Then, in mid-December, he grabbed a bat and plotted his return.
“The biggest thing for me when I made that decision was kind of the unknowns,” Zimmerman explained Saturday, less than 24 hours after he signed a one-year, $1 million deal to play a 16th season with the Washington Nationals. “The situation was still so new and fresh, and a lot of people have kind of asked me, ‘Well, not much has changed.’ But I think that’s kind of wrong. I think a lot of things have changed. We know so much more about the whole situation that everyone’s in right now.
“With the amount of success they had with the tough situation and environment that they were in last year, we’re now months ahead of where we were,” Zimmerman continued during a video call with reporters. “So just my confidence in, first of all, safely being able to do it. And second of all, [MLB] kind of having more experience and making it as normal as you can be in a situation like this.”
Zimmerman added vaccines to that answer. He hopes fans will be in stadiums sooner than later. His decision to return — even with the virus still rampant across the country — was rooted in seeing MLB complete a season and weather a handful of outbreaks. He was also antsy, and he believes he has some baseball left.
The 36-year-old will back up Josh Bell at first base. He expects his workload to mirror what was planned for 2020, when the Nationals had him, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames to cycle through the position. And he feels that sporadic starts and regular pinch-hit appearances should keep him healthy and productive in the twilight of his career.
“You’ll be able to map out the weekly schedule, see who we’re playing, see who the projected pitchers are for the other team,” Zimmerman said. “I’m kind of looking forward to getting into late-game situational thinking along with [Manager Dave Martinez] — thinking of, ‘If this guy gets on,’ or, ‘If they bring this guy in from the bullpen, maybe I’ll get a pinch hit here.’ So there’s things that I’ve never really thought about or gotten into in the game of baseball, because I’ve always been trying to play every day.”
Last season, Zimmerman watched the Nationals when he could. He texted friends on the team to stay in the loop. Otherwise, he unplugged. He lifted weights, golfed and spent time with his kids. He glimpsed the other side.
And by doing so — by having days not run by baseball — Zimmerman realized what he missed. It wasn’t the game, per se, but being in the clubhouse, conditioning and recovering, competing with his teammates and testing himself. Heather, his wife, missed seeing the other families at the park. His daughters missed their friends.
“Once I decided not to play last year, I don’t think it was ever a hundred percent, but I don’t think it was under like 95 percent,” Zimmerman said of returning. “But once I was hanging out at home and watching the games and kind of getting into life without baseball, that number shot up to pretty close to a hundred percent very quickly.”
In the end, negotiations were pretty simple. Zimmerman wasn’t sure whether the Nationals would offer a major league deal or ask him to prove it in spring training. When he got a guaranteed $1 million, plus incentives, it sealed a reunion with the only team he has played for. Zimmerman joked Saturday that the Nationals had to fend off “five or six” other teams before landing him. The truth is that he never considered much besides playing for Washington or retiring.
The virus that led to his 2020 opt-out is not gone. His risk calculation has just added MLB’s handling of the pandemic — at least across four months last season — and the promise of vaccines. That brought him back to the field.
“Me coming back this year was in no means for like a victory lap sort of thing,” Zimmerman said when asked whether the possibility of games with fans factored into his decision. “I think you guys know me better than that. I appreciate this fan base and this city; much has been made about that — we’ve grown up together, all that kind of stuff. But this is about coming back because I still think I can play the game at a high level and I still think I can help the team win.
“If I can kind of settle into this role and do well this year, by no means does this have to be my last year. At least that’s the way I’m looking at it.”