SAN DIEGO – The position Ryan Zimmerman played his entire life exists for him now in the past tense. He made a clean break from third base, no regrets or lamentations. He will return if necessary, if that is optimal for the Washington Nationals’ chances to win on a given night. But Zimmerman – compared to Brooks Robinson by a teammate of Robinson’s, the 2009 Gold Glove winner, baseball’s most graceful infielder at one point – has not simply moved on from third base. He has pushed it away.
Friday afternoon, a pristine San Diego day, Zimmerman jogged to left field for practice, chasing down balls and tossing them to bases. Afterward, he returned to the visitors’ clubhouse at Petro Park and, in his most extensive comments since the Nationals moved him to left field, explained why he is at peace with the switch, and why he views it not as a temporary lineup fix, but a permanent solution.
Switching to left field is hard for him. Switching back to third base would be harder.
“I don’t know if I’ll end up [in left field]. I don’t know if I’ll end up at first. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll play some more third this year,” Zimmerman said, sitting alone at his locker. “I don’t know if the future really has me playing third, just because of my shoulder and the way things have gone the last couple years. I don’t know if I’m the best option over there anymore. I’ve always said I’ll play until someone is better than me, or I’m not the best option at that position.”
Zimmerman knows he is not the best option at third base. Anthony Rendon has played third with flair and a cannon arm. Rendon may never play it like Zimmerman at his peak, but he can range to both sides and throws seeds across the diamond. Inflammation and arthritis have left Zimmerman’s shoulder in tatters, a bone-on-bone joint that required daily maintenance and came with unpredictable pain. Zimmerman tried everything to make it better. He is tired of trying.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things with my shoulder,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve tried MRIs on it. It is what it is. I’m almost to the point where I have to accept it, that that’s how my shoulder is going to feel for the rest of my career. That’s fine. I can deal with that. It could be a lot worse. If it continues to feel like that, I don’t know if I’m going to be left field/first baseman somewhere. But I think either of those places, I feel like I can help the team there.
“The last two years have been rough. Physically, they’ve been rough. Mentally, not so much thinking about the throwing, things like that. Just the continual coming to the field and trying new things every day. Once you do start to feel comfortable, waking up and wondering if you’re still going to feel comfortable every day. It’s something that I’ve never had to deal with.
“To a point, it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t enjoyable. I hate saying that, too. There’s obviously a lot let less-fun things to do than play baseball for a job. I understand people probably don’t like when I say that too much. It was so much other things going on that I never had to deal with, I was never just thinking about just playing baseball and having fun. So to get out in left or play first and do something different, it was sort of refreshing.”
Zimmerman’s gratitude toward baseball, toward what the game has given him, allowed him to admit to himself that third base no longer suited him. He said it was hard “a little bit” hard. But only a little bit.
“I have a hard time taking anything negative from baseball,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve had a pretty good life. It’s really hard to think of baseball, or think of anything that’s happened in my career in a negative way. I don’t know if I would change anything. I’d go through it all the same exact way again. So it’s hard for me to be negative or be down at all, just because I know how lucky I’ve been to have had what I’ve had already at such a young age. I look at it as more of, maybe just a new chapter, something like that. Try and make the best of it.”
Zimmerman’s new chapter will ripple throughout the roster once Bryce Harper returns from the disabled list, which is likely happen in roughly a month. Harper said he would prefer to play center field, but Denard Span currently occupies that spot.
Manager Matt Williams said he believed Harper would play left, Zimmerman would move back to third and Rendon would play second, kicking Danny Espinosa to the bench. While he views himself as a left fielder or first baseman in the future, Zimmerman could return to his old position if asked.
“I think I could play third,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen yet. I’m sure Mike [Rizzo] and Matt have talked, just because they plan ahead. These things usually have a way of working themselves out. Something happens, and everyone gets to do what they want or need to do. So to worry about it now, for me, is a waste of time. For Matt and Mike, that’s their job to think about that stuff ahead of time. We’ll see what happens.”
Williams said he would be comfortable playing Zimmerman at third, either when Harper comes back or when Rendon needs rest.
“That’s his natural position,” Williams said. “I think he’s a Gold Glove third baseman. He’s proven that. It depends on his health and how he feels, the needs of the team. I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s concerned about winning, which is a fantastic trait to have.
“It’s comfortable. That’s where he’s played. I don’t think there would be any sort of adjustment for him. He’s played there for a lot of years now. He’s got the hardware to prove it. He’d be fine.”
Zimmerman reiterated he did not view his move to left field as a negative development. He believes the mental strain could boost his offensive performance. He is still only 29, with more hitting prime ahead of him than behind him. He admitted that his defensive woes – the misfires and clunky motion – affected his hitting at times over the past two years.
“I don’t think it’s any secret,” Zimmerman said. “When you’re making errors and not playing good defense, I think subconsciously you might try to do too much. You want to make up for runs if you’ve let runs in. If you’ve made errors and they’ve scored runs, you want to do something immediately, to make up for it. As much as you say, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that,’ you’re going to try and make up for what you’re doing.”
Zimmerman can accept the career shift with such openness and grace, in part, because of his personal history. He grew up with a mother who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his early teens. (He will host his annual A Night At The Park Fundraiser to raise money for an MS cure on June 16.) Through his throwing ordeal, through shots and surgery and doubt, he kept the struggle in perspective.
“Everyone wants to be great, wants to do really good things,” Zimmerman said. “And I take my job seriously, and I want to perform. I get paid a lot of money to do it, and I take a lot of pride in it. At the end of the day, baseball is baseball. There’s a lot of other things that are way more important than baseball. My mom, that’s first-hand. That’s a lot deeper than you should ever talk about baseball. But there could be some correlation.”