Take County Highway P through Milladore and Blenker, passing dairy cattle and rows of corn and red gravel on the side of the road. The first sign is plain — Auburndale: Population 738. The second sign welcomes you to Auburndale: Home of Major League Baseball Pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.
Sitting on a barstool at Kizzy and Sue’s on Saturday evening, killing time between his shift at the manufacturing plant and his softball game, Aaron Linzmeier nurses a Miller Lite and considers the sheer mathematics of it. Behind Linzmeier, a No. 27 Washington Nationals jersey hangs on the wall, framed above the jukebox.
“How many major league players are in the U.S.?” he asks. “Nobody is going to do it from here.”
Zimmermann has done it. He is not only a major leaguer. He is an all-star, validated Tuesday night when he stood on the first base line, listened to his name bellow through Citi Field in New York and tipped his cap, even if a sore neck prevented him from playing. Linzmeier, the best man at Zimmermann’s wedding, never imagined any of it would happen when he played shortstop behind Zimmermann at Auburndale High.
“You didn’t think he was good enough to do that,” Linzmeier says. “But it didn’t surprise anybody once he did, if that makes sense.”
Zimmermann, 27, chooses to live in the place he grew up, this speck on the map smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin. He grew up milking cows on his grandparents’ farm, taking shelter from cold winter nights in open gyms and going to a fish fry on Friday nights. He could not wait to come home Tuesday night, to go fishing and maybe play cards with his pals. The town shaped him, and he has not allowed the rest of the world to change him.
“About 750-some-odd people,” Zimmermann says. “No stop-and-go lights, a couple bars, a gas station and a railroad track.”
Zimmermann describes his home town only with adoration. It is 2.3 miles on Main Street from one end of Auburndale to the other, from Jones Welding and Auto to Dave’s Service Center. The Auburndale Country Store scoops boastfully caloric ice cream; Kizzy and & Sue’s taps cold, domestic beer; and Stacey’s Cafe, which hangs framed pictures of farm equipment on the walls, sells homemade chocolate-chip cookies, three for a dollar.
Pastures stretch far enough in every direction to make the silos, barns and houses feel like islands in a sea. Pickups share roads with big-wheeled tractors and four-wheelers ridden by kids not old enough to drive.
Zimmermann built a house in Arpin, a neighboring township with a population of 303, about 10 minutes from his mother’s house. He dug a pond in his front yard and stocked it with bass.
“The guys that know him, he’s like the next guy going off to his job somewhere else and then coming home,” Linzmeier says. “Nothing changes when he gets back here. You wouldn’t know the difference.”
How many of the 738 people in Auburndale does Zimmermann know? “All of them,” he says. And they all know him but not because he is a celebrity. They have a sister who graduated in his class, a friend who bought tires from his father, a cousin who played ball with him.
“He’s not a superstar to us,” says Dave Homb, the owner of the Auburndale Country Store. “He’s just Jordan.”
Believe it or not, Zimmermann was not the first Auburndale kid to make it to professional sports. In the mid-1990s, an offensive tackle named Mark Tauscher graduated from Auburndale High, walked on at Wisconsin, made the Green Bay Packers and eventually won a Super Bowl.
About half of Auburndale farms still produce — and almost all of the remaining half contribute to farming in some way. Zimmermann’s mother’s parents, the Karls, owned a cattle farm. As a kid, he would stack hay in the barn, milk calves and climb all over the machinery. If he stayed past supper time, his mother would heat his dinner when he got home.
“He gets up on the mound and he just stares, the same expression on his face,” says Mark Brost, Zimmermann’s high school baseball coach. “That workman’s attitude. That’s how the community is. A lot of kids, they want to get out of high school and go on the field and start farming. He’s sort of got that determined personality.”
Zimmermann played catcher for his first two years of high school, and when he started pitching, he felt like he had no idea what he was doing. He was always the best player on the team, always all-conference in football and basketball, too. But scouts ignored Brost’s pleas for them to come watch him.
“It wasn’t like, ‘There’s Jordan Zimmermann. He’s ahead of everybody else,’ ” Linzmeier says.
He landed at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point after a few kids he played against convinced him he would make the baseball team. On the first day of practice at Stevens Point, the freshman recruits gathered along the right field line. “Jordan was by far the shyest guy of them all,” says Tim Schlosser, a member of his recruiting class. “I don’t know if he even opened his mouth.”
