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Ryan Zimmerman: Face of the Franchise, Mr. Walk-Off, Washington’s forever

Ryan Zimmerman acknowledged the crowd at his final game at Nationals Park. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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He grew up here, right in front of us. When Ryan Zimmerman was 20 and played third base and the Washington Nationals made him the first draft choice in the history of the franchise, there were teenagers in the District who had no idea what it was like to have a Major League Baseball team at home. As he retires as a 37-year-old part-time first baseman — with all of his 1,799 games, his 1,846 hits, his 284 home runs in the same uniform — there are Washington teenagers who can’t imagine having no home team for which to root. That’s a career, in full.

Zimmerman ends his professional life with the scars of a wrecked shoulder, a balky hip, feet that occasionally forced him to walk gingerly, not to mention so many other nicks he never discussed. The Nationals have a full-blown fan base with scars of its own, first from four excruciating losses in the division series, now from a rebuild that feels — well, it feels not unlike what needed to happen when Zimmerman arrived, all those years ago. They share both the joy of a World Series and the pain that preceded it.

From 2021: Ryan Zimmerman became the face of the Nationals. This is how he started.

“My connection with the fans here, my connection with the city here, is obviously as a player,” Zimmerman said by phone before he announced his retirement Tuesday. “But almost more, to be honest with you, the connection is to me as a person.”

The person transformed here. During his rookie year of 2006, he lived in a Clarendon apartment with teammate Ryan Church and Church’s wife. The next year he bought a place there, living among the 20-something professionals because he was a 20-something professional, out on his own for the first time. By 2013, he bought a house in Great Falls with new bride Heather, who was born in the District and grew up in Annandale. Last month, Heather gave birth to the Zimmermans’ fourth child. They are part of the furniture, now and forever.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Ryan said.

Ryan Zimmerman, long the face of the Washington Nationals, announces his retirement

It might be difficult to explain why Zimmerman’s career so resonates in Washington, but it’s worth trying. There is the longevity: His career spanned four presidencies and three names for the local NFL team. There’s the obvious, stats-based stuff: No one in the history of the Nationals — no one in the history of the Montreal Expos, the franchise’s former home and name — played more games, collected more hits, hit more homers or doubles, scored more runs or drove in more runs than Zimmerman.

In the course of a 45-minute discussion filled with reflections on his career, Zimmerman brought up players such as Derek Jeter and Yadier Molina — not because he compares statistically or iconically but because, just like him, they never played a game in a uniform other than the first one they pulled on. But as Zimmerman pointed out, Jeter won the World Series after his rookie year of 1996. Molina played in the Fall Classic after his rookie year of 2004. Over Zimmerman’s first four seasons, no team lost more games than the Nats.

And yet …

“If you could take me back to September 1, 2005, right now and say you could change whatever you want,” Zimmerman said, remembering his debut, “honestly, I don’t think I would change a thing, even the bad stuff. My career turned out better than I ever would have imagined.”

If it’s hard to overstate how good Zimmerman was as a defensive third baseman — and it is — then it’s also impossible to inflate how painful it was to watch Zimmerman struggle to throw the ball across the diamond after his shoulder was ground to dust. By the end, he had young teammates who had no idea he once played third.

“Parra used to tell them, ‘You should have seen this guy,’ ” Zimmerman said, referring to teammate Gerardo Parra. He did it until he couldn’t anymore. He missed more than 100 games in 2014, by the end of which he was a left fielder. He missed more than 60 the following season, when he became a first baseman. There’s a temptation to wonder what might have been with good health. Zimmerman quashes it.

Ryan Zimmerman’s 11 career walk-off home runs, ranked

“I’ll tell you this: We can sit here and do the ‘what if’ game all night and say I could’ve stayed healthy and hit 400 home runs and 500 doubles as a third baseman and been a Hall of Famer and won eight Gold Gloves,” he said. “But I didn’t. And that’s part of my story.”

Even at the dawn of his retirement, it’s apparent that Zimmerman is able to think differently about his career than he was while it was going on. Playing sports at the highest level is so consuming that it almost forbids real-time reflection. But as the end nears, it becomes easier, almost necessary. In September, struggling rookie Carter Kieboom hit a walk-off single to beat the New York Mets. In the showers afterward, a teammate was encouraging Kieboom — “Hell, yeah. I love it. Awesome. Keep it going!” Zimmerman listened in, and the teammates turned to him: “Yo, man. How many walk-offs have you had?”

“Aw, I don’t know,” Zimmerman said.

The other Nats pressed. Zimmerman said he didn’t remember. They asked about walk-off homers. Two? Three?

“Well, no,” Zimmerman said. “I have 11.”

Eleven walk-off hits?

“No, no, no, no,” he said. “Eleven homers.”

That’s full circle, right there. That night, the Nationals left for a road trip. On the plane, some of the kids gathered around. By this point in his career, Zimmerman’s road trip flights included a glass of red wine instead of a bottle of light beer. As a group, they went through all of those walk-off homers — on Father’s Day against the Yankees at RFK Stadium, to open Nationals Park on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” tales that Zimmerman had hardly considered as he soldiered through the prime of his career, blinders on.

“You go from being the young guy just trying to establish yourself and having the chance to build a résumé and do some really cool things at the highest level to then sitting there and talking with the guys who are hopefully going to be doing this in the game for the next 10 or 15 years,” he said. “It was just a fun conversation that I never would have expected to have, and it kind of made me appreciate the things that I have never really appreciated before.

“You’re just so caught up in the grind and, honestly, so caught up in not appreciating those things. We are so conditioned to not appreciate that stuff when you’re in it. I don’t know if it’s superstition or it’s selfish to think about that stuff when you’re just trying to win games. That’s kind of how we’re built. Don’t worry about individual accomplishments.”

In Ryan Zimmerman's final game, the fans say good-bye

Which is why, on the night before what ended up being his final game as a National — his final game as a professional baseball player — he told Heather he wasn’t sure he wanted any sort of special treatment. She counseled him: It’s not as much for you. It’s for the fans.

She was right. As he stepped into the box and the first of several ovations failed to die down, his eyes welled. He bit down on his own sleeve so his mouth would stop quivering. He was a grown man, a husband and a father, experiencing emotions he wasn’t capable of June 7, 2005, when he was drafted; or in 2009, when he was an all-star for the first time and won a Gold Glove; or Oct. 1, 2012, when the Nats finally clinched a division title; or in 2017, when he returned to the All-Star Game. That gnawing on the sleeve, that was of a grown man, fighting back feelings he had never shown in public.

“That last day,” he said, “it just kind of overtook me.”

A 20-year-old kid who had a propensity to flatline would never have allowed tears to stream down his face. A 37-year-old man had no choice but to do just that. His career is unique, a franchise pillar who endured the losing, helped lead the winning and was the only choice as the keynote speaker when they finally staged a parade down Constitution Avenue. He grew up here, right in front of us. For 17 years, what a treat that was.