Age is relative around a baseball clubhouse, and Ryan Zimmerman has lived inside one long enough to learn that. Put him anywhere else, and his youth is unmistakable. Put him around the Washington Nationals for more than six years, and his experience makes him an elder.
“I’m the young old guy,” Zimmerman said. “. . . Everyone is like, ‘Man, you’ve been playing forever. You must be like 30.’ I’m like, ‘I’m 27. Thanks.’ ”
Zimmerman arrived here Saturday for his seventh major league spring training. It’s hard for him to believe it’s been that long, that at 27 he has been a National longer than any of his teammates, many of whom have known major league baseball only with Zimmerman in the corner of their clubhouse.
His status as the longest-tenured National means he has lost with greater frequency than almost any player in baseball, and his last winning season came in 2005 with the University of Virginia. It eats at him; he seethes even when he loses Words With Friends against his girlfriend. It is also, he and the rest of the baseball world believe, about to change.
With pitchers and catchers reporting Sunday, optimism is finally meeting reality at Nationals spring training. For all the positive developments — the emergence of their farm system, the return of Stephen Strasburg, the ascendance of Bryce Harper — Zimmerman is still the cornerstone. The face of the franchise through years of losing remains the Nationals’ best player as they start their first spring with a “contender” label.
For several seasons, Zimmerman showed up at spring training knowing only time separated him from baseball games that would have no bearing on the standings. Saturday, sipping a cup of coffee at a sandwich shop around the corner from Space Coast Stadium, he openly talked about the possibility of playoff baseball in Washington.
“They were always saying, ‘It’s going to be tough the first three or four years,’ ” said Zimmerman, referring to Nationals ownership and front-office officials. “The whole time they were saying, ‘Once we get through this phase, I promise it will be good for the next 10, 15, 20 years.’ I think we’re just getting to that point now. We’ve gone through that rough three or four years, which was rough. It wears on you. For us to go through that, it’s going to make it that much sweeter when we do start winning.”
In that span, Zimmerman has grown up. He’s no longer the 22-year-old who eats at McDonald’s or the second-year player who might drink beer until 2 a.m. He seeks the right nutrition and supplements for his body, and he focuses diligently on his pregame preparation. After six full major league seasons, he feels he still has room to improve.
“As long as that sounds, I feel like I still have a ton to learn,” Zimmerman said. “I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface as far as the player I can become. I think the first three years, it’s so fast and you’re getting used to yourself, the league, travel. The first three years don’t even really count. It’s such a blur. You kind of realize who you are as a player, what it takes for you to get ready.
“You learn to do things each year that make you a better player. It really takes five years to learn yourself to put you in your best position to perform. I think I’m finally starting to kind of scratch the surface of that, but I think I’ve got a long ways to go.”
Not naturally outspoken, Zimmerman prefers to take care of his own work. But he takes pride in his established clubhouse role. He has learned the right way to approach younger teammates, how to see his instruction from their perspective. He knows which players can take constructive criticism during games. Teammates instinctively come to him for advice now.
“I think it’s a compliment,” Zimmerman said. “I’m very humbled when people come and ask me things or look up to me even. I’m still learning every day. I don’t really look at it like that, but I guess you could say I’m looked up to as the elder guy, which is funny to me.
“But, you know, it’s fun to be that. If you don’t want to be the guy on the team that your teammates look up to, and the people in your city look up to, young kids looking up at a role model, I mean, you might not want to play a professional sport.”
Both the Nationals and Zimmerman want to ensure he spends the rest of his career in Washington by reaching a contract extension. In order to prevent distraction, Zimmerman has said he will table any ongoing discussions before spring training officially begins. There have been no recent developments, but it would be speculative to rule out the sides reaching a deal in the next week or so. Zimmerman hasn’t expressed a precise date he’d like talks to be put on hold, but Nationals position players officially report Feb. 24.
“Hopefully, I’m going to be here until however long they’re going to let me play here,” Zimmerman said. “You get to know people. You get to learn. You get to watch things go from losing 100 games every year pretty much undoubtedly to having a chance to make the playoffs, being a team people are talking about. It’s only going to get better.”