Ryan Zimmerman could've kept playing. But after 17 years with the Nationals, countless franchise records, a World Series title and a fitting farewell on the final day of the 2021 season, there really was nothing left to prove.
So the face of the Nationals since the franchise made him its first draft pick in 2005 made it official today: He's retiring after a remarkable career with one organization that has become increasingly exceptional in the modern sports world.
"Although my baseball career has come to an end, my family and I will continue to be heavily involved in the DMV community," Zimmerman wrote in a message published by his agency, CAA, and signed "Employee No. 11." "You have given so much to us over the past 17 years; it is now time for us to give back to you. We look forward to continuing many of our community programs and starting new ones in the future. Our kids will be raised here, as this is now our home, and we couldn't be more excited.
"So this is not a goodbye but more of a 'see you around.' "
Zimmerman certainly won't be disappearing. He and his growing family - including recently born son Benjamin - are permanent residents of the area. And the long-term contract extension he signed way back in 2012 included a five-year, $10 million personal services contract to the Nationals upon his retirement, so he will maintain an official capacity working for the organization through at least 2026.
"On behalf of my family and the entire Washington Nationals organization, we would like to congratulate Ryan on a tremendous career and thank him for his contributions both on the field and in our community," managing principal owner Mark Lerner said. "Ryan will forever be Mr. National. From the walk-off home runs, to carrying the World Series trophy down Constitution Avenue, to the final day of the 2021 regular season when our fans gave him an ovation that none of us will soon forget, Ryan gave us all 17 years of amazing memories."
The decision doesn't come as much of a shock. Zimmerman seemed very much at peace with the idea that he played his final game Oct. 3 against the Red Sox, a day that saw him turn emotional after multiple salutes from the Nationals Park crowd and teammates, then saw him and his family take a slew of photos on the field more than an hour after the game ended.
Then again, given how well he performed in a part-time role last season - he produced a .756 OPS with 14 homers and 46 RBIs over 273 plate appearances - the idea of returning for another season remained tempting.
"Ryan Zimmerman has a place on this roster as a player as long as Mike Rizzo is the GM," the club's longtime general manager said prior to the season finale. "So whenever he wants to take a major league contract, just call me up and we'll give him one."
Zimmerman, though, framed the decision all along less as a question of his ability to keep playing and more of his interest in continuing to play for a franchise that was now embarking on its first full-scale rebuild since he was an All-Star third baseman in 2009.
"Do I want to keep playing? I think I can keep playing," he said following his final game. "I think I had a really good year with the role that I was supposed to do. Now it's a decision of: Do I want to keep doing that, or do I want to be around my family a little bit more?"
Zimmerman said he probably would make a decision sometime in December, when he knew he needed to begin working out to get his body in shape for spring training. Major League Baseball's lockout of all players who were on 40-man rosters at season's end left everyone in an uncertain position throughout the winter, and it's still unknown when camps will open or if the 2022 season will begin on time.
The Nationals already were prepared for life post-Zimmerman. They acquired Josh Bell from the Pirates last winter to become their starting first baseman. They'll need a backup for him in 2022, though backup catcher Riley Adams could become a right-handed No. 2 option at first base if the organization chooses to proceed that way.
Neither Zimmerman nor the Nationals looked anything like their current selves way back on June 7, 2005, when the latter used the fourth overall pick to draft the former, a lanky third baseman from the University of Virginia who was touted by then-GM Jim Bowden as the next coming of Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt in the field, though hardly in the same category as a hitter.
Zimmerman, who signed immediately, spent less than three months in the minor leagues before getting called up for good Sept. 1. He came off the bench to pinch-hit in his first career at-bat, striking out looking against Braves reliever Jim Brower in the top of the seventh at Turner Field. The next night, he recorded his first hit, doubling off the Phillies' Vicente Padilla.
Handed the starting third base job in 2006, Zimmerman instantly became one of the best young players in the sport, producing 47 doubles, 20 homers and 110 RBIs and narrowly losing out to the Marlins' Hanley RamÃrez for National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Through his first eight big league seasons, he was a consistent force at the plate (averaging 33 doubles, 22 homers, 83 RBIs and an .827 OPS) while establishing himself as one of the best defensive third basemen in the sport, winning a Gold Glove Award in 2009. He christened the new ballpark on South Capitol Street with a game-winning homer to beat the Braves on March 30, 2008, just one of his 11 walk-off homers, a total surpassed in baseball history only by Jim Thome (13), and Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson and Babe Ruth (all with 12).
Along the way, though, Zimmerman suffered a right shoulder injury that began to take its toll in 2013-14 and ultimately forced him to leave his natural position. He played 30 games in left field in 2014 as an emergency Band-Aid, then moved across the diamond to first base in 2015, where he remained the rest of his career.
The switch to first base helped Zimmerman avoid the need to make regular throws that would further damage his shoulder, but he continued to be dogged by several injuries over the rest of his career. From 2014-21, he averaged only 95 games played per season, his offensive production dropping a bit as well to a .789 OPS.
Zimmerman was in excellent health down the stretch of the 2019 season, though, and played an integral role in the most important games in club history. His broken-bat single off Josh Hader, in which he muscled the ball into shallow center field despite his bat shattering in the process, made the Nationals' dramatic eighth-inning rally in the NL wild card game possible. His diving catch of a line drive in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series kept AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez's no-hit bid alive. And his homer off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series set the tone for a relentless Nats lineup that would go on to become the first team to win four road games in the Fall Classic.
"He was a fierce competitor, but also a calming presence when we needed it most," manager Davey Martinez said. "Ryan's numbers and accomplishments speak for themselves, but the way he led by example and was respected not only in our clubhouse but around the game - that is what I will remember most about his career. Not only was he a player I enjoyed managing, but he's also become a great friend."
His contract up after the emotional 2019 postseason, Zimmerman contemplated retirement but decided to return for a modest $2 million base salary in 2020. He ultimately decided to opt out of the shortened season, though, due to concerns about his family's health during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. His wife, Heather, gave birth the couple's third child that summer, and his mother, Cheryl, has suffered from multiple sclerosis since he was a child.
Zimmerman did return to play in 2021, though, accepting the reduced role as Bell's backup for a mere $1 million. And though the team as a whole struggled and ultimately decided to sell off most of its big-name veterans at the trade deadline, the season was a positive one on a personal level.
And the ending, even if it included his team's 97th loss of the season, provided a fitting farewell for a man who wore a No. 11 Nationals jersey with class for 17 years.
"I'm pretty lucky to have been able to do it for as long as I have, so it's hard to feel sorry or anything like that," Zimmerman said at the end of that evening. "I think it's an exciting day. My family was here. If this is the last day, it was a hell of a day."