It’s all about the N’s.
Ryan has one, as in Zimmerman.
Jordan has two; his last name is Zimmermann.
Ryan is from Virginia, Jordan from Wisconsin.
Ryan plays third base; Jordan pitches.
Ryan is an inch taller and two years older.
When he walks near the stands, Jordan often hears “Hey, Ryan, throw me the ball.” Or “Hey, Ryan, sign my program?”
The two Zimms met in spring training this season.
“It’s good to finally meet you,” Jordan said. “People keep asking if we’re brothers.”
“Yeah,” Ryan responded, “I get the same questions.”
One sunny afternoon before the Nats play the Pittsburgh Pirates, I ask Jordan if he looks up to Ryan like a big brother. He shakes his head.
“The whole team is extremely young,” he says. “It’s easy to get along with everyone. We’re all pretty new. We all talk the same language.”
The two Zimms do have things in common: They come from small-town America and made their marks playing sports; both are unassuming and hardworking; each still has the innocence and hopefulness that players sometimes lose after their first million-dollar season or second trade.
And in a woeful season for the Nationals—dubbed “the world’s most excruciating baseball team” by the Wall Street Journal—the two Zimms offer fans a chance to dream of a team that might become a winner.
“The Nationals are doing it the right way,” Ryan says. “They could have gone out and bought players who were good for a year or two. Instead, they drafted young players who can grow up and mature together. It’s good for the long term.”
In the short term, Jordan Zimmermann has begun his first major-league season with solid starts that sometimes turned into losses because his teammates failed to catch fly balls or score runs.
Take the May 27 game, when he faced New York Mets ace Johan Santana in the Mets’ new ballpark. Zimmermann had turned 23 four days earlier. He battled Santana to an even 3–3 through five innings, even though left fielder Josh Willingham missed a fly ball, catcher Wil Nieves muffed a pop-up, and second baseman Ronnie Belliard forgot to cover first on a bunt.
“It was fun up through the fifth,” Jordan says, “until the so-called home run.”
In the bottom of the sixth, New York’s Daniel Murphy launched a ball toward the right-field seats—it seemed to die and landed on the field in front of Nats right fielder Adam Dunn. He fired it to Belliard, who threw it to Nieves and nailed a runner at home plate. Umpires reviewed Murphy’s blast and said it had actually cleared the fence, hit a sign, and landed back on the field—and therefore was a home run.
Zimmermann was down 5–3. The Mets added two more runs, and Jordan took the loss for a 2–2 record.
Was he intimidated by the Big Apple crowd?
“Not at all,” he says with that flat Midwest tone that’s both laconic and assured.
Was he pleased with the game?
“I did pretty well for the most part.”
Coming up in the small town of Auburndale, Wisconsin, Jordan Zimmermann did very well at basketball.
“I always thought it would be basketball if I made it anywhere,” he tells me. “I never thought I would be a baseball player until I went to college.”
Auburndale is a village of some 750 people in the northern part of Wisconsin. Auburndale High has an annual Bring Your Tractor to School Day. Zimmermann played wide receiver and free safety on the football team.
“I also pitched,” he says. His fastball was clocked at 86 miles an hour.
Zimmermann is an only child. His father sells welding equipment; his mom is a secretary at a trucking company. He has lots of cousins, uncles, and aunts who all gather for holidays.
“I was spoiled my whole life,” he says.
His senior year in high school, he got recruitment letters from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He chose Stevens Point, 25 miles east of Auburndale. “I wanted to be close to my buddies,” he says.
He stuck with baseball rather than football. He improved his speed. He started lifting weights. “I wasn’t pushing off the rubber,” he says. “I was using all arm. I started to use my abdomen.”