Imagine being one of the best Little Leaguers from your neighborhood, one of three kids from the same AAU youth baseball team to actually play in the big leagues.
And while your childhood friends experienced the intoxicating rush of playoff baseball — playing in 62 combined postseason games, winning division titles, nine total pennants and one World Series the past eight years — you experienced . . . zilch. In your world, “meaningful October” meant nothing.
Or what if your numbers, power and production in the clutch were so impressive since you entered the majors in 2005, you were being compared to the four best players at your position over the past decade. But those four had played in a combined 88 postseason games, won 16 total pennants and one of them won a World Series.
If you’re Zimmerman, you must feel cursed by the game’s gods, like you’re a modern-day Don Mattingly, a great player holding the franchise together during lean times, right?
“No, not at all,” Zim says, standing in the middle of the Nationals’ clubhouse, in the middle of all the good things that have happened this season. “Actually, I feel blessed — blessed that it all came together.”
The kids on that AAU team, B.J. Upton and David Wright, have been there and won, and you haven’t. Even other kids from Hampton Roads you grew up with — B.J.’s brother Justin, Michael Cuddyer, Mark Reynolds — have been there, all won and you haven’t. The all-star third basemen they compared you to the past decade — Wright, Alex Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen — have been there and won, and you haven’t.
Not a single hard feeling of being left out?
“None,” Zim says, explaining a while later.
“Sometimes you have to endure that kind of stuff before you get to these kind of points,” he says, days before Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. “And I think it makes us — all of those guys who had to go through that — it made us stronger. And we learned from that. And I don’t think we’d be in this position if we didn’t go through that first.”
We had it all wrong. Zimmerman knows what B.J. Upton and many of the others don’t get: Winning on the game’s highest level is that much sweeter when you’ve lost like Zimmerman’s teams have since 2005.
“I think they were very honest with us: They told us it was going to be a long process, and we understood that we weren’t going to get good overnight,” he says of Nationals ownership. “I mean, when you’re basically an expansion team and MLB owns you, those first couple years before we got owners we really didn’t have much say or the financial ability to really do much. So we had to just go with the flow, I guess.”
Going with the “flow” included playing positions other than third base. At various times since 2006, he was de facto marketing director, communications specialist, crisis-management counselor. Oh, yes, and Head of the Welcoming Committee for newly acquired teammates.
“A lot of gimmick things, we had to do to get fans — because, honestly, why would you come watch us play if we’re going to lose 100 games,” he said. “But we’re past that point now and we’re a legitimate organization that’s going to win for a while.”
When the division title was secured last Monday and the bubbly and booze flowed, Zim thought he would cry, have that cathartic moment alone. But it never came, he said.
“To be honest with you, I thought I was going to be” emotional, he says. “I thought I’d be a little bit more, but I think everybody is just satisfied and relieved that we haven’t had a chance to kinda sit back and look at what happened.
“I think in the offseason we will look at what we did, how special it was with the team, the time we had with the group of guys that have been here for a little while. . . . What we’ve learned. How we’ve grown and matured together. But to go where we were five years ago to where we are now, I mean, that’s pretty special.”
During the time he wasn’t playing for a good baseball team, Zimmerman didn’t let other parts of his life sag. His mother, Cheryl, had multiple sclerosis diagnosed in 1995 and has needed to use a wheelchair since 2000, forcing her son to be an adult early. He founded the Zims Foundation to help combat the disease. And in each contract he negotiated with the club, he had one very important caveat: that he be granted Nationals Park one day a year so that he could bring in a big-name musical act, pop a top with friends and raise millions to fight MS in his mom’s name.
He also met the girl of his dreams, asked her to marry him last April, and signed a $100 million contract to ensure he never leaves Washington, the city that drafted the University of Virginia star in 2005.
“Yeah I’ve taken the next step,” he said. “I’ve grown up a little bit in the past seven years — from a 20-year-old doing whatever he wants and not worrying about much to being in the big leagues almost eight years. I’m obviously getting married to start that chapter in my life. Everything is simplified now. . . .
“I’m very happy with my life, happy to be here for a long time, and hopefully we can do this kinda thing every year. “
Adam LaRoche and other teammates mentioned Zimmerman without being prompted Monday night after the Nats clinched the NL East.
“It’s gotta feel a little extra special for Zim because of what he went through,” LaRoche said.
But all you need to know about Zim is he wouldn’t make that night about himself.
“There’s a lot of guys on this team that have never gotten a chance to play in the playoffs,” he says. “There’s a lot of guys that have played a lot longer than I have that don’t get a chance to play in the playoffs.
“Obviously, I’ve been here for a long time. But there are so many people who have gone through a lot of things to get this organization where it’s at. For everyone just to congratulate me or focus on me is obviously not what I want.”
To withstand the various low points of this franchise and still come out selfless is quite a feat, no? So we ask again: Is there anything more right in sports at the moment than Ryan Zimmerman playing in his first Major League Baseball playoff game?
No. There is not.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Boswell: A daily dose of baseball drama
Hamilton: Rekindling memories of Shirley Povich
Graphic: Nationals season in review
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