Ryan Zimmerman, one of the most identifiable athletes in Washington, is spending this offseason in a novel place: Washington.
This fall, the Nationals third baseman did not join the usual stampede of professional athletes who bolt for the airport after the final game, promptly ditching the city where they play in favor of cities where they actually live.
Instead, he joined a much smaller group of pros who make this area home. All year long.
“It was time to get a place where we could live a long, long time,” said Zimmerman, 29, who in the past year has signed a six-year contract extension with the Nats, married a local girl and bought a house in Great Falls, Va. His wife gave birth to their first child, a girl, in November. “Our kids will go to school here. We have great friends. This is home now.”
Not many athletes make that choice. The annual migration of players, in all leagues, is a seasonal reminder of sport’s most mercenary aspect: The pros work here, but they tend to live in the sunnier or tax-friendlier climes of Florida, Nevada, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Wizards guard John Wall, 23, spends his summers in Los Angeles. The Nats’ Bryce Harper, 21, heads back to his folks’ house in Las Vegas.
But over the years, every sport has produced some players who decide to stay after their seasons — and even their careers — are over.
“I’ve never understood why more guys don’t end up really living here,” said Chris Cooley, the Redskins tight end who retired last year and has no plans to leave the sprawling stone mansion outside Leesburg he has owned for seven years.
For Cooley, his neighborhood in Virginia is not just home — it’s homey. His mother moved nearby and teaches at Briar Woods High School. On a recent morning, the former art major was in his basement ceramics studio, crafting the plates and bowls he will fire in his backyard kiln and then sell in his downtown Leesburg gallery.
“I’m not even sure what I’d do in Wyoming,” Cooley said of his home state.
He continued teasing the lump of clay into a beer stein as a pair of dogs swirled around his feet. “Leesburg is home. I’m not even treated like a player anymore, just a regular guy.”
Phil Chenier was a San Francisco Bay area guy through and through when he came east to be the silky-smooth shooting guard of the Baltimore — and then Washington — Bullets in the 1970s. But when his playing days were over, the good schools of Howard County trumped his long-standing plans to return to Oakland.
“My kids were getting into junior high by that time,” said Chenier, who still lives in Columbia, Md., and works as a color analyst for Wizards TV broadcasts. “This is just such a great place to raise kids. We all still live within a few miles of each other.”
About a third of the 65 or so members of the Bullets/Wizards Alumni Association remain in the greater Washington area, according to former player Bob Dandridge, the group’s executive director.
“Some stay in the last city they played in,” Dandridge said, “but Washington is one of the places guys will come back to for good.”
One of those returnees was Michael Adams, an NBA point guard who made two career stops in Washington and also played in Denver and Charlotte. He was in his second year with the Nuggets when he bought a house in Prince George’s County. Engaged to a local woman, he made Washington his offseason base.
“I just loved living in the DMV,” Adams said, using a favorite acronym for the Washington region. “And when I got traded back, I already lived five minutes from the arena.”
Adams went on to coach the Washington Mystics for a season and was an assistant at the University of Maryland. He now works as a high school referee and still lives in Mitchellville, which is one of the country’s most affluent majority-African-American suburbs.
“A lot of my neighbors are doctors and lawyers and own their own business,” he said. “I want my son to see people doing well in areas other than sports, because we know how long that lasts.”
Fans are forgiving of players who come and go. They are ready to adopt any .300 hitter or 20-point-per-game guard as a hometown hero, even if he wore another city’s jersey the year before. But there is no doubting the additional bond that forms when the athlete adopts them in return, choosing to endure the same traffic and weather as the people in the stands.
“You identify with them more,” said Phil Wood, an on-air analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and a Washington sports historian. He cites the case of Jayson Werth, a terse, $126 million free agent who had a hard time wooing fans when he joined the Nats from Philadelphia.
“A lot of people who were on the fence about Jayson did an about-face when they learned he was going to move his family here and spend the offseason working out at Nationals Park,” Wood said. Werth is now Zimmerman’s neighbor in Northern Virginia.
But there are many forces that keep hired jocks from sinking real roots in the places where they play, including free agency, frequent trades and the constant travel. And for the sports agents, “show me the money” will always trump “show me the cute neighborhoods and Blue Ribbon schools.”
David Falk, a Rockville-based basketball agent, once had an NBA client who was not sure he could endure a Minneapolis winter.
“He was worried about walking his dog,” Falk said. “I told him, ‘For $17 million, you can build an indoor heated walking track.’ ”
For Kevin Grevey, a teammate of Chenier’s on the 1978 Bullets team that won the franchise’s only championship, Washington was simply too big, too educated and too political to consider home. At first.
“I was intimidated, man,” said Grevey, who grew up in a small mill town in Ohio and played college ball at the University of Kentucky. “Everybody in their suits and briefcases. I was just a jock.”
But after winning a championship and then marrying a Senate staffer, he learned not to be intimidated by men in suits.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else now,” said Grevey, who came back to the area after finishing his career with the Milwaukee Bucks and has owned Grevey’s Restaurant and Sports Bar in Falls Church for 34 years.
D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, fell for city living when he arrived in Washington as a player in 1998. Olsen and his wife, Meghan, a teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, live in a Shaw rowhouse with their two children.
“We don’t make as much as some of the other guys who need a tax haven,” he said.
Taxes were a factor in the kitchen-table discussions Zimmerman and wife Heather had before deciding to settle in Great Falls. Her family lives in Annandale, Va., and Washington is close enough to his parents in Virginia Beach for frequent visits.
But his financial adviser, Zimmerman said, reminded him often about what Virginia’s 5.75 percent state income tax would mean for his $100 million contract. Wouldn’t the Zimmermans enjoy a nice official address in, say, Boca?
They decided that staying in Washington was worth a pay trim amounting to millions.
“It used to be a lot of people would just buy a condo and use that address, but the IRS kind of picked up on that and keeps a closer eye on us,” Zimmerman said.
“We decided this is where we want to be. We don’t know anybody in Florida.”
He and Heather practiced for parenthood by cutting restaurant visits to one weekend night, splitting the cooking and shopping at the Harris Teeter across from Tysons Galleria, often with a stop at Katie’s Coffee House.
“Last night, I cooked the salmon and Heather did the rice and vegetables,” he said. “We just feel very comfortable here.”