A first-time honor fitting for Zimmerman

A weekend of nostalgia commenced Friday night when Ryan Zimmerman was joined by four ex-teammates (Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa) atop the visitors’ dugout for a Q&A with Nationals fans who hung on the group’s every word and probably wished that event could just keep going on the rest of the evening instead of the actual game that began at 7:05 p.m.

It’s tough to be a Nats fan in 2022, and it’s probably going to continue to be tough to be a fan of this team for a while longer. So it may take more of this kind of nostalgia to bring a smile to everyone’s face.

Before today’s game, the Nationals will officially retire Zimmerman’s No. 11 jersey, the first such player in club history to receive that honor, though certainly not the last. You’ve got to assume No. 31 will stand alongside it a few more years down the road, perhaps No. 37 and/or No. 22 as well, depending on how things go.

It’s one of the few major milestones this franchise hasn’t experienced since arriving in town 17 years ago. There have been no-hitters and division clinchers, an All-Star Game and a World Series. Now there’s a retired number to unveil on the façade of the upper deck along the first base line.

And nobody else in team history would’ve sufficed to be the first.

Zimmerman was the Nationals’ first draft pick. He made his major league debut in their first season. He was their first Gold Glove Award winner. He signed the first long-term extension, then another. He hit their first World Series home run.

He won’t be their first Hall of Famer, but let’s not forget the fact he was on a legitimately potential track to Cooperstown halfway through his career.

Those who only started paying attention once the Nats became annual contenders never got to see Zimmerman at his absolute best. From 2006-13, he hit .284/.351/.476 while averaging 33 doubles, 22 homers and 83 RBIs, not to mention 610 plate appearances. (Yes, kids, he was durable.)

All the while, he played as good a third base as anyone in the game at the time, establishing his own signature plays. The charging-in, barehand-grabbing, underhand-flinging throw to first for the out. The over-the-shoulder catch of a popup deep in foul territory. The lightning-quick reflex snag of a line drive to his right.

Can you name the six best seasons in Nationals history based on Baseball Reference's WAR? Yes, Bryce Harper’s MVP campaign of 2015 is the runaway winner at 9.7. But next on the list is Zimmerman’s 7.3 mark in 2009, for a wretched team that lost 103 games. Juan Soto’s 2021 (7.1) and Anthony Rendon’s 2019 (7.1) and 2014 (6.5) follow, but then comes another great Zimmerman season: 2010, when he finished with 6.2 WAR for another losing club.

It’s not unfair to ask what might have been if not for the shoulder injury that forever altered Zimmerman’s career. It happened early in the 2012 season, probably when he dove into the plate to score a run. He missed some time but was insistent upon returning and being a part of the Nats’ first playoff run, even if it meant getting multiple cortisone shots along the way to keep him on the field.

It’s quite possible those cortisone shots are what actually did him in. He played that whole season in pain; he just couldn’t feel it. By the time 2013 came around, his shoulder was shot forever, and plans began to come into place to move him to first base in 2015 after LaRoche’s contract expired.

I delicately brought up the subject once to Zimmerman, asking if he worried those shots might actually cause more long-term damage than short-term benefits. He shrugged and said: “I try not to think about that stuff.” You know deep down it wasn’t the first time he had.

For Zimmerman, though, it was never about what might be best for him. It was always about what might be best for the team. He knew the Nationals needed him down the stretch of that memorable 2012 season. He was willing to sacrifice his body for it. Just as he was willing to learn how to play left field in midseason 2014, fully acknowledging Rendon was the far superior third baseman at that point.

He put in hours and hours and hours learning how to play first base well, and he did play it well for the rest of his career, even if there were a few throws toward the vicinity of second base that made you cringe.

And then, once it became clear his body wouldn’t let him play every day at a level he deemed satisfactory, he embraced the idea of becoming a bench player. And, not surprisingly, he was really good at it.

So, yeah, you better believe Zimmerman deserves every bit of adulation he’s receiving this weekend, culminating with today’s pregame jersey retirement ceremony. Several more of his former teammates will be in attendance. Many more have sent in video messages that will be played to the crowd. A few other surprises are in store.

It may very well be more exciting and emotional than the game that will follow, but that’s OK. Zimmerman knows what seasons like this are all about. He’s been through it himself. Then he stuck it out and was part of a glorious run of success that culminated in a World Series title.

We’ll think about all that today, both the good and the bad. And we’ll look down at the Nationals team that takes the field and wonder: Will any of these guys be part of the next team that wins something big, and will any of them someday see his name and number displayed forever alongside the original Face of the Franchise?

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