When the Nationals re-signed Ryan Zimmerman to a one-year deal that ensured he’d be back in Washington for a 16th season in 2020, they were making much more than a baseball decision.
Zimmerman is the former face of the franchise, the team’s all-time leader in every major counting statistic and cornerstone with which the club’s current core was built. He was the reason many fans went to the ballpark in the team’s tough early years and played important roles in several playoff appearances—including the team’s World Series run this past October.
As he’s gotten older and evolved from the young third baseman out of the University of Virginia into the veteran infielder who’s been on the team longer than anybody, Zimmerman has developed into one of the team’s most valued leaders in the clubhouse. Even though he’s no longer the face of the organization, Zimmerman has earned a level of respect among teammates in coaches that few players in the Nationals’ history have been able to achieve.
“He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he’s on the leadership council,” general manager Mike Rizzo told the Redskins Talk podcast crew in Miami on Tuesday as part of his Radio Row tour for Budweiser ahead of the Super Bowl.
“He’s been that way for a long time. He’s a leader by example more so than a boisterous, pound-the-table-type of guy. But I do know one thing: When Zimmerman talks, people listen. He doesn’t say a whole lot of stuff but when he talks you better listen.”
The Nationals’ vocal leaders are Max Scherzer and Adam Eaton, so Zimmerman doesn’t need to be the player who stands on top of tables and tries to rally his teammates. But his work ethic and dedication to the club are important traits any organization would hope to instill in its younger players. Zimmerman has set the example for players like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner who came up after him, and he’ll continue to do so for up-and-coming stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles.
Zimmerman prefers to work outside the spotlight, a method he employed easily with personalities like Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth playing alongside him over the years. However, as he heads into what might be his final season in the majors, Zimmerman will only be able to avoid it so much.
Whether he likes it or not, Zimmerman will be recognized in grocery stores and on sidewalks in D.C. for the rest of his life thanks to his big moments at the ballpark and contributions in the community. But when he’s does finally decide to hang up his cleats, his legacy in the Nationals organization will be defined by the hole he leaves behind in their clubhouse.
"I think the chance to win is great, but also the group of guys," Zimmerman said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "The character that we have, how much fun it was last year; knowing the core group is coming back, that made it a lot easier, as well. And just the fact that I don’t think I’m ready to stop playing yet. I love getting ready in the offseason. I love putting the time in now to prepare myself for the seven-month season. I think once that starts to dissipate a little bit, I’ll have to really reconsider."
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