WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals have experienced plenty of change over the years, nowhere more so than in the manager’s office. Davey Martinez is now the club’s seventh full-time manager in 14 seasons in Washington, with none of his predecessors having survived longer than 2 1/2 seasons.
Only one player has been around for every one of the seven skippers: Ryan Zimmerman, the organization’s first draft pick in 2005. Zimmerman’s career has included its own share of changes, but he has been the one constant on the field throughout the club’s history in D.C.
And that makes the 33-year-old first baseman uniquely qualified to comment on the parade of managers that have come and gone during his time with the Nationals. I recently sat down with him and asked for his thoughts and remembrances of each manager in club history ...
Within months after getting drafted, you get called up for the first time. And Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer, is your manager. Were you intimidated at all to meet Frank for the first time?
RYAN ZIMMERMAN: Definitely intimidated. You’re 20 years old. I got called up in Atlanta, so I go in the manager’s office there and I was definitely nervous, intimidated. I was a 20-year-old that was playing college ball in June. Now I’m in the big leagues, which was interesting enough. And also having Frank as my manager, he was not the easiest guy to go up and talk to.
By the time he was done managing a year later, did you have more of a comfort level with him? Did you look at him differently once you got to know him?
RZ: Yeah, for sure. He taught me a lot of things. He taught me how to be a professional, what you’re supposed to do day-in and day-out. He wasn’t hard on me, but one of the things I liked about him was he never let anything go. If he wanted to say something, good or bad, he got it out there. And I respected that.
What do you remember most about Manny Acta?
RZ: I mean, you go from Frank to Manny ... he was a really good guy. First time being a manager, so it was the complete opposite of Frank. I don’t have a particular memory, just how different it was. A guy in Frank that could do basically whatever he wanted to, and then a guy like Manny in his first time around, you could see the different positions they were in. But I thought Manny did a really good job. He was very good relating to the players. Just a really nice, good guy. I enjoyed playing for him.
That was really the beginning of the rebuild for this franchise. Do you remember thinking that was a tough spot for a manager to be in?
RZ: I think you know my thoughts on managers: You’re only as good as your players. Put Joe Torre on the worst team of that generation. He’s not going to out-manage everyone with a crappy team and win 100 games. You’ve got to have a good team. I think Manny did a good job keeping everyone positive. Cause losing anywhere is tough, but losing at this level is really hard.
Acta gets fired midseason and Jim Riggleman takes over. What’s that like when there’s a midseason change?
RZ: When you’re going through that stage, nothing really fazes you. If you’re losing a lot, change is change. It doesn’t really matter. Jim was kind of back to another guy who had been in baseball for a long time. So a little different feel, a little more old-school. There’s really no in-the-middle for managers. You’re either considered an old-school guy or you’re a new-age guy. It’s just how I guess we categorize managers.
What do you remember about the day Jim resigned?
RZ: I think we had just won maybe 10 games in a row? (Note: It was 10-of-11.) Which for us was a big deal. Things like that didn’t really happen for us in the short history of our team. So everyone was excited. And then (Mike Rizzo) came in and said Jim decided to step down, get on the plane and go somewhere else. I guess what it came down to was he wanted his (contract) option picked up, and he said: ‘I’m not going to go unless you do it.’ And Riz was like: ‘Alright, well don’t get on the plane.’ I think you can respect both sides. Jim thought he had done a good job and wanted to have the next year guaranteed. And the front office said no. It is what it is. It’s part of the craziness of life in the majors. As baseball players, crazy is normal. So you get used to things happening. We downplay everything, because that’s just what we do. But, yeah, that was a pretty interesting day.
So for three days in Chicago, you guys had John McLaren managing. And then by the time you get on the plane to go to Anaheim, Davey Johnson is now your manager. What did that mean, to have someone with that track record take over the team at that point, when things had kind of gone haywire?
