“Frank was opposed to bringing him up at his age,” Jim Bowden, the Nats’ first general manager, said Thursday. “I made the point I thought he would be able to succeed and compete and would be the best third baseman on our roster.
“Did I push it? Probably. But you had the excitement of bringing Major League Baseball back to Washington, D.C. He represented everything that we wanted for the future of the franchise. Would most executives have brought him up? Probably not. But I thought it was the right thing to do.”
So on Sept. 1, 2005, Bowden walked Ryan Zimmerman into the visitors’ clubhouse at Atlanta’s Turner Field.
“I will never forget how nervous he was to meet Frank Robinson,” Bowden said.
He may not have been nervous since. That night, when Robinson needed a pinch hitter for reliever Jason Bergmann, he called on Zimmerman to face an Atlanta reliever named Jim Brower. He worked the count full. He took strike three.
Sixteen years and 7,395 plate appearances later, Zimmerman heads into the final series of the 2021 season with the possibility that it will be the final series of his career. He turned 37 this week. He has earned more than $138 million in his career. He doesn’t need the money, and there’s an argument that he no longer needs the game, what with his wife, Heather, and their three young kids at home in Great Falls. No one has played more games as a National. No one has more hits as a National. No National has scored more runs, driven in more runs, hit more doubles or hit more homers. Can’t that be enough?
We don’t yet know. Zimmerman has said repeatedly that he will make a decision about retirement in the offseason. But with the possibility that these three games against the Boston Red Sox will be the last three games of Zimmerman’s career, there’s the duty to stand and clap for any and all of his plate appearances at Nationals Park, the yard he christened in 2008 with a walk-off homer, one of 11 walk-offs he hit in Washington.
If this is the end, there’s so much fun in thinking back to the beginning. In the spring of ’05, Bowden piled a group of his lieutenants — including Bob Boone, Barry Larkin and Jose Cardenal, with 6,461 games of major league experience among them — into his Cadillac Escalade. They drove from D.C. to Charlottesville, to scout the University of Virginia vs. the University of Miami. The opposing third basemen: Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun.
“What we really wanted to do — and it doesn’t always work out this way — is to draft the face of the franchise,” Bowden said. “He had all those ingredients. In that game, he played Gold Glove, Brooks Robinson-level defense at third base, showed a short, compact swing, had good plate coverage — and was one of the most impressive men you’ll meet.”
That one comparison — Brooks Robinson — struck me as hyperbolic when Bowden said it all those years ago. It didn’t when he brought it up again Thursday. When the Nats selected Zimmerman with the fourth pick in the draft (one choice before the Brewers took Braun), Bowden tossed in Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt as comps for good measure — using Zimmerman in the same sentence as stars who had won 34 Gold Gloves. When the Nats sent him to Class A to start his career, Bowden told Randy Knorr, the manager of the Savannah Sand Gnats, that Zimmerman was “the best third baseman you’ve ever seen.”
“I was like, that’s pretty confident,” said Knorr, now the Nationals’ first base coach. When Zimmerman arrived, the Sand Gnats had a rare off day. Knorr remembers Bowden wanted him and some of the players to work Zimmerman out.
“The field was terrible; there was no grounds crew,” Knorr said. “So the first two I hit to him, he missed.”
This was the next Brooks Robinson? The following night, Zimmerman made his professional debut. Knorr remembers a play with runners on first and second in which Zimmerman, playing behind the bag, dove to snare a hard grounder, popped up to step on third and fired across the diamond for a double play.
“That’s a big league player right there,” Knorr said to his coaches.
But he also remembers Zimmerman striking out twice, popping one up and getting jammed on another. Afterward, Knorr saw Zimmerman walking by his office.
“Hey, Zim,” Knorr called after him.
“What’s up, Coach?” Zimmerman responded.
Professional baseball managers, it should be noted, are not referred to as “Coach.” “Skip,” if you like. Anything but “Coach.”
“Stop with the ‘Coach,’” Knorr said. “How much money did we give you?”
Zimmerman sheepishly replied with his signing bonus: $2.975 million.
“We paid all that money for that tonight?” Knorr shot back.
Years later, Knorr ran into Zimmerman at the bar at a team hotel somewhere on the road.
