Though a few things have changed since he last walked into the Nationals clubhouse - like the mandatory COVID-19 testing and temperature checks, the spaced-out lockers and the fact everyone must wear a mask indoors - Ryan Zimmerman feels far more a sense of familiarity right now at his home away from home.
“It’s good to be back out here and kind of going through the day-to-day grind again,” he said. “I missed that part, for sure.”
It’s been nearly a year since Zimmerman was last with his Nationals teammates in person. When he (along with everyone else) left West Palm Beach in mid-March 2020 as spring training camps were shuttered, he had no idea how long it would be before he returned to a clubhouse, whether in Florida or D.C.
Though baseball returned last summer for an abbreviated camp followed by a 60-game season, Zimmerman did not. He was one of a handful of major leaguers (including teammate Joe Ross) who chose to opt out of the 2020 season out of health concerns. His wife, Heather, had just given birth to the couple’s third child (first son). His mother, Cheryl, was a high-risk candidate to get seriously ill from COVID-19 due to the multiple sclerosis she’s had since Ryan was a child.
So Zimmerman decided to watch the season from his Northern Virginia home. He watched as dozens of players and staffers tested positive and two clubs (the Marlins and Cardinals) had to shut down operations for more than a week. Then he watched as the situation improved, as everyone did a better job adhering to new, strict protocols, and as the season was completed.
Zimmerman’s thoughts about opting out haven’t changed since. He doesn’t regret it, though he admits he was in a particularly fortunate position to make the decision he did.
“There were so many question marks,” he said during a Zoom session with reporters. “And I’m lucky I had the ability to make that choice. If I’m a fourth- or fifth-year player with service time, I don’t really have the ability. So I was in a good position to be able to do that, unlike a lot of people. So yeah, I don’t really second-guess or wish I would’ve played.”
When it came time to decide whether to return to play in 2021, though, Zimmerman didn’t hesitate to do it.
Having seen how things settled down during the second half last season, and seeing how the country as a whole has improved both in reducing the number of cases over the last month and in learning how to function better during a pandemic, he felt comfortable coming back.
“Because we’ve all been going through this stuff for about a year now, I think you get used to it,” he said. “You adapt to things. Humans adapt. I don’t feel like anything has stopped any of us from getting work in or getting prepared. So I have to commend the organization and MLB for what they’ve done to let us get ready and prepare in a safe way.”
Some wondered if Zimmerman would ever come back. Why, at 36, risk injury or illness after sitting out a year, when the last game you did play (Game 7 of the 2019 World Series) represented the pinnacle of your 15-year career?
Because, as Zimmerman realized during his time away, he genuinely missed it.
“When you talk to the guys who retire or finally get away from the game, the biggest thing they miss is the clubhouse and that camaraderie,” he said. “Take it out to the field, too. The competition is fun. All of us, that’s what drives us. And I think I missed that a lot at home last year. It’s kind of what we need to survive, I guess.”
Zimmerman knows he’s not the player he used to be anymore. He has no visions of getting 500 at-bats or playing every day. The Nationals acquired Josh Bell from the Pirates in December to be their starting first baseman and a much-needed middle-of-the-order bat. Zimmerman will occasionally start in Bell’s place, come off the bench to pinch-hit and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement. And he’s fine with all that.
He knows he still needs to prepare to play more regularly, though, just in case something happens to change the plan. Never a huge proponent of the long grind of spring training, he’s excited about the plan he’s devising to get ready for this season. Because all 24 of the Nationals’ exhibition games will be played in West Palm Beach or within 45 minutes of their complex, it will be easy for him to see game action most days. He sees more benefit in taking two or three at-bats and playing four or five innings in the field daily than taking four at-bats and playing seven innings in the field every other day.
“Having the ability to play every day and not play as many innings is great with the new location,” he said, “and even more this year with the condensed travel.”
It also helps to have his family with him. Because their 7-year-old daughter has the option to attend virtual school from anywhere, and their 4-year-old daughter and infant son aren’t in school yet, the Zimmermans were able to travel to Florida together and spend the entire spring there.
“As a family, we kind of thought it might be the last chance we ever got to do spring training together,” he said.
Before you read too much into that quote, though, and assume that means Zimmerman intends to retire after the 2021 season, think again.
Though he’s working on a one-year, $1 million contract (with the chance to earn more via incentives) and won’t make any official decision about 2022 yet, he suggested today he wants to keep playing as long as his body allows and as long as the only franchise he’s ever played for wants him.
“Taking that season off last year also made me realize I’m nowhere close to being ready to not play anymore,” he said. “I missed the game a lot. I missed what it takes to prepare every day. As you get older, there’s more and more you have to do to get ready, but I missed all of that as well. I’m just happy to be back, happy to be around the guys and joke around and laugh. You miss that.”