from an outside perspective, it looks like he’s never stressed and is always in control.
“Not that Ryan’s not the same player, but the game isn’t always as easy as time goes on.”
Such is the arc of a career. In other professions, it might be odd for someone in his 20s to make allowances for age. But even before the shoulder issues ate at him, even before a wife and child, Zimmerman had adjusted his lifestyle.
“From age 20 to 25, you can do whatever you want and be fine,” he said. “You can eat whatever you want. You can go out and have a few drinks on a Saturday night and grab dinner, and have a Sunday day game and be perfectly fine.
“But as you get older, you go to dinner, have one glass of wine, you go to bed. You have to learn your limits.”
In those days that he couldn’t throw, he felt physically limited. Mentally, he felt frazzled. Players can become consumed by such a situation. Managers must monitor them.
“The mental day off that managers give guys? There’s some validity to that,” Williams said. “But it doesn’t necessarily work.”
What works, now, for Zimmerman, has long since been determined. Over the final two months of last season, his shoulder strengthened. In his last 21 games, he didn’t make an error. So as the season wore on, his mind freed up, too.
“There’s times when I doubted if I was ever going to be the same again, and that wears on you,” Zimmerman said. “I think I have to go out and do it for this whole year before myself and other people really believe.”
Another whole year is now at his feet. In so many ways, what’s to come is unpredictable. But in others, it is exactly what he has lived before, one game bleeding into the next. No rest till October.
“Or November,” he said.