“Do you remember what you said to me?” Zimmerman asked. “That messed me up a little.”
“Really?” Knorr said. How messed up could he have been, given he went 8 for 13 with two homers and two doubles over the next three games?
He was off, promoted to Class AA Harrisburg. Sixty-three games later — 63 games in which he hit .326 with nine homers and 20 doubles — Bowden made the decision to bring him to the majors. By nature, big league clubhouses are skeptical places, and those Nats were a grizzled gang of veterans and castoffs who had been in first place at the all-star break and were desperately trying to stay in the race. In walks a kid who spent what amounts to an hour-and-a-half in the minors?
“To come up to the big leagues without quote-unquote ‘putting your time in’ in the minor leagues, everyone’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Brian Schneider, the catcher on that inaugural team. “Hearing Bowden talk about him being a Brooks Robinson-type, we all just wanted to see what the hype was. There were so many expectations coming in, and as we know, he backed ’em up.”
The night after Zimmerman struck out in his first major league at-bat, Frank Robinson double-switched him into a game against Philadelphia at RFK Stadium. The first of his 1,845 hits was a double off Phillies right-hander Vicente Padilla. His first start came Sept. 7, when Robinson was so desperate to find someone to replace the flailing Cristian Guzman — who was hitting .196 at the time — that he put Zimmerman at shortstop.
“No big deal,” Zimmerman said before that game. “Just catch the ball and throw the ball.”
Uh, nice try, rook. That night, he made two errors. He never played shortstop again.
But man, did he play third. It will forever be a crime that his lone Gold Glove came in 2009 because there was a stretch in which no one played the position any better. His shoulder, though, is ravaged by now, and late in 2014 he finally moved to left field. Damned if it didn’t feel like he was being put out to pasture.
He has played first since 2015, after Adam LaRoche moved on, and has performed just fine there. But once Robinson relented and started him at third on Sept. 11, 2005 — finally allowing for Castilla’s ailing, 38-year-old knees — Zimmerman looked like he would never give the position up. Schneider is now on the coaching staff of the New York Mets and was on the big league staff with Miami in the past. Occasionally, a player or coach will mention Zimmerman and his odd, sidearm throwing motion. It gets Schneider’s back up.
“I wish you guys could’ve f------ seen this guy play third base,” Schneider said. “He was literally one of the best in the game. The play coming in on a bunt barehanded? Compare him to whoever you want to compare him to. Diving to the six-hole, making a catch over his shoulder in fair territory, whatever. He was a special player. I wish to God that he never lost that, that he never got hurt, because he was that much fun to watch at third base.”
Look, he’s not a Hall of Famer. That does not matter. He was twice an all-star, twice the winner of the Silver Slugger as the best hitter at his position. But more than that: He was the face of the franchise when it badly needed one just like his, the kid who answered every question after every loss because there was nowhere else to turn.
“We thought, with his leadership and character, he was the kind of person who could be on the cover of all the periodicals,” Bowden said.
And after the Nationals won the World Series in 2019, there he was on the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” arms raised, a mix of exuberance and disbelief on his face, the one player who knew what it was like in the beginning. When the Nationals celebrated that title with a previously unfathomable parade, there he was atop the final bus, riding with the trophy. There he was in July as a cover model for Washingtonian magazine, which felt wholly appropriate given that he’s such a part of the city.
“I’d love to be able to sit here and rip on him here and there,” Schneider said. “I can’t do it. He always did things the right way. I just love how he handles himself. There’s a reason why I hung out with him as much as I did when he was young and why I’m still friends with him now: He’s just such a good guy.”
“Always like talking about Zim,” Knorr said. “Anything for him.”
Maybe it ends this weekend. Maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re at the ballpark and Ryan Zimmerman comes to the plate, don’t let the moment pass. There have been more accomplished athletes in this town and on this team. But none have the career arc that Zim does. He helped bring baseball back into D.C.’s daily consciousness. He grew up here, side-by-side with the fan base. He showed us how to handle both the walk-off bombs and the throws in the dirt. Tip a cap to him against the Red Sox. No one will be handed a role like his again, and no one could fill it like he did.