Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Ryan Zimmerman deal shows Nats are committed for long haul

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The win-win outcome for Zimmerman and the Lerner family, who are on an ownership hot streak, all but guarantees Zimmerman likely will be in a Washington uniform for a long time. Now, Nationals fans have the unique opportunity to follow an elite, homegrown athlete throughout the majority of his career with his original team. It seems Zimmerman will be one of the exceptions to the rule in sports. That’s just the sort of thing that could help the Nationals become the region’s top sports franchise.

In general, most fans can no longer expect their favorite athletes to stay put in one city because, for some time, few have. Through free agency, athletes have the right to move around while chasing the best contracts. Or franchises, seeking to slash payroll or dump headaches, sometimes trade top players or opt not to re-sign them. During an era in which sports leagues produce billions in revenue, that’s just how the big business of sports works.

Albert Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals. The Indianapolis Colts appear ready to move on without Peyton Manning.

Occasionally, though rarely, there are enduring partnerships — unions that almost universally mean joy to the team, the fans, and ultimately the city. Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees would qualify. Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have that sort of thing, too. Zimmerman and the Nationals have just joined the list.

Barring injury, Zimmerman will remain at third base and in a key position in the batting order while a generation of Nationals fans watch him work.

Just as Jeter and Bryant have become intimately identified with their teams, so will Zimmerman fill that role for Washington. And the Nationals will be judged, in no small part, on how his individual performance contributes to the team’s overall success.

Fortunately for Washington, Zimmerman has proven he has the shoulders for the task. The Nationals selected him with their first draft pick after moving here from Montreal, and Zimmerman has consistently delivered on and off the field, winning batting and fielding awards while also providing a positive presence in the community.

The Nationals’ good fortune as far as Zimmerman is concerned continued in his contract negotiations. Potentially, Zimmerman could have received an even bigger payday, either from the Nationals or another team, had he elected to complete the final two years on his previous deal and become a free agent. Instead, after missing significant time last season while injured, Zimmerman was willing to negotiate from a slightly weakened standpoint because staying with the Nationals was the top item on his list.

Even so, $100 million is hardly chump change. The Lerner family, who are supporting General Manager Mike Rizzo with their checkbook these days, definitely made a major commitment to Zimmerman.

Each side gave a little to reach an agreement that works well for both, which doesn’t happen enough in sports negotiations. Usually, it’s just easier for athletes and teams to separate, resulting in the ongoing roster turnover that angers some who remember how things were in the “good old days” before free agency made it more difficult, and more expensive, for owners and general managers to keep teams together.

It was wrong owners had so much control then. Before free agency, owners grew rich on athletes’ star power, while sometimes even the greats burned through their brilliant careers with little left to show for it.

That doesn’t happen much these days. The big stars, the ones that flip the turnstiles, earn salaries that compete with the GDP of a small country. And that kind of marketplace means that teams can, and often do, lose even their most popular players. When that happens, over and over, there’s nothing left to root for but uniforms and logos and franchises run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

It has been a major problem in baseball, especially in the sport’s smallest markets. Washington isn’t small, but it isn’t New York or Los Angeles either. Even so, the Nationals are demonstrating they are intent on retaining their core. That’s part of the message Rizzo and the Lerners sent to the clubhouse through Zimmerman.

Beginning with starter Stephen Strasburg, there’s a long line of talented, young players who observed how well the ballclub handled Zimmerman’s situation. Nothing inspires optimism more in a franchise than when ownership takes care of the right people.

That’s what Washington did. The Nationals made an important move to potentially strengthen their bottom line by retaining one of their best players.

Obviously, they also thought a lot about their fans. What a refreshing concept.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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