Calmly Fielding Anything Life Throws at Him

(Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Drive past the Home Depot and Hell's Point Golf Club, where Ryan Zimmerman worked as a cart boy, cleaning up the balls from the range, and follow the beach grass to the edge of the ocean. Take a right at Sandbridge Market, and head toward the spot where the new condos are scheduled to go up, creating still more traffic on this windblown sliver of beach where Keith and Cheryl Zimmerman bought a fixer-upper on stilts more than a dozen years ago, where they raised their two boys, and where the long line of major league scouts who trekked this way would frequently ask, "Where do you play baseball around here, anyway?"

Never mind that Keith Zimmerman laughs a bit when he says, "This house is a work in progress." It is home and it feels like it, as evidenced by the surfboard Ryan has stashed on the porch, by the black baseball bats he can pull from his room, by the stories he tells of climbing onto the roof and looking up and down the coast, a beach kid at home above the sand. It is where the living room is adorned with a few photos of Ryan and his younger brother, Shawn, and also with maritime artifacts, a model lighthouse and a portrait of a seagull taking flight.

"I love it," Ryan said. "That's where I'm comfortable."

The truth is, Ryan Zimmerman looks comfortable just about anywhere. It might be in the kitchen of his boyhood home, a hot dog in his hand, his parents a few feet away in the living room. It might be on the green grass of a major league infield, where he made his debut for the Washington Nationals last September, where he will play as the team's starting third baseman this season, just a year after he was selected with the fourth pick in the draft out of the University of Virginia. He can do this at age 21 because according to Brian O'Connor, his coach at Virginia, "The presence he carries himself with, the humility he has, that's what really makes him."

The humility withstood the constant questions that came last summer, questions about when he would be called up to the majors even though he was just 20, even though he spent less than two months in the minors, even though he began his stint with Class AA Harrisburg by embarking on the only prolonged slump of, well, of his life. The humility withstood the accolades Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden doled out after he was drafted, saying Zimmerman had defensive ability comparable to the all-time greats at third base, to Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen, 32 Gold Gloves among them.

"I don't really stress about too much," Zimmerman said last week, standing in his kitchen, that half-eaten hot dog on the counter in front of him. "I've never been a worrier or anything like that."

The humility, it turns out, grew in the small rooms of the weathered gray house that is dubbed "Sandtucket," a hybrid ode to the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach and the Massachusetts island Nantucket, where some of Cheryl's family used to gather. It is where Ryan and Shawn Zimmerman learned to manage tasks other kids didn't need to manage, learned to appreciate things others assume they'll always have.

"I think a lot of his attitude comes from just, unfortunately, they have had a little bit more dose of reality than most junior high and high school kids have had," Keith Zimmerman said. "He sees the whole picture of what goes on a little bit better than your typical kid had to see it. I don't know if that was fair or right or wrong, but that's the way it was."

Cheryl Zimmerman agreed. She is in a wheelchair, and has been since 2000. In 1995, she discovered she had multiple sclerosis, a chronic, unpredictable disease that affects the central nervous system. She continued to work as an elementary special education teacher, and for a few years after the diagnosis, there were no noticeable problems. MS affects roughly 400,000 Americans, and it can impact the body in almost that many different ways. There's no way to tell how the disease will take hold of a given person. "You could be blind the next day," Keith said, "or you could go 25 years with absolutely no change."

The change for Cheryl Zimmerman, and the change for her whole family, really came in 1998, when she was out on a personal watercraft just off the coast of Sandbridge. Ryan and Shawn, just 13 and 10 at the time, were motoring off ahead. Cheryl rode with a family friend. And before she knew it, the friend's husband had slammed into them from behind.

"I looked back, and seeing them stopped, I figured something was wrong," Ryan said. "I went back, and it was scary."

Cheryl, though, didn't act worried. "I think it's because me and my brother were there," Ryan said. But there was reason for concern. She broke the L2 vertebra in her back. For someone with MS, such a blow can be devastating. "Anytime you throw in a major operation or a major injury like a Jet Ski accident," Keith said, "that speeds up the whole process as far as the disease goes."

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