On baseball: Ryan Zimmerman’s embrace of his move to left is all about winning

Nationals beat writer Adam Kilgore talks about whether Ryan Zimmerman will eventually return to third base when he rejoins the team. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

On a March evening eight years ago, the public address announcer at Space Coast Stadium welcomed the Washington Nationals at their spring home in Viera, Fla., blaring the name of the leadoff hitter first: “Alfonso Soriano!” That night, though, just eight men took the field. Soriano, a second baseman by trade who was assigned to play left field, stayed in the dugout, then grabbed his belongings, retreated to the clubhouse and quietly exited through a back door.

The situation was tense, awkward and, potentially, a landmark of a controversy: An employee essentially refusing his work assignment. Labor lawyers watched with interest.

How much is different for the Nationals now? Back in 2006, Soriano figured his next contract, which would come after the season, would be worth more if he remained a second baseman. He thought he understood the business of baseball.

Tuesday afternoon, Ryan Zimmerman sat in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, not far from a lineup card that contained the jarring line “Zimmerman – LF,” and demonstrated that he understands the business of baseball.

“Our window is now,” Zimmerman said, sitting alone before a 7-0 victory over Philadelphia. “This team’s good enough to win a World Series, I think. But you just never know. Realistically, we’re only going to be together for this year and next year. You never know. I want to win, and it might have to be now.”

And with that, Zimmerman strode to left field for the first time in a major league career that is in its ninth full season, a span in which he has played nowhere but third base (with his only appearance at shortstop coming during his September 2005 call-up).

To most big leaguers, particularly those that have had their images plastered on the back of scoreboards at new ballparks — then christen those new ballparks with walk-off home runs, as Zimmerman did here in 2008 — this would be a walk-on-eggshells moment. Tuesday, Zimmerman crushed the eggshells with his spikes as he walked to the outfield.

“They can make it very comfortable for you,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “or very uncomfortable for you.”

Rizzo said he never hesitated in approaching Zimmerman about a switch. “Team-first,” he said. Zimmerman didn’t resist. Instead, his virtual embrace of his new lot in life comes down to his accumulated experiences. He was an all-star and a Gold Glover during 100-loss seasons, and what did that really bring? He signed extensions with a franchise when no one else would sniff it, finally won a division title in 2012, then realized that breaking through once doesn’t mean it’s suddenly a birthright.

And Zimmerman, as much as anyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse, can look around the room and understand the decisions others will have to make in upcoming years. Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, who Tuesday night played shortstop and pitched, respectively, have not yet signed extensions, and are guaranteed to be here only through 2015. This would seem to be completely unrelated to Zimmerman’s trot out to left field on a perfect Tuesday night. Yet it’s intertwined.

“Guys like Desi, guys like Jordan — I don’t doubt that they want to stay here,” Zimmerman said. “But baseball’s a business. You never know.”

So left field? At some level, whatever.

“Ryan Zimmerman’s about one thing,” utilityman Kevin Frandsen said. “He’s about winning and the best thing for this organization. He’ll talk to [the media] and you might hear it. He’ll talk to us, and we’ll definitely hear it.”

Take a moment, too, to remember what is left behind. When Jim Bowden, then the Nats’ general manager, made Zimmerman the fourth pick in the 2005 draft, he compared Zimmerman’s defensive abilities to those of Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, among the best ever. It sounded absurd. Yet for four years, there was no play at which Zimmerman didn’t excel, no third baseman in the game any better.

Zimmerman, his right shoulder likely never to return to those days, knows they are gone. Besides, the wide-angle view shows Anthony Rendon, who turns 24 Friday, all but entrenched at third.

“Anthony’s been playing the hell out of third base this year,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve got to be honest with myself. I’ve never shied away from the truth. I’m not dumb, either.”

So in what could have been an unsettling night for an entire franchise, Zimmerman did his best to smooth out the sheets, to fluff up the pillows. Who knows how many games he’ll play in left? Bryce Harper is due back in a month. However many it is, he’s fine with it.

“As you get some more experience and see how hard it is to win,” Zimmerman said, “you realize you got to go for it when you have a chance.”

The best chance, in June 2014, is with Ryan Zimmerman, lifelong third baseman, in left field. And because Zimmerman understands that, tension and awkwardness are replaced by baseball, and only baseball, at Nationals Park.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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