News & Politics

The Rookie

Ryan Zimmerman is 21, humble, hard-working, and a fan favorite. Even the veterans like him. One thing’s for sure: The kid can play.

Ryan Zimmerman arrives at the Nationals clubhouse at RFK Stadium at 1:47 for the second game of the Beltway series against the Orioles. Game time is 7:05 pm.

“I like to get to work early,” he says.

Joey Eischen looks up from his locker: “Hey, Zimm, I have something for you.”

Eischen, a veteran pitcher, is one of the clubhouse cutups. He likes to walk by his teammates during practice and kick dirt on their shoes, just to show he cares.

Zimmerman walks across the cramped, old clubhouse. Eischen reaches into his locker and pulls out an 11-by-17 color photograph.

“Take a look at this,” Eischen says. “I had it made specially for you.”

The picture shows Zimmerman stretched out horizontally, diving for a line drive. It’s become a trademark move for the 21-year-old third baseman. Batter smacks a line drive. He expects it to clear third base and rattle around the left-field corner for extra bases. Zimmerman spears it, rights himself, throws it 127 feet on a rope to first and nails the guy. →

That Joey Eischen would have a picture made for a 21-year-old rookie says something about Zimmerman and how his teammates see him. He’s a star in the making, a fan favorite. That could provoke envy in a major-league locker room, but the veterans seem to admire the kid.

Zimmerman says “thanks” and cracks a rare grin. He takes the picture to his locker and sits down. The son of one of the other players sidles up to talk about school—two kids in a big-league clubhouse.

Midway through his rookie season, Ryan Zimmerman is a study in humility. Professional sports often create spoiled young jerks, rich and privileged before their time. Zimmerman seems to have a solid sense of himself. In a day spent with him, he seems an easygoing, reserved young man who’s focused on becoming a professional ballplayer. Life has thrown at least one curve his way, so he doesn’t take sudden success for granted.

Sportswriters can’t resist comparing Zimmerman to Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, with a Cal Ripken thrown in.

How long can Zimmerman keep his innocence?

He stuffs two strips of bubblegum in his mouth and blows a big-league bubble. So far, so good.

It’s May 20, a beautiful spring Saturday for the first Beltway series, and RFK Stadium is filling with fans at 6:45 pm.

Batting practice is over. The Nationals and the Orioles are milling about in front of their dugouts. A cluster of fans presses against the railing along the third-base line next to the Nationals dugout. Zimmerman is signing balls and shirts and scraps of paper.

Katie Albisu, a 14-year-old from Fairfax Station, can’t penetrate the scrum and walks away with her blank ball. I ask why he’s so special.

“Mostly I like his looks,” she says.

He is a teenage girl’s dreamboat: a lean six-foot-three, a bit of baby fat still in his cheeks, big brown eyes, a shy smile.

“I hear he’s going to do well,” she says.

As of early June, he’s batting .270 with nine home runs (third highest on the team), and 35 RBIs (second on the team).

Her father, Luis, agrees: “It’s kind of cool to see someone with so much potential. He’s like our first hometown hero.”

The Albisus take their seats near the dugout. Zimmerman walks toward them.

“Hey, Ryan,” she says and holds up the ball. He nods, she throws him the ball, he signs it and rolls it back on the dugout roof.

The hometown hero started his day in the apartment he calls home on Washington Boulevard in Clarendon. He woke up midmorning after sleeping off last night’s game. He welcomes me into the two-bedroom place he shares with center fielder Ryan Church.

We arrange ourselves on the lone couch facing a TV showing Hollywood stars at some film debut. Angelina Jolie smooches with Brad Pitt. Zimmerman’s apartment has the look of a freshman dorm room on the first day of school.

“No pictures, no posters, no nothing,” he says. His bedroom has a double bed and a flat-screen TV. It looks as if he’s living out of his luggage. He is. He’s been in the apartment for two months. Twenty-eight of the team’s first 41 games have been on the road.

“I haven’t unpacked yet,” he says. “Hopefully, this home stand I can get squared away.”

Zimmerman chose Clarendon because it’s an easy drive across the river to the ballpark, and this part of Arlington is home to some of his college buddies.

