With help from plenty of friends, No. 11 is retired

The tears already had been welling up in his eyes before Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the microphone to deliver his speech to an adoring crowd at Nationals Park this afternoon. From the in-person tributes from 10 former teammates, to the taped tributes from a host of others, to a surprise video narrated by family members including his mother Cheryl, to the official unveiling of his name and No. 11 all alone on the façade of the third deck along the first-base line, Zimmerman had already run through the full gamut of emotions.

“This is by far the most nervous I’ve ever felt on this field,” he said as he began his remarks.

There would be plenty more tears and moments where Zimmerman needed to compose himself during a lengthy, but heartfelt, speech in which he made a point to thank everyone who made his career possible, from his childhood in Virginia Beach to his college days in Charlottesville to his big league debut in Atlanta to his final game in D.C. last fall.

“We all pretend to be this person when you’re little,” he said during a press conference prior to the ceremony. “But nobody ever believes it’s going to happen.”

He may never have believed it, but let’s be honest: From the moment he was drafted in June 2005, plenty of others around the Nationals did. For better or worse, he was preordained for greatness as the first star of the franchise. That he actually lived up to the billing is all the more impressive.

For years, the Nats had Ryan Zimmerman, and they had … well, they had hope.

“I don’t think you really can, because of the meekness of how it all started,” Ian Desmond said when asked to quantify what Zimmerman means to the franchise. “I was telling someone the other day: We had an opening day where we ran in from center field. We were playing the Phillies. And we were getting booed coming onto the field. On opening day at our own park. Think about where the organization is now. The fan base, the loyalty, the Nats pride. That all really stemmed from Ryan.”

Zimmerman’s presence alone played a significant role in the recruitment and acquisition of, at the time, an unfathomable free agent signing to a nine-figure contract.

“I don’t know if I’ve told this story, but when I was having the conversations about where I was going to come as a free agent, the landing spots were not Washington,” Jayson Werth said. “When Washington started to come into the picture, coming off two 100-loss seasons, it wasn’t a place that you would be like: ‘I can’t wait to go to Washington!’ What do they got? They’ve got a lot of unproven talent. The Bryce Harpers, the (Stephen) Strasburgs and Anthony Rendons. The ownership. And they had a vision, they wanted to win, and all that.

“But at the end of the day, the one standalone item the franchise had was Ryan Zimmerman. For me, I was like: Take all the other stuff aside that’s unproven. We’ve got Ryan Zimmerman. And that was one thing you could hang your hat on and know for the next seven years of my contract, I’m going to have a guy like Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup. That was the one thing that separated this place from the rest.”

Within a couple of years, a team now led by Werth, Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and more had lifted the Nationals to their first division title. Many of them were back in town this weekend to honor the founding member of that eventual winning roster, but to be honest in some ways this event was as much a celebration of the entire generation of players who made the Nationals into what they became as it was simply about Zimmerman.

“Now that we’re an older organization,” he said, “hopefully we can start doing some of this alumni stuff where we get together more often and can talk among ourselves, but also talk to the guys on the team here and be a first-class organization that brings players back and celebrates the history that we’ve built. It’s a brief history, but we’re getting there.”

All of that history was on display this afternoon, with so many former teammates and others getting their few seconds to express thanks and congratulations to Employee No. 11.

Brian Schneider. Danny Espinosa. Daniel Murphy. Daniel Hudson. Craig Stammen. Nick Johnson. Trea Turner. Harper (to applause from the crowd). Max Scherzer (to a thunderous roar from the crowd). Davey Martinez. Mike Rizzo. Mark Lerner. Dusty Baker. James Brown. Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“There could be 200 ballplayers here today, and all of them would show up on their own dime to celebrate,” LaRoche said. “And I’m not even just talking about teammates. Guys he played against. If it was an open invitation to ballplayers, this warning track would be filled with guys. He just had that much respect from the guys he played with and played against.”

The truly emotional moments, though, involved family. From father Keith walking Zimmerman’s jersey over to longtime clubhouse manager Mike Wallace who hung it up in the dugout. From his grandfather’s taped message of praise. To a surprise video montage of Zimmerman’s career narrated by wife Heather, daughters Mackenzie and Hayden and even Cheryl, who has lived with multiple sclerosis since Ryan was 10 but has always found a way to attend the most important events of her son’s life.

If you didn’t feel at least a tinge of emotion during that portion of the program, you weren’t paying attention. Or you’re a Phillies fan.

Zimmerman, who by the way was officially named Nationals special advisor for baseball and business operations today, felt all of it. True to form, though, he tried to deflect all the love being showered upon him and push it back toward those who were watching in-person and on TV.

As he looked up at his name and number, forever engraved into the stadium’s concrete, Zimmerman wanted to make sure those watching knew they were a part of this celebration themselves.

“I hope it gives you the same feeling inside,” he said, “because it is as much yours as it is mine.”

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