WASHINGTON — Ryan Zimmerman has never been a man for the spotlight. It’s been difficult for the former first-round pick, two-time All-Star and 2019 World Series winner to evade the attention that came with playing 16 seasons in the major leagues, but he has always done his best to deflect the adoration of fans toward others around him.
On Saturday, that attention had nowhere else to go but squarely at Zimmerman, who was honored with a jersey retirement ceremony at Nationals Park ahead of their game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The only team he’s ever known since being its inaugural draft pick in 2005, Washington made Zimmerman’s No. 11 the first number to be retired in Nationals history.
“The unique story of my career is I was here from the very beginning,” Zimmerman said in a press conference before the ceremony. “It’s just sort of being lucky to be here in the first year and staying here and being able to grow, like I always say, with the fanbase, with the organization, with the Lerners — the Lerners learned along with us — so I think that’s what makes me a little bit different, a little bit special and it’s nothing that I did. I was just here.”
Though Zimmerman’s accolades and the heights the organization reached during its years of contention from 2012-19 will be what both D.C. sports fans and the Nationals’ record books remember the most, there was a time when the franchise’s future was uncertain.
Not long after Zimmerman established himself as Washington’s starting third baseman, the Nationals established themselves as one of the worst ballclubs in baseball. They had six straight losing seasons from 2006-11, finishing fourth or lower in the NL East five times. Even as the organization started to build a decent farm system, the biggest sign of promise at the major-league level was Zimmerman.
That fact wasn’t lost on former teammate and fellow Ring of Honor member Jayson Werth, who signed with the Nationals in free agency prior to the 2011 season to represent the first $100 million player the team had coaxed to D.C. His signing signaled the Nationals were preparing to take the leap to contention, and they made the playoffs for the first time a year later.
“He was kind of the chosen one, in a way,” Werth said on the field Saturday. “When I was having the conversations about where I was going to come as a free agent, the landing spots were not Washington. When Washington started to come into the picture it was like, well coming off two 100-loss seasons, it wasn’t a place that it was where you would be like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to go to Washington.’
“Well, what do they got? They got a lot of unproven talent: the Bryce Harper’s, [Stephen] Strasburg’s, Anthony Rendon, ownership…at the end of the day, the one standalone item the franchise had was Ryan Zimmerman. So, for me, I was like, take all the other stuff aside that’s unproven, we got Ryan Zimmerman. That was one thing you could hang your hat on and day in, day out, for the next seven years of my contract I’m gonna have a guy like Ryan Zimmerman [next to me]. So that was kind of the one thing that separated this place from the rest.”
Only a month before that 2012 campaign, the Nationals inked Zimmerman to a six-year, $100 million extension that would allow him to be the bridge between Washington’s lean years and the seasons in which the NL East went through the nation’s capital.
That extension also allowed Zimmerman to accomplish a rare feat: playing his entire career for one team. Among players to make their MLB debut in the 21st century, the only players to appear in more games than Zimmerman’s 1,799 for one ballclub are Joe Mauer (Twins), Joey Votto (Reds) and Yadier Molina (Cardinals).
Zimmerman wanted to stay with the Nationals. In addition to being raised in Virginia Beach and playing close to home, he felt “comfortable” in Washington where he knew everyone well from the people making the baseball decisions at the top to the trainers who helped him rehab through a litany of injuries throughout his career.
“You sort of get to the point where you have some contract negotiation power, I guess you can say, and that’s where you have to make a decision,” Zimmerman said. “Do you want to maybe give up some of that power and agree to stay somewhere? That’s why I’ve always said it’s a two-way street. I think the team has to want you to stay here and the player has to want to stay. And that’s why it’s so hard and you never really see it happen.”
He rewarded the Nationals’ confidence in him by setting a slew of franchise records, developing a reputation for coming in clutch and representing the organization well on and off the field. Zimmerman never asked for the attention, but there isn’t a single fan in Washington who will say it wasn’t all deserved.
“Nobody expects this to happen,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t take it for granted, you appreciate it and you just want to continue to do things to help the organization, help the community and it doesn’t stop after today. I think you continue to go and, like I said, I’ll be around. We’re gonna raise our kids here. I’m gonna be involved with the team. So this is obviously a great honor but life moves on after today as well.”