Félix Hernández had a get-out-the-tissues send-off in Seattle the other night, an appropriate event because the Mariners, his only team, long have been out of playoff contention. David Wright made a couple of creaky appearances at third base with the Mets last year, just as Joe Mauer was winding down with the Twins. In all three cases, tributes were appropriate because their careers in the only cities for which they played were coming to a close. October offered nothing but golf.
Zimmerman’s case is different because we don’t know whether the last time we will see him is Tuesday night in that wild-card game or in the division series that follows or later this autumn — or even next year at a reduced rate. But he is tribute-worthy around here, and not just because he played his first game as a National a couple of months before Alex Ovechkin played his first game as a Capital, predating any athlete or coach or executive in Washington.
Here are Zimmerman’s totals, with ranks in Nats history: 1,688 games (first), 1,784 hits (first), 270 home runs (first), 1,015 RBI (first), 936 runs (first), 401 doubles (first), 630 walks (first). Think it’s all a function of longevity? Well, extend the parameters back to 1969, the first year of the Montreal Expos. Zim drops to second in just three categories: games (behind Tim Wallach’s 1,767), runs (Tim Raines, 947) and walks (Raines, 793).
That, folks, is the face of the franchise. Because he signed two extensions to stay — five years for $45 million in 2009, then the nine-digit doozy three years later that came with a no-trade clause — he has never entered an offseason not knowing where he would play. He is forever a foundational piece. Although he’s not thinking about it right now — “The contractual stuff, that’ll all take care of itself,” he said — he has thought about it and deeply. It has to start with the question: After 15 seasons, injuries to his shoulder and both his feet and his thumb and his hamstring and Lord knows what else, is the desire to play still there?
“I think the desire to play here is there, for sure,” Zimmerman said Thursday. “Everyone’s like, ‘Would you play anywhere else?’ I’ve never said, ‘No.’ I wouldn’t say never.
“But my kids are getting older. A lot of these guys, even when they’re at ‘home’ — which is here — their kids and their family aren’t here. So 81 games, at least I’m actually at home with my wife and kids. So that’s actually a huge factor. At the end of the day, I don’t have to play anymore, either. So I’ve got that going for me.”
He laughed. Seems clear, doesn’t it? He’s either a Nat in 2020, or he’s not playing at all.
Man, for the first draft choice this franchise made in Washington — fourth overall in 2005, a third baseman out of the University of Virginia — the only player still in the majors who pulled on a Nationals uniform in that inaugural season, doesn’t that seem appropriate?
He’s the only National remaining who dressed in the dank home locker room at RFK Stadium, who endured all the losing that begot this run of five playoff appearances in eight seasons. I remember sitting on the bench in the home dugout at RFK one day in September 2005, the month the Nats called up Zimmerman as a 20-year-old. Nick Johnson, the former Nats first baseman, sat next to me.
“How about this kid?” Johnson said, nodding toward Zimmerman on the field. “So poised.”
He had to be. In his first five full seasons — 2006 to 2010 — the Nats averaged 66 wins a year. Only Pittsburgh lost more games. Every night of his early 20s, Zimmerman had to answer questions about it all because what other constant did the Nats have?
“I was so young then, I didn’t even grasp it,” Zimmerman said. “The first five years were just about not getting in the way and learning as much as you can. You’re like a sponge.”
It might be hard for the 2019 Nats fan to fathom this, what with the plantar fasciitis that has limited Zimmerman to 50 games, but he was a stud back then. He was runner-up to Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the 2006 NL rookie of the year race that was so close, had one voter flipped Ramirez to second and Zimmerman to first on his or her ballot, they would have tied. In 2007, he played all 162 games. When Nationals Park opened in 2008, Zimmerman’s image was on the back of the giant scoreboard in right-center field, welcoming people as they walked to the park — the only choice.
So in all those games, in 7,128 plate appearances as a National, he must have a few favorite memories.
“I think we had a lot of cool memories as an organization,” Zimmerman said.
He’s too in-the-moment. Fine. I’ll pick mine.
Start with Father’s Day 2006, when the New York Yankees played here for the first time since the old Senators days. The previous two nights, Yankees Manager Joe Torre had turned to his closer, Mariano Rivera, who nailed down one save and blew another. On the Sunday, that led Torre to stick with his starter, Chien-Ming Wang, to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth. After a one-out single from Marlon Anderson, Zimmerman got a first-pitch sinker that stayed up. He drove it into the visiting bullpen at RFK, where 45,157 fans just lost it.
That day, it felt like baseball created a buzz in Washington. The Nats weren’t any good, but Zimmerman represented some sort of hope for the future. Two years later, when the Nationals christened their new yard with a season-opening Sunday night game against Atlanta on ESPN, Zimmerman was chosen to accompany President George W. Bush for the ceremonial first pitch. And then, with the score tied in the ninth, Zimmerman drove Peter Moylan’s sinker on a low line into both the Red Porch seats and the night.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are sick and tired of losing around here,” Zimmerman said in the dugout interview on ESPN. And then they lost 102 games.
Through all that, he has 11 walk-off homers. Only one player has been part of the entirety — the losing, the winning, the old ballpark, the new, as a star and, now, as a sub.
What next? What if this fall ended in something other than agony?
“You win the World Series and just go home?” he said. “I don’t know. I still feel like I would want to come back and have another year. I think my role is going to change drastically, which, honestly, I would be okay with. I think a lot of guys push themselves out early because they’re not willing to take a lesser role or maybe take a little less money.”
That’s how this lifelong marriage could be extended, at least on the field. Zimmerman insists his body feels terrific, and he looks strong. Since he returned from the injured list Sept. 1, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage is .819 — right at his career mark of .818. Sharing first base in 2020 with a left-handed hitter — a la Matt Adams — could make sense. Whenever he has been asked whether he would want Zimmerman back, General Manager Mike Rizzo has said, “Why wouldn’t I?”
“If you’re paying someone $18 million to [play part-time], it stings a little bit,” Zimmerman said. “But whatever the number, it could work. Rizz knows what I think. There’s no reason to talk about it now. That’s the least of my worries.”
He and his wife, Heather, are raising their daughters, 5-year-old Mackenzie and 3-year-old Hayden, in Great Falls. His contract calls for the Nats to pay him $2 million annually for five years after his retirement, deferred money from when he signed. “I’ve made more than I could ever use,” he said. Whenever his career is over — Tuesday night, next year, the year after — he will find a new interest.
“It’s about finding something that drives you, something that kind of gives you a purpose,” he said, “because we’re competitors.”
Ryan Zimmerman will compete again Sunday and then Tuesday night. Beyond that, who knows? So as you steel yourself for all the angst and action the wild-card game will bring, take a moment when he comes to the plate. Stand and clap. Tip your cap. Remember what he meant here for 15 years, even as we can’t be sure about what’s to come.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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