NATIONALS PARK -- Three floors up from his usual stadium level, Ryan Zimmerman’s presence still causes pedestrian traffic jams and head whips. Attendees at Nationals Winterfest stopped to yank out phones when noticing the surprise of “Zimmerman” across the back of his pristine white jersey and realizing it was actually him standing there, not Joe from Bethesda hunting autographs.
He’s 14 years in now, a creature of comfort and joins Alex Ovechkin as the longest-tenured player in the District across any major sport. The grey in Ovechkin’s unruly hair surfaced in recent years, but not so for Zimmerman, who retains a boy’s haircut and few of aging’s indicators. At least externally. At 34, he’s in a fight with his body to cooperate, an issue all the more paramount this season as he moves into the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Fourteen years backed by a regional upbringing and local residence as an adult have entrenched Zimmerman in the District. So much so, he often doesn’t completely empty his clubhouse locker. He will purge things he doesn’t need for next season, box some for shipment to spring training. Other stuff stayed for use when he used to walk into the park for an offseason workout. His home gym now enables him to do most of his offseason routine within earshot of his two kids. Though the locker still needs some tending to.
“I’ve been out of town [this offseason],” Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “Mike [Rizzo] texts me and says ‘Hey, you need to clear out your locker.’ And I haven’t had a chance. Is there stuff still in there?”
It’s unclear why Zimmerman would think a reporter knew the status of his locker contents. The question, though, is perfectly in line with the laid-back vibe which accompanied him as a 20-year-old who provided hope during a 20-game stint in 2005. Zimmerman delivered a .988 OPS in that initial visit to the big leagues, hopping onto a team that somehow went .500 before the organization’s dismal years hit.
The home gym won’t prevent Zimmerman from again returning to the park before everyone else. He heads back in around the first of the year to start hitting in the cage. While most of the other players remain scattered across the country with their trainers or ex-coaches, Zimmerman is alone whacking away at pitches just down the steps from the home clubhouse.
Acknowledging two pressing topics is easy for him. First, this could be his last season playing in Washington. He makes $18 million this season. The organization holds an $18 million option for 2020. That is the last year of his tidy 6-year, $100 million contract extension signed in 2012. Its nearing end gives Zimmerman a pragmatist’s view.
“If you play a sport at this level and people say, ‘Oh it's the last year and they're not going to pick up your option’ and you're basically going to be playing for a job, that's why you play the game,” Zimmerman said. “We go out there every day and you got to love to play in pressure situations and if you don't, you're in the wrong spot. But going back to that, we've done two contracts here, myself, my representation, has always had a great relationship with the Lerner family, with Mike, with anyone who has ever been making the decision, Stan Kasten back when he was here.
“So the thought of having any problems coming to an agreement moving forward, you know, I don't really see that happening. I still would like to get compensated fairly, but it's not like I am going to go somewhere else and play for an extra couple bucks. I don't think it's any secret I'd like to finish here. I'm really optimistic about what will happen, and it goes back to me just staying healthy and playing to begin with. It's on me, if I want to continue playing. I have to prove that I am worth it to keep investing [in]."
Zimmerman turned 34 in late September. His birthday party was less chaotic, or notable, than the recent one his eldest had when she turned five. More people seemed to care about that. But his age is relevant. He’s well past his prime in baseball terms, since players are said to peak from ages 27-29. And the tussles he’s had to stay on the field the last five seasons suggest the clock is catching up with him.
His offseason routine remains the same. Zimmerman used it ahead of his 2017 resurgence. He used it again last season when an oblique issue stifled him for half the year. Since it worked one year and not the other, he doesn’t see a correlation or need for change. However, he is attempting to take on-field precautions so he can remain there.
“I’ve talked to Matt [Elden] and the strength guys this offseason and even Davey [Martinez] a little bit, the goal is to stay on the field,” Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “If that means not like, and it’s easy for me to say this to you guys, I don’t know what will happen, but not like diving all over the place and trying not to slide head first... It’s little things like that, that’s really hard to do when you’re just playing.
“But, if it’s between me playing 140 games or not, I would be willing to sacrifice a little bit of that type of play to stay on the field. At this point of my career, I feel like I’ve become a pretty good defensive first baseman. It’s no secret my job is to drive in runs and be in the lineup. I think that’s our thought process moving forward this year and it’s easy for me to say that. I’m going to try the best I can to do it on the field, because I think that’s best for the team.”
Yes, that means a limited spring training. No, that does not mean Zimmerman will be shutting down his baseball instincts out of self-preservation.
“There’s no way to completely turn that off,” Zimmerman said. “I think if you turn that off completely, you could argue that your value goes down so much, you’re not even worth it then. So, I’m still going to play baseball like I’ve always played, like I was taught to play. You’ve just got to be a little bit smarter.”
His handler for the day inched closer to indicate Zimmerman was off schedule and needed to go. Surprised fans still took pictures in the background. This could be a start of lasts for Zimmerman. His final Winterfest. His final time with Nationals Park as the home field. The beginning of a countdown when his locker will have to be cleaned out once and for all.
He hopes it’s not.
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