Sports

Ryan Zimmerman made D.C. a baseball town again

Ryan Zimmerman is the one who stayed. Not Bryce Harper. Not Anthony Rendon. Maybe, one day, not Juan Soto, either. But as he retired from baseball Tuesday, Zimmerman leaves the major leagues just as he arrived — as a Washington National.

There was no player no more synonymous with the Nationals — and the return of baseball itself to the District. He was the Nationals’ first-ever draft pick, a local kid from Virginia, at that. He was the one that christened the opening of Nationals Park with a walk-off home run. He was the one who experienced all of the franchise’s pain, only to be rewarded with a World Series and more. 

Zimmerman’s career is done now. After 17 years, Zimmerman holds team records in games (1,799), hits (1,846), home runs (284) and a bevy of other offensive stats. But at 37 years old, the biggest contribution that Zimmerman has made is arguably this: He helped make the District a baseball town. After so many years without it. 

“The fans, we grew up together,” Zimmerman said during his World Series parade speech in 2019. 

His voice cracked with emotion. 

“I came here when I was 20 years old, right out of college,” he said. “You guys hadn’t had baseball in a long time. You were learning how to be fans again.” 

No one provided more lessons to those fans than Zimmerman. They watched how he acted with humility and grace throughout his career, even as the Nationals failed to post a winning record over his first four seasons. They saw how he responded to career-defining challenges, whether it was the assortment of injuries that moved him from third base to first or the back-breaking playoff losses that seemingly happened year after year. They noticed Zimmerman’s involvement in the community, how he launched a foundation aimed at curing multiple sclerosis due to his mother’s diagnosis. 

So when it came time for those fans to say thank you — when Zimmerman played his last game at Nationals Park in October — they showered him with cheers and applause. First, on the plate and later near the dugout upon his exit before the eighth inning. 

Each time, Zimmerman fought back tears.

“I will forever be grateful,” he said in his retirement statement Tuesday.

Of course, fans came to love Zimmerman because of the type of player he was on the field, too. Even in his later years, Zimmerman was still contributing, still coming up in big moments. During the Nationals’ 2019 postseason run, he recorded a broken-bat single off Brewers reliever Josh Hader with two outs — an at-bat that paved the way for the Nationals’ improbable rally. Later that month, recorded the Nationals’ first-ever World Series home run — a two-run blast off Gerrit Cole in Game 1.

In his prime, Zimmerman was an elite-level player that lived up to his fourth overall selection. He was a defensive force at third base, and he racked up honors — two All-Star appearances, two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove — as well. 

Injuries, namely to his shoulders, perhaps prevented him from becoming a true star. But he was a local one, one who delivered when it mattered. Zimmerman, according to ESPN, is one of 10 players all-time with at least 11 walk-off homers. Eight of the 10 are in the Hall of Fame, with only Zimmerman and Albert Pujols (still active) not in.

“For 17 seasons, Ryan Zimmerman epitomized what it meant to be the Face of the Franchise,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement.

Zimmerman faces an uphill — if not downright impossible — climb to ever be considered for the Hall of Fame. If he had reached that level in his career, perhaps he would have been like Harper and Rendon — homegrown stars to leave in free agency. Zimmerman’s biggest contract with the Nationals was six years, $100 million: Harper and Rendon each signed contracts worth more than double that. 

Yet, Zimmerman never seemed to take their departures personally. He understood baseball was a business, that players had to do what was best for them. So if he didn’t get mad, then who’s to say otherwise? 

Now, Zimmerman gets to spend more time with his family. His wife, Heather, just had their fourth child. And in his retirement statement, Zimmerman made clear they aren’t going anywhere. Mr. National will stay local, just as he has for so long now. 

“Our kids will be raised here, as this is now our home, and we couldn’t be more excited,” Zimmerman said. “So this is not a goodbye but more of a ‘see you around.’”

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