On behalf of an entire generation of Nationals fans, I want to congratulate Ryan Zimmerman on his retirement and say thank you.
If you're around my age, growing up a baseball fan in the Washington, D.C., area was complicated.
I've spent all of my almost 30 years of living in and around our nation's capital. I went to grade school in Silver Spring, Md., high school downtown at Gonzaga College High School and college at the University of Maryland in College Park.
As an avid sports fan, I've rooted for the now Washington Commanders, Capitals and Wizards my entire life, along with any team that's represented my city. The Mystics, D.C. United and Spirit have all won championships. I rooted for the Valor as they won the last ArenaBowl of the defunct Arena Football League. I went to all but one of the DC Defenders' home games of the former XFL. I even try to keep up with the Kastles and Old Glory DC in their respective tennis and rugby leagues.
But baseball is harder to explain.
If you're a part of my generation, with no Major League Baseball in D.C between 1971 and 2005, you probably grew up an Orioles fan. It was weird, yet normal, to split your sports fandom between two cities.
Any baseball fan around my age grew up idolizing Cal Ripken Jr. You wanted to wear No. 8 and play shortstop (later third base) for your Little League team.
I was 12 when it was announced the Expos would be moving to Washington to become the Nationals. It was exciting and confusing at the same time. I was old enough to have an established fandom and understand what's going on in the world of sports. I'm not one to give up on a team that I've invested so much in, but I can't not root for a Washington team.
How was this going to work?
Zimmerman was the answer.
The biggest challenge of any team in a new city is engaging the fan base. In this particular instance, it was engaging an entire generation of fans who didn't know baseball in their city. We needed someone to root for. A face of the franchise.
With the first draft pick in club history, the Nationals selected Zimmerman fourth overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Virginia. He made his major league debut three months later, never to be sent back down to the minors over his eventual 17-year career.
He became the player kids my age looked up to as they fell in love with this team and the game of baseball all over again.
The early years were difficult, no doubt. After a .500 finish in their first season, the Nats would go on to have losing records in each of the next six seasons, including two 100-loss campaigns.
But Zimmerman made it worth watching.
My father grew up going to Redskins games at old RFK Stadium. I grew up going to RFK Stadium to see Zimmerman.
He swung an aggressive bat while showing off his slick glovework and strong arm at the hot corner. Usually a quiet person off the field, he was a flashy young player on it, with his game doing all of the talking. He made a still unfamiliar team cool, a losing team fun. He was an ascending hero.
Zimmerman was another young player in town that easily attracted us as an instant favorite. Alexander Ovechkin started his career with the Caps the same year Zimmerman debuted with the Nats. Two rising stars hoping to turn around two franchises, with one leading the new baseball team. And wouldn't you know it, they became friends in the process!
As someone who hadn't seen a professional sports championship in my lifetime to that point, they signified the potential of the future. In Zimmerman's case, he also represented a whole new opportunity, since just a year prior baseball wasn't even an option.
Like Ovechkin on the ice, Zimmerman made highlight plays on the diamond. He made playing third base look easy and he had a flair for the dramatic in the batter's box. He christened Nationals Park on its opening night with a walk-off home run against the Braves, a storybook ending to an historic game. He made it worth staying up late on a school night with a moment I'll never forget watching.
It was all we could talk about at school the next day. There seemed to be a few more Nationals hats and sweatshirts walking around Gonzaga's campus that day, even among the faculty and staff. I'm sure that was also true around the area.
My geometry teacher was at Nats Park to witness it in person. He had grown up a Senators fan and had baseball memorabilia on the walls of his classroom. He was grinning ear to ear. We talked about the game and Zimmerman's home run for the entire class. Launch angle and a baseball diamond were the only geometry terms discussed that day.
That was the first real wave of Natitude I can remember that really swept through my generation. And it came off of Zimmerman's bat.
He would go on to hit 11 walk-off home runs in his career, tied for the third most in major league history. It felt like something magical could happen any time he stepped to the plate.
We know about the records and accolades that followed Zimmerman in the years after that. We know about the playoff heartbreaks and ultimate triumph in 2019. We know about his time missed due to injuries and his resurgent 2017 season. We know about his decision to sit out the shortened 2020 season and his decision to run it back one more time during the 2021 season. We know about his contributions to the team and to the community.
What we can't quantify is his impact on this fan base, specifically those of the younger generation. How many smiles, hugs, autographs, high fives and fist bumps did he share with young fans over his 17 years in Washington? How many young Orioles fans in the D.C. area did he convert to Nationals fans? How many kids who didn't like baseball did he make fall in love with the game? How many non-sports fans did he make Ryan Zimmerman fans? How many Little Leaguers did he make want to wear No. 11 and play third base?
It's impossible to know. What we do know is that it's because of the player he was and the person he is.
I feel fortunate to have watched Zimmerman professionally since 2012. It's a dream come true to cover your hometown team and one of your favorite athletes up close. It was a dream because of the fandom Zimmerman instilled in me when I was younger.
We also know he became the face of the franchise because he was always there.
He was there at the Nationals' first draft. He was there at the first game at Nationals Park. He was there when they drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. He was there when they signed Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer. He was there on that fateful night in Houston. And he was there this past October on that emotional afternoon on South Capitol Street.
You don't become a face of a franchise just by playing a lot of games. You do it by being constantly present, a true symbol of the organization. The Nationals are not the franchise as we now know it without Zimmerman. We've only ever known the Nats with him.
But now he won't be there. This season will start a new era of Nationals baseball. A Zimmerman-less one.
But his spirit and presence at the park will live on. His No. 11 will go on the facade at Nationals Park and a statue of him should be built outside the stadium in time. Zimmerman jerseys will never go out of style at the team store. And he and his family will still be around, just not in a player capacity.
That doesn't make this feel any less bizarre or sad. Again, all we've known for 17 years is Zimmerman playing for the Nationals.
But since the time for his retirement has come, we're eternally grateful for what he's done for this team, city and fan base. The Mount Rushmore of D.C. sports can't be complete without him.
For Nationals fans everywhere, he is the face of the franchise. For the younger generation, Zimmerman is baseball in D.C.
So once again, on behalf of the younger generation of Nats fans, I want to say congratulations to Zimmerman. Zim. The Z-man. Mr. Walk-Off. Mr. National.
And thank you.