Face of franchise stayed true to himself through the end

The Nationals drafted Ryan Zimmerman on June 7, 2005, making the lanky third baseman from the University of Virginia the No. 4 pick in the country.

The Nationals also signed Zimmerman on June 7, 2005, immediately agreeing with the 20-year-old on a $2.975 million signing bonus that would allow him to begin his professional career right away and ultimately allow him to reach the big leagues for good only three months later.

"I didn't want to be one of those guys that sits out the whole summer," he said in his first conference call with D.C. reporters. "It wouldn't be smart for me to sit out and try to get more money. That's really not the kind of player I am."

Boy, if we didn't pick up on it then, it sure didn't take long to realize he meant it.

Has any ballplayer ever summed up his entire persona so perfectly in his very first quote as a professional?

Now, maybe you can say Zimmerman got more than enough money over the entirety of his 17-year career. His final earnings total was $138,492,900. That should be enough to take care of his kids, his grandkids, their grandkids, and so on and so forth.

But if you know Zimmerman at all, you know it really was never about the money. And if he really wanted, he could've made a lot more.

His first contract extension came in April 2009, to the tune of five years and $45 million. He signed it three years before he would've become a free agent at 27, with the Nationals on the heels of a 102-loss season.

His second extension came in February 2012, this time for six additional years and $100 million. He signed it two years before he would've been a free agent at 29, with the Nationals having yet to enjoy a single winning season in their existence.

There were plenty of reasons for Zimmerman to wait it out, to see if he could get a better deal, to see if the grass was greener somewhere else. But that's not the kind of player he was.

Thumbnail image for Zimmerman-WS-HR-Blue-G1-Sidebar.jpgHe was a Washington National. And, provided the organization felt the same way, he wanted to be a Washington National for life.

Zimmerman grew up in Virginia Beach idolizing Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter. He admired them not only for their greatness, not only for the fact they were Hall of Fame infielders, but for their commitment to play for one franchise their entire careers. Ripken was an Oriole, and was never going to be anything other than an Oriole. Jeter was a Yankee, and was never going to be anything other than a Yankee.

It sounds so simple, but it's increasingly rare in modern sports. And truth be told, it's always been rare in baseball. Only 57 players in major league history spent an entire career of 16 or more seasons with one franchise, and Zimmerman is on that list. Forty of those players, by the way, are in the Hall of Fame.

Zimmerman isn't bound for Cooperstown, but that doesn't diminish his standing in Washington baseball history. He's going to be the first National to have his number retired, might even have a statue of him erected outside the home plate entrance at Nationals Park.

But on this occasion, it's OK to reflect on his time here and wonder if he would've actually built a case for Cooperstown if not for the most significant of the many injuries that in part defined the second half of his career.

On April 21, 2012, Zimmerman was held out of the lineup with what was deemed "mild inflammation" in his right shoulder. "It's nothing," he insisted. "It's something I could've played through. It was bugging me a little, and it'd go away for a couple days. I've just been diving all over the place over there."

This wouldn't be the last time he downplayed the severity of an injury. Zimmerman would wind up spending two weeks on the injured list, and though he remained on the active roster the rest of that season, he did so only with the help of multiple cortisone shots to relieve the pain. Little could he or any of us known what that would portend.

Zimmerman finally had arthroscopic surgery to repair his AC joint that offseason, but the damage was done. He couldn't make throws across the diamond the way he always had, so the Nats had to alter his motion to make all his throws sidearm. Within weeks of the 2014 season commencing, it was obvious this wasn't going to work anymore.

On April 12, Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff attempt. When he returned from the injured list two months later, he started the first of 30 games in left field. He never took another ground ball at third base in his career.

By the time the 2015 season arrived, with Adam LaRoche departing as a free agent, Zimmerman made the move to first base for good. He would still struggle with throws on occasion, but he proved far more valuable over there for his ability to scoop bad throws in the dirt from teammates, not to mention make sprawling catches of foul popups or other acrobatic plays that would remind everyone just how much of a wizard he was with his glove.

But it still wasn't the same. For eight seasons, Zimmerman was about as complete a third baseman as there was in the sport, averaging 140 games played, 33 doubles, 22 homers, 83 RBIs, an .827 OPS and elite defense at the hot corner. Had he only been able to stay there another eight seasons, who knows what might have been.

Zimmerman, though, never complained about it. He never played the what-if game, never asked anyone to feel sorry for him. Instead, he fully committed himself to first base and did whatever was needed to try to help his team win the ultimate prize.

That glorious moment would finally come in October 2019, at the end of a season in which Zimmerman would appear in only 52 regular season games and produce the second-lowest OPS of his career (.736). It's easy to forget, but he came off the bench in three of the Nationals' first four games that postseason before starting their final 13.

Zimmerman didn't earn his ring by watching and cheering from the dugout, though. He was a major contributor throughout. His broken-bat single off Josh Hader with two outs in the eighth of the National League wild card game helped make Juan Soto's dramatic hit moments later possible. His three-run homer off Pedro Báez in Game 4 of the NL Division Series helped send both teams back to Los Angeles for the decisive clincher. His quick-reflex, diving stab of Tommy Edman's line drive in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series kept Aníbal Sánchez's no-hit bid alive. And, of course, his homer off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series calmed everyone down and established that the Nats meant business in Houston.

True to form, though, Zimmerman never made that postseason about himself. He insisted he was just one of 25 guys who made it happen, good old "Employee No. 11." His teammates, of course, knew better. There was nobody on the roster they felt happier for on the night of Oct. 30, 2019.

Zimmerman could've walked away after that, and who would've blamed him if he did? But he still felt like he could play, and the Nationals still felt like they could win. So he accepted a reduced role as a part-time first baseman, pinch-hitter and clubhouse mentor, a role he couldn't officially serve until 2021 after he opted out of the 2020 season to protect his wife, newborn son and ill mother during the early portion of the pandemic.

It was during those final two years, though, that Zimmerman finally did start showing the world the human being behind the uniform. Turns out he's incredibly funny, incredibly sarcastic, incredibly emotional. And when it all came out on Oct. 3, as he walked off the field for the final time as a major league player, the love between Zimmerman and Nationals fans was mutual.

"We have won together, lost together and, honestly, grown up together," he wrote in Tuesday's retirement announcement.

Over the course of 6,097 days, from draft day to retirement day, Ryan Zimmerman grew up. And yet, in many ways, he walks away from the sport the same person he was on June 7, 2005.

Which, perhaps more than anything else, explains why he'll forever be the beloved face of the franchise.

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