Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that five players — Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Jamey Carroll, Luis Ayala and Livan Hernandez — who were at the Nationals’ 2005 training camp are back with the team at this year’s camp. Zimmerman was called up to the Nationals in September 2005 but did not attend that year’s training camp.
VIERA, Fla. — As the Washington Nationals prepare to play their 10th season in the District, their inaugural campaign holds a special place in many hearts. More than 2.7 million people, still the largest single-season attendance in Nationals history, filled RFK Stadium for the first baseball season in Washington since 1971. Before a second-half collapse, the ragtag collection of players sat in first place by 2½ games at the all-star break.
“You’re part of baseball history,” utility man Jamey Carroll said.
Much has changed since 2005 — ownership, the front office, the team’s record and renown — but vestiges of that season remain in some corners of the Nationals’ spring training clubhouse. Ryan Zimmerman, a first-round pick called up in September 2005 and now the longest-tenured player on the Nationals roster, has been reunited with Carroll and reliever Luis Ayala, both of whom rejoined the team this winter on minor league deals.
They’re joined by shortstop Ian Desmond, who was a wide-eyed 19-year-old in his first big league spring training in 2005, and Livan Hernandez, the opening day starter that season who is back in Viera this year as a member of the Nationals’ spring coaching staff.
That five players with ties to the 2005 Nationals are all with the team — for this spring, at least — amazes the man who used to manage them. Could Frank Robinson have pictured Ayala, Carroll and Zimmerman all still in the majors nine years later?
“No,” Robinson said in a telephone interview last week. “The only one I’d imagine is Zimmerman.”
“We’re all lucky to be back,” Ayala said. Added Desmond: “You never know where this game is going to take you.”
As the Nationals move further from their bleak beginnings, the presence of these five figures serves as a reminder of that past. In 2012, the Nationals enjoyed the best season in team history: 98 wins, a National League East title and the city’s first postseason appearance since 1933. Although last season was disappointing, the Nationals finished with a record of 86-76, only the second winning season in the team’s first nine seasons in Washington.
Under the Lerner family and General Manager Mike Rizzo, the Nationals have restocked the minor league system, spent in free agency and benefited from dreadful seasons to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in consecutive years. They no longer play in worn RFK Stadium but in $693 million, six-year-old Nationals Park.
Carroll, who was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1996 and played with them in the majors for three seasons before his lone year in Washington, watched the transformation from afar.
“It’s a whole different scenario,” he said. “Everyone on this team is different. A different ballpark. So it has a completely different feel. But, at that point in time, you hoped that this is what would become of the organization, a chance to be competitive and be in the mix.”
The odds of the reunion were slim. Carroll was a key bench player in 2005, hitting .251 in 113 games. He then spent two seasons with the Colorado Rockies, two with the Cleveland Indians, two with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a season and a half with the Minnesota Twins and finished last year with the Kansas City Royals.
Hernandez posted a 3.98 ERA over 2461 / 3 innings in 2005 and was traded in August 2006 to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Matt Chico and Garrett Mock. He then pitched for the Twins, Rockies and Mets before returning to Washington from late 2009 to 2011. He last pitched in the majors in 2012 for Atlanta and Milwaukee.
Ayala was a key member of the 2005 bullpen, with a 2.66 ERA over 68 games. He was traded in August 2008 to the Mets for Anderson Hernandez and then spent the next five years with six teams, finishing strong last year with the Atlanta Braves.
After years of struggle, Desmond fulfilled his potential and became an all-star shortstop in 2012. Since his dazzling September in 2005, Zimmerman remained consistent and has played 1,137 games in a Nationals uniform, most in team history. He is the unofficial dean of the team despite being only 29, and was happy to see the familiar faces return this offseason.
“It’s gotta be almost weird for them to come around full circle,” Zimmerman said. “They’re great teammates and guys, and it’s nice to have them back.”
In the offseason, two decisions reunited the group. The Nationals wanted to add depth to the bullpen and bench. Carroll, 40, who has lived in Viera during the offseason for the past nine years, said he had offers from other teams but chose the Nationals. He felt he had a good chance to make the team and signed on Jan. 9.
“At this point in time, you want to have a chance to continue to play and the postseason, and looking at this team it was one thing to consider,” he said. “And two, it was back in the National League. I feel like I’m better suited for a National League team.”
Also late in his career, Ayala, 36, weighed offers from the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers but chose Washington for the comfort. There’s a logjam of relievers fighting for the final spots in the Nationals’ bullpen but Ayala, because of his experience and good groundball rates, could earn a spot with a strong spring.
“When you spend several years in an organization and you feel comfortable, it’s better than more money,” he said in Spanish. “This is the team that saw me grow, and I spent some fun years here. And I made a lot of friendships here. I made the decision to come here because of what’s happened in the past. I feel good here and I would love to finish my career here.”
Ayala, whose right arm carries the mileage of 534 career major league appearances, said the Nationals’ young talent has rejuvenated him.
“I feel young,” said Ayala, seated at his locker, sandwiched by other relievers fighting to make an impression. “It’s nice to feel young again. It’s nice to be here and be around the youngsters and feel energized.”
The 2005 season holds a special place for its five remainders. Zimmerman and Carroll have caught up since Nationals camp has started. Hernandez and Ayala have shared stories this spring of that inaugural season.
“They’re good memories,” Hernandez said in Spanish.“We brought baseball back to Washington. It had been like 34 years since there had been baseball in Washington. And my best memory was the first [home] game, and I was lucky to pitch and we won. That’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
“It’s kind of fun to know you’re a part of the start,” Carroll said. “And hopefully you can be part of something fun this year.”