Ryan started whacking balls around the yard of his Virginia Beach home before he was two. Photograph courtesy of Zimmerman family.
His pitches reached 90 miles per hour. His earned-run average (ERA) was 2.3 his sophomore year. That summer, he pitched for the Eau Claire Express in the Northwoods League, which draws top college players. His ERA was 1.01. Major-league scouts started showing up with speed guns.
Nationals scout Steve Arnieri watched Jordan pitch during his junior year at Stevens Point. “I loved his stuff,” Arnieri says, “but I loved his makeup even more—his tenacity, his concentration, his steely-eyed determination. He attacked hitters—he was unafraid.”
Arnieri and Nats executive Mike Rizzo met with Zimmermann. “For about five minutes,” Jordan says.
That was enough for the team to choose him in the second round of the 2007 draft. Jordan accepted the offer, quit school at the end of his junior year, spent two years on Nationals minor-league teams, excelled in spring training, and this season joined the starting rotation.
Ryan Zimmerman also quit college his junior year to join the Nationals. He had grown up in Virginia Beach, had played baseball his whole life, and was attending the University of Virginia when the Nats beckoned in 2005. He spent a few months in the minors before the team brought him up to play third base, where he’s been anchoring the defense—and the offense—since the 2006 season.
Where Jordan is still mostly potential, Ryan is a star. In his first season, baseball columnists said he could become a Hall of Famer like Brooks Robinson. Now in his fourth season, he stops almost every ball hit to the hot corner; he throws across the diamond as if shooting the ball from a gun. I’ve seen him nail runners from deep behind the bag and from his knees in the dirt. His 30-game hitting streak led the major leagues. He’s a threat every time he steps to the plate.
When I profiled Zimmerman in July 2006 (“The Rookie”), he was sharing an apartment in Clarendon and living on a $400,000 salary. This spring, the Nationals signed him to a five-year contract for $45 million. He’s still living in the townhouse on Washington Boulevard in Clarendon that he bought after his rookie season.
“The money really hasn’t changed me or my lifestyle at all,” he says the afternoon before the Pirates game. “For my family, it’s knowing they won’t have to worry about money.”
His father has retired and can stay at home with Ryan’s mother, who has multiple sclerosis. His brother is finishing college at Radford.
Ryan, 25, looks leaner. He has worked out over the summer—kept his weight the same but added muscle. His face has lost the baby fat it had at age 21. His features are chiseled, his gaze is sharper, his focus on baseball seems total.
“No new car, no new house,” he says. “I’m a single guy. I already have a home and a decent TV room. I had everything I needed already.”
A steady girl?
“I date,” he says, “but I’m too busy for much else. There’s too much going on. I’m having too much fun to be locked up in a relationship right now.”
Jordan Zimmermann lives in the Hallstead apartment complex in Arlington with his girlfriend, Mandy Jellish. She graduated from Wisconsin–Stevens Point, found a job in the Washington area, and moved east.
What does a 23-year-old country boy yearn for?
“I would rather be surrounded by woods,” he says. “I would like to be hunting and fishing when I’m not playing ball.”
In Auburndale, he had to drive 20 minutes to see a movie; now theaters are a quick walk away.
“Here in the city, you have everything you want,” he says, “but you don’t get to do what you want.”
Like hunting white-tailed deer or fishing for salmon and walleye.
Zimmermann’s family and friends flew in from Wisconsin for his debut April 20 against the Atlanta Braves. High-school and college buddies joined his parents and aunts and uncles. “People I didn’t expect to come were there,” he says.
Late in the game, the heavens opened, emptying the stands and halting the game. When play resumed, Zimmermann looked up to see about 100 fans.
“Looked like half were from back home,” he says.
The kid won 3–2 and sent a happy crew back to the fields and woods of Wisconsin, where he often would rather be—except when he’s on the mound.