RZ: I think it definitely brought some stability, knowing you had a guy like that. And he had also been with the organization a little, so he sort of knew some of us. Davey was more toward the Frank side of things. But I think it brought us some stability. And at that point, we were starting to have a team that was at least competitive. So to have someone like that was a boost. It was a pretty good hire. He did a good job.
Did it feel like your team was saying: ‘OK, we’re serious now. It’s time for us to have a manager of that caliber, because we’re ready to win?’
RZ: I don’t know if we thought of it like that, but looking back with all the stuff we’d been through, it definitely was more stability and taking that next step toward having a legit, big league team.
What was he like on a daily basis? He had been through everything in this game.
RZ: He was calm. Nothing fazed him. He just let us go out and play. He’d let you do whatever you needed to do, as long as when it came time to play you were ready. At that point, that was the first time I had really had that. And honestly, that was the first time I really knew what it took to get ready on my own. So I enjoyed the freedom of that.
What did you know about Matt Williams before he got the job?
RZ: Obviously I knew he was a really good player. That’s the first thing you think about. But other than that, not much. He’d been in the Diamondbacks organization. We’d play them a few times a year, but you didn’t really interact with him. So not too much. Just the way he played, his persona when he was a player.
The first year, things went great. The second year, things didn’t go well. Did it feel like things were dramatically different those two years? Did he seem like a different manager?
RZ: No, and I think that’s the perfect example of showing people how winning makes everything better. And also how when you’re winning, he’s this great manager. And then when you’re losing, all of a sudden it’s his fault. It always comes down to the players. Managers are just easier to fire, so that’s why they get fired. We have contracts and get paid a good amount of money. You can’t just get rid of us, so you get rid of the manager. But I liked Matt. I thought, just like any player, there are things you wish you’d do differently, and I’m sure he’d say the same. But as far as blaming him for that, obviously that’s over the top. I don’t have anything bad to say about him. But I think that’s the perfect example of how when you win, everything’s perfect. I mean, he won Manager of the Year. Winning makes everything better.
Dusty Baker was another guy who had experienced everything there was to experience in baseball. What kind of vibe did he bring to this team that wasn’t here before?
RZ: Davey would let you do what you wanted to do, but it was still old-school baseball. Dusty was old-school, but he was more cool. You could be cool. You could be whatever you wanted, to an extent. There’s still all the unwritten rules, the code of baseball. But he was similar to Frank and Davey and those other old-school guys, but with a little more swagger.
Especially at the end of last season, could you tell how much he really wanted to win, what that would’ve meant to him in his career?
RZ: Yeah, I don’t think he kept it a secret. He wanted to win a World Series. He’d tell us: ‘The only thing I have left to do is win a World Series!’ I mean, all of us here want to do that. I don’t think it changed the way we played. But you definitely knew that was what he wanted to do.
Finally, what did you know about Davey Martinez before he got this job?
RZ: Not much, to be honest with you. Obviously he played in the big leagues for a long time. Coached with Joe Maddon forever. I think everyone automatically assumes he’s going to be just like Joe. And I think he’s learned a lot from him. But I think he’s his own person. Joe’s strategies, they’re not exactly textbook. Some people have said they like it, some have said they don’t like it. But I think Davey, as far as managing, it seems like he’s not quite as much off-the-cuff as Joe. As far as handling the guys, I think he’s pretty similar. He’s going to let us do whatever we want to do, as long as it’s within reason and representing the organization in the right way. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about managers is: You have to get these guys to play for you. It’s hard to get spoiled millionaires to do what you want them to do. Because all of us think we don’t have to do what anyone tells us to do. But so far I think he does a really good job of that. He wants us to have fun. When you have fun, it’s a lot easier to ask people to do things. I think he’s doing a really good job of that, so when we get on the field, we are going to run hard. We are going to play hard. Because we know he lets us do what we want and he respects us. That’s what I’ve noticed in this short time, less than a month, getting to know him. But I think he’s going to be more conventional than people think, baseball-wise. Analytics are always going to be a part of things now. But I’ve been impressed, really impressed.