At the start of his baseball journey, like so many kids south of Baltimore before baseball returned to Washington, Ryan Zimmerman would play Wiffle ball in his Virginia Beach backyard and pretend to be Cal Ripken. At the end, on a sun-drenched and breezy Saturday afternoon, he sat on a makeshift stage on the Nationals Park infield with his infant son in his lap and his number painted on the grass, listening to the people he loves most talk about him and trying not to cry.
When it came Zimmerman’s time to speak Saturday afternoon, he began with a deep exhale. He thanked all the people who helped him play 16 seasons in the big leagues, from the moment the Washington Nationals made him their first-ever draft choice in the summer of 2005 to the final day of the 2021 season. He choked up when he thanked his parents, Keith and Cheryl. He peered up at the crowd, cheering for him one more time.
“I hope I give you the same feeling I have inside,” Zimmerman said. “You should. Because it’s as much yours as it is mine.”
In high school, Zimmerman wore No. 1, a nod to Anfernee Hardaway, his favorite basketball player — he liked the Lil’ Penny commercials. When he arrived at the University of Virginia, a sawed-off infielder from Georgia named Matt Dunn wore No. 1. Coaches gave Zimmerman 11, and he liked how two 1s looked together on his back.
“Super boring story,” Zimmerman said, but it explains why no Washington National will ever wear No. 11 again, why it is the No. 11 that was unveiled Saturday and will forever hang on the facade high above the first base line. Former teammates flocked to Washington and the only sellout crowd of the season came to watch as Zimmerman provided Washington yet another baseball milestone: It is now a baseball town that has watched the full career cycle of a hero, from draft day to enshrinement.
“We all pretend to be this person, like when you’re little,” Zimmerman said before the ceremony. “But nobody ever believes it’s going to happen.”
Zimmerman is Washington’s Ripken. To those outside Washington, that will reek of overstatement. He will not be a Hall of Famer. He made two all-star teams. Injuries derailed him and forced him away from third base, a position few have ever played better. Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer and Juan Soto reached greater peaks while playing alongside him.
But they don’t understand what Zimmerman and Washington meant to each other. He arrived when the team barely existed, a few months after it operated out of trailers in the RFK Stadium parking lot. He won Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers surrounded by 100-loss teams. He met his wife here and built a life here. He was the soul of the team that broke through in 2012 and won it all in 2019. Washington watched him grow up, excel and struggle through injury with the same consistent grace. Washington didn’t have a baseball team for 33 years, and then suddenly it had Zimmerman for 16. How lucky is that?
“Without him, this franchise is in a different place,” former National Jayson Werth said. “We were talking about it last night. I don’t know who is the next guy in the ring of honor. There’s no one in the conversation.”
There are 10-year-old Nationals fans, kids who have 2019 World Series gear and Soto posters on their walls, who may have never seen Zimmerman play third base. Their parents can tell them how otherworldly he was charging a bunt, and they can tell their kids about how he took Gerrit Cole deep in Game 1. Zimmerman is a great ballplayer, a man of charity and a World Series champion. He is also connective tissue.
“He’s meant everything to the franchise,” Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner said. “Not only is he a class act and a great ballplayer, but the fact he stayed with one team his entire career, that doesn’t happen very often. He deserves this day. This is just another step. There will be nobody like Ryan Zimmerman, nobody like that ever again.”
In Cincinnati or Boston or Milwaukee, Zimmerman’s career would have been part of franchise history. In Washington, Zimmerman shaped franchise history. He sat behind a video board that read, “Thank you, Mr. National.”
“The unique story of my career is I was here from the very beginning, and it's just sort of being lucky to be here in the first year and then staying here and being able to grow with the fan base, with the organization, with the Lerners,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what makes me a little bit different, a little bit special. And it's nothing that I did. I was just here.”
Of course, it’s also what he did — and how he did it. He was a terrified 20-year-old when he walked into Manager Frank Robinson’s office in the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta, nervous because he didn’t own a suit to wear on the team flight, barely removed from buying $2 pitchers. (“It probably wasn’t even $2 back then,” Zimmerman said.) Believe it or not, he hitched a ride from the Atlanta airport to the ballpark with Dunn, the former Virginia teammate who wore No. 1.
Zimmerman showed Washington how rich of an experience following a baseball team could be. He walked off the Yankees on Father’s Day at RFK Stadium and christened Nationals Park with a Sunday night walk-off. He played third base like an acrobat early in his career before shoulder injuries forced him briefly to left field and ultimately to first.
“That’s part of kind of my journey in my career,” Zimmerman said. “Sort of, at the end of the day, kind of what made me who I am.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo told prospects to watch Zimmerman and copy his every move. Manager Dave Martinez realized at one point that he could remain calm in stormy times because Zimmerman rubbed off on him. If he was the face of the franchise, the countenance never changed.
“Zim was always the cornerstone,” former first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “There was something about one of the founding fathers, founding players still being the best player on the team, still being really, really, really good. All things Nationals has always revolved around him. And forget all the on-field stuff. He’s just one of the greatest human beings you’ll ever meet.”
Zimmerman is not quite from Washington, but he is now of Washington. He lives in a big house in Great Falls, Va. His kids will go to school here. He is part-owner of the Salt Line, the seafood restaurant and bar in the shadow of the right field upper deck. On Saturday, he bought the first round for every customer who darkened the door.
A field in Southwest Washington is named after Zimmerman. He had it written into his contract that he could use Nationals Park one night a year for an event that would benefit the ziMS Foundation, the charity he founded to fight multiple sclerosis, the disease his mother, Cheryl, has lived with for most of his life. Cheryl watched from in front of the temporary stage Saturday, sitting in her wheelchair just behind the pitcher’s mound.
As part of Saturday’s ceremony, Cheryl narrated a video — a feat of strength, given her condition, that reduced Zimmerman to tears. She noted how in 2005, a “baby-faced” ballplayer arrived in Washington.
“They didn’t know it,” Cheryl said, her voice clear and strong even if weakened by disease. “But they were meant for each other.”
During his speech, Zimmerman choked up most when he told his parents they had made it possible to be here.
“Dad, thanks for raising me to be a good man and always leading by example,” he said.
“Mom, thanks for showing me what true strength and courage looks like,” he said.
He turned to his four kids, ages 8, 6, 2 and two months.
“Thank you for showing me baseball is not the most important thing in the world,” he told them.
Zimmerman received a new official title Saturday — special adviser for baseball and business operations — but his life now revolves around carpool schedules and golf outings. Ian Desmond’s hair was flecked with gray as he sat behind Zimmerman onstage. LaRoche became a grandpa a couple weeks ago. Werth’s kids aren’t kids at all anymore. The teenagers who watched him at RFK have kids of their own.
Zimmerman will raise his kids and watch as another group of Nationals tries to return the franchise to the heights he led it to. No matter what they do, even if his number will be there forever, there will never be another Ryan Zimmerman.