Soon, though, his teammates learned about his wry humor and his knack for pranks. He and Schlosser lived on the same floor, and one afternoon a few freshmen packed into Zimmermann’s room. They hooked a $5 bill on a clear fishing line and dangled it down the street. For five hours, Zimmermann’s teammates cracked up as he jerked the money away from dumbstruck strangers.
The first time Schlosser visited Auburndale, Zimmermann took him partridge hunting. “We got to his dad’s house and get in this old truck,” Schlosser says. “We’re driving down a gravel road. All of a sudden, he spots a bird on the side of the road in the bushes. I have no idea what he’s looking for. We’re on the road, so I say, ‘We can’t hunt here.’ He says, ‘No, you can shoot a shotgun on a gravel road.’ Total country-type stuff. It was so simple.”
On the field, Zimmermann kept working, kept getting better. He had played some summer ball, but the Auburndale High varsity team played only 15 or so games in a season, depending on how much snow fell. At Stevens Point, he could build his arm strength year-round. He applied the work ethic he learned on his grandparents’ farm. He added muscle to his legs. He hit the high 80s with his fastball by the end of his freshman season.
Scouts started taking note during the summer after his sophomore year, when he blazed low-90s fastballs in the Northwoods League. On the first day of workouts before his junior season, Zimmermann was throwing 93 mph.
“We looked at each and said, ‘Holy [smokes],’ ” Schlosser says. “This guy, something happened here.”
He became the Pointers’ ace, and the Nationals selected him with the 67th overall pick in 2007. Zimmermann would undergo Tommy John surgery in 2009, but upon his return he became an immediate anchor of the Nationals’ staff. He would keep getting better — this year he throws more change-ups, induces more groundballs and is sitting on a 12-4 record to go with a 2.58 ERA.
Back when he was drafted, Zimmermann accepted a signing bonus worth roughly $500,000. He made only one major purchase. He bought a fishing boat.
Last year, Brost says, Zimmermann bought cleats and batting gloves for all the Little League teams in town. This year, Brost called him to tell him about a hot spot to catch catfish. Brost let slip that after a hiatus, he was coming back to coach Auburndale High.
“Get an equipment list,” Zimmermann told him. “I’ll take care of you.”
“That’s not why I’m calling,” Brost said.
Zimmermann insisted. He told Brost to give him the list.
Zimmermann feels a strong pull from Auburndale, not out of pressure but by preference. He considers his offseasons sacred. He hates the bustle of big cities, the oppressive traffic. In Auburndale, he can drive two miles without seeing another vehicle on the road, except maybe a rig hauling hay bales. One sign on Brickle Avenue reads, “No snowmobiles on village streets or sidewalks.”
“The first couple years, I was just like, ‘I want to go home,’ ” Zimmermann says. “This season is half over. I want to be home — just go fishing with my buddies or hang out back home. Everyone is going to local concerts and doing other stuff. I’d rather be going camping. And here I am, playing baseball every single day.”
Last winter, Nationals reliever Craig Stammen attended Zimmermann’s wedding. He watched him interact with his friends — the inside jokes, the small-town jargon — and it reminded him of his own upbringing. Stammen grew up in an Ohio hamlet named North Star, working at his family’s hardware store.
“He’s not concerned with the materialistic things of the world,” Stammen says. “He’s fine with just hanging out with his buddies, having a couple beers and playing cards. That’s big-time for him.”
Zimmermann will make $5.35 million this season, and his friends work on the farms or in mills around Auburndale. The financial disparity has made no difference. The friends he grew up with are his friends now. They get together and go ice fishing or hunting. They may drink a few beers and play cards. The table stakes are the same, and he still gets cranky when he loses five bucks in a poker game.
“I feel like he hasn’t let this get him a big head,” Linzmeier says. “Whether it’s the town, his parents, his circle of friends, whatever, that is definitely from here. If he would live permanently in D.C. and come back here for like two days, that lifestyle might rub off on him. Coming back here keeps him grounded.”
Behind his ice cream counter at the Auburndale Country Store, Homb keeps a dry-erase board, refreshed each morning with a new Thought for the Day. One recent afternoon, he had taken his grease marker and scribbled a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is what it read:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest achievement.”