Ryan Zimmerman linked generations of D.C. baseball fans


Ryan Zimmerman arrived at the perfect moment.

A city without baseball for 33 years, whose team twice packed up and shipped off in the span of a decade, its 70 years of history preserved in amber, finally had a homegrown star to call its own when Zimmerman became the Nationals’ first draft pick in 2005.

Neither the town nor the young third baseman from Virginia could have known their baseball journey would last for 16 seasons and 17 years, a relationship that will certainly continue beyond Zimmerman’s retirement announcement on Tuesday. 

Zimmerman links D.C.’s baseball generations, the Senators of the last century and the Nationals of this one. He grew up with the franchise that had just arrived from Montreal. The fans grew with him. 

He became a husband, a father and a World Series champion here. He and his wife, Heather, just welcomed their fourth child. He’s part of the community where he plays in ways most professional athletes can’t be. Their roots are elsewhere. Zimmerman was always just a few hours from his hometown of Virginia Beach. Washington became his home.

When the Senators 2.0 left for Texas in 1971 – the original version moved to Minneapolis in 1961 with an expansion team taking its place -- no one knew if a baseball team would ever return to the District. To think otherwise seemed more foolish by the year.  

The Montreal Expos’ arrival changed all that. MLB announced the move after the 2004 season and within a year Zimmerman was playing in his first big-league game at age 20. 


The Nationals also grew along with Zimmerman. Eventually. But those early days were hard. A four-time NL East division winner, the 2019 World Series champs, a model franchise for most of a decade, was … not that.

The Nationals of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer and Trea Turner and Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon were a juggernaut. Zimmerman could tell them some stories.

The early Nats were akin to a human meme. Washington couldn’t do a thing right on or off the field. They were so bad that “Natinals” trended in the early days of social media when Zimmerman and a few teammates had the “o” left off their uniforms for a 2009 game. They once failed to sign a top-10 draft pick. They had a GM resign in disgrace. 

Zimmerman began his career at RFK Stadium, where the old Senators also played, where the Redskins had their glory days. There’s your link from the older generation of fans who remembered the infamous forfeit to the Yankees in 1971 that ended baseball in Washington, to the happy, grateful crowds that brought the old house on East Capitol Street back to life again on summer days from 2005 to 2007. 

For a month and then two full seasons Zimmerman played on the same field as Frank Howard had and was managed by Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson. The luxurious, oval-shaped clubhouse that Harper and Strasburg and Rendon knew at Nationals Park? Zimmerman’s career began in the cramped, claustrophobic locker room at RFK. The rats outnumbered the amenities.

No matter. Zimmerman provided a reason to watch even as losses piled atop each other. He was a wonder at third base, automatic at charging slow choppers but with the athleticism and soft hands to make jaw-dropping stops on line drives and brilliant throws across the diamond. You might be watching a beat down by the Phillies surrounded by thousands of their fans, but Zimmerman at least gave you a reason to smile. Baseball has a way of providing simple pleasures. 

He christened Nationals Park in 2008 with one of his astounding 11 career walk-off home runs. Zimmerman’s off-field demeanor was relaxed, calm. And he is damn funny, too. But he was a killer in the batter’s box. Even late in his career, with busted shoulders and barking feet, his bat speed diminished, he had a natural ability to focus on the moment at hand. Remember the Game 4 home run against the Dodgers in the 2019 NLDS? The man made a career of such moments. And it only seemed like half of them came on a holiday.  

The list of players with more game-ending homers is few and it is absurd: Jim Thome leads with 13. At 12 are Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Fox, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols and Zimmerman’s old manager, Robinson. 

David Oritz and Tony Perez are tied with Zimmerman at 11. Every one of those players but Zimmerman are in the Hall of Fame -- or will be when Ortiz is inducted this summer. 


There are and will be better players than Zimmerman in Nationals history. He might have had as many as four future Hall-of-Famers as teammates. We’ll see. None will mean as much to D.C. baseball fans because Zimmerman was the first. 

Those future Hall-of-Famers were not at RFK Stadium during the warm early September nights 17 years ago, a 20-year-old kid with talent and pedigree and promise but loads of pressure to be good right away. They did not endure 495 losses from that debut day in Atlanta until the end of the 2010 season, answering game after game unanswerable questions with a grace that eludes most hardened ballplayers.

Few things in life are as satisfying as watching a person persevere. It gives us a little hope that maybe we can, too. Zimmerman endured a half-decade of frustration before the 2011 season when an 80-81 record foreshadowed Washington’s rise. The Nats didn’t have another losing season for eight years.

If the back half of Zimmerman’s career saw him fight shoulder pain that forced a move across the infield to first base, foot pain that kept him on the disabled list for long stretches, it also led to one of the great moments in D.C. sports history: Zimmerman racing toward the pitcher’s mound in Houston after the final strikeout of the World Series, mobbing everyone in sight, years of postseason heartache melting away. 

It led to him raising the Commissioner’s Trophy from the top of a bus as it rode past the cheering throngs on Constitution Avenue. And his voice breaking as he addressed the fans at the team’s championship parade. 

That emotion spilled again on Oct. 3 when Nats manager Davey Martinez pulled Zimmerman from the field just before the eighth inning of the season finale against the Boston Red Sox. An ovation washed over him for several minutes that left Zimmerman in tears. He touched his heart, waved to his family. 

Young men do not cry so easily. Time has not yet accrued. At 37, Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t afraid of that anymore. It wasn't a perfect career, but few ballplayers get that and who would want it? The scars and the regrets intertwine with your triumphs. They are connected. That's true if you're on the field playing or in the stands watching.

And so the moment became a mutual thank you, an acknowledgment of gratitude from a man who got to play in one city, for one team, and from the fans who got to see the arc of a wonderful career from start to finish while learning the joy, the sorrow, the frustration and the fun of the game again.