VIERA, Fla. — The contents of the locker farthest from the door of the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse have not changed much over the years. Washington Nationals veteran Ryan Zimmerman uses that locker each spring, and he has not changed much, either.
He may have occupied a locker down a few years back. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace can’t say for sure, because Zimmerman’s daily diligence includes nothing eye-catching or ear-popping that would draw attention. He stands out because he never does.
“He’s been here a long time, and he’s just kind of like a pillar in the middle of the clubhouse,” Jayson Werth said. “. . . He’s Mr. Nat. Good teammate. Good guy. Hard worker. Good player. Not much more you can say.”
Zimmerman is 30 now, coming off the first season of his career lost to injury and entering the Nationals’ most promising season. When he first walked into this clubhouse for spring training in 2006, the Nationals could hardly hope for a playoff push, let alone a World Series title. They finished 71-91 that season, worst in the National League East. Zimmerman was 21, a first-round pick carrying heavy expectations augmented when he debuted in the majors a few months after being drafted the year before.
“You could tell right away he was going to be somebody special,” former Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. “. . . You knew he was going to be successful. You could tell from his demeanor. He was very professional about himself.”
Each day this spring, Zimmerman walks into the clubhouse wearing a camouflage University of Virginia cap. Zimmerman played baseball for three years there, the only school to offer him a scholarship out of high school.
Zimmerman sheds that cap for a Nationals one and often heads out to the field for extra work at first base. Once a standout third baseman, Zimmerman will play this season 127 feet across the field from where he was stationed for 10 years now, this time with a first baseman’s mitt.
He has played down the challenges of the switch, doing daily drills with his fellow infielders or with the coaches. An inning into his first game at first this spring, he dug out an errant Ian Desmond throw with ease. He has done so repeatedly since.
“Everything he does. Since day one that I got [to spring training] two years ago, I’ve always looked up to him,” said Matt Skole, a 25-year-old corner infield prospect for the Nationals. “I think he’s just him. He is who he is. He doesn’t change around anybody. Everything he does is professional.”
Zimmerman’s voice almost never gets above low decibel levels, and he did not raise it when he broke his thumb in April. As he returned from that injury, the Nationals asked him to experiment in the outfield. He did, and his voice never peaked despite questions about how a player signed to a $100 million extension could possibly be asked to move from the position at which he had become the face of the franchise. Zimmerman played 26 games in left, then suffered a hamstring strain in July that kept him out until late September and hobbled him in the playoffs.
“He doesn’t ride that emotional roller coaster,” Nationals closer Drew Storen said. “He just kind of weathers the storm no matter what. He’s dealt with his fair share of adversity and injuries, but he still comes through.”
Because of the injuries, Zimmerman altered his offseason preparation. He gave no specifics about the changes, preferring to keep his adaptations to himself.
His requires different maintenance than it used to in the years when you could pencil Zimmerman in for a .280 average and 20-plus home runs in 140 or more games a season. He played at least that many in six of the eight seasons from 2006 to 2013, never playing fewer than 100 until last year.
“Whether you’re going good or going bad, it usually comes back to the middle somehow,” Zimmerman said. “You play so many games — if you sort of just trust the process, stay patient, and not really panic when things go bad, things usually come back around and everything evens out.”
Dan Uggla played against Zimmerman in the National League East in those years, and called Zimmerman “an unbelievable competitor,” “the last guy you want coming up in a game-winning situation from the opposing dugout.”
“I’m sure people have been saying the same thing for years about him,” Uggla said, “but that’s who he is.”
Zimmerman will hit in the middle of the order again this season. With Denard Span, Werth, and Anthony Rendon all battling injuries, the Nationals will rely on him for a quick return to past production levels.
“He’s still not that loud, outspoken guy who’s going to yell at guys in the clubhouse or go nuts. Zim’s a guy who leads by example, and he’s not trying to be someone he’s not,” Schneider said. “He sticks to being himself. He does that, he leads by example, and that goes a long way.”
When Zimmerman cleans out that Space Coast Stadium locker and heads north for the regular season, he will move into a locker on the back wall of the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, which he’s had since the stadium opened in 2008. Like Zimmerman, some things never change.