“It has a college-town feel with stuff you can do at night,” he says. “It’s like a college town, but people have moved on and have jobs.

“I don’t consider playing baseball a job. I have too much fun.”

A year ago Zimmerman was winding up his junior year at the University of Virginia, taking sociology courses and playing the hot corner for the Cavaliers. He had applied himself in class, pulled down a 3.3, and raised his grade point average to 2.8. “It’s harder than you think to play varsity sports and maintain your grades,” he says.

Then last June the Nationals drafted him fourth and gave him a signing bonus close to $3 million.

Did he have any idea he would be playing major-league baseball at age 20?

“No way,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to be that fast, but I’m here now. When you get the shot, you take advantage of it.”

Last September the Nationals called him up from the minors, stuck him on third base, and said to play ball.

“I did well that month,” he says.

He batted .397 in 58 at-bats.

“It’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time,” he says. “You have to have a little luck.”

And plenty of skill and persistence.

Virginia Beach, where Zimmerman grew up, is the home of televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. I ask if religion has played a part in Zimmerman’s ability to stay calm and avoid temptation.

“I wouldn’t say I’m die-hard religious, but I have my beliefs,” he says. “I grew up right on the beach. We would wear flip-flops and tank tops to church and go right back to the beach. It was a real laid-back atmosphere, real relaxed.”

Zimmerman recalls a Baptist church; actually, it was Methodist, his mother says when I later visit his family.

The Virginia Beach where Ryan Zimmerman grew up is the athletic hothouse that produced Allen Iverson and Alonzo Mourning and the brothers Michael and Marcus Vick. It also spawned baseball players like David Wright, a rising third-base star for the Mets, and promising prospects, brothers B.J. and Justin Upton.

Zimmerman’s parents have photos of him swinging a red plastic bat before he was two—and whacking a pitched ball.

By the time he was nine, Zimmerman was a star pitcher for the Drillers, his Little League team. He soon was traveling to Florida and California to compete in national tournaments.

At Kellam High School he left the mound to play shortstop and then third base. He graduated 23rd out of 300 in his class and went to UVa on a baseball scholarship.

His size was a problem in those days. His September 28 birthday made him one of the youngest in his class, and at six-foot-one and 180 pounds, he was relatively small.

“Not being as physically mature as others, I had to be smarter,” he tells me. “I had to get the mental part of baseball down first.”

For instance?

“I think before every pitch,” he says. Next time you watch him step out, monkey with his batting gloves, bang dirt from his spikes, you’ll know his mind is whirring. “Every pitch is a new at bat. I have a million things running through my head.”

We are heading across the Potomac River in Zimmerman’s new ride, a black Range Rover with all the GPS gizmos on the dash. It’s the only material manifestation of his $3-million salary package. I ask how it feels to be rich.

“Me?” he asks. “Weird. I don’t spend much. I’m tight with money. I’m not materialistic.”

He’s seen people fork over $300 for a shirt at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“A shirt’s a shirt,” he says. “I’d be afraid I would ruin a $300 shirt.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and treat friends to dinner,” he says. “A lot of people have been good to me.”

That includes his parents, Keith and Cheryl Zimmerman. “They never really pushed me or my brother to do anything,” he says. Shawn, 19, is a golfer with great potential. “So I had a chance to do everything. Play baseball. Surf.

“My father said, ‘If you’re going to play, you have to commit and do it right. If you don’t play, you won’t hurt my feelings.’ He put no pressure on me. It helped a lot.”

Zimmerman has a few simple rules to live by as the youngster in a field of men:

“Don’t talk too much. Play hard every day. If you do that and keep your mouth shut, it’s pretty hard for people to have a problem with you.”

But athletes battle problems from within. And of all pro sports, baseball might put the most pressure on its players. The season is long, they play more games than any other sport, they stand alone at the plate and on the mound.

“Of course I feel pressure,” he says. “Pressure makes you work harder. Our job is steeped in pressure.

“The more experienced you are, the better you can handle it,” he says. “Having had pressure at a young age has done nothing but help me. One year out of college I have had 500 professional at bats.

“You have to want the pressure.”

How does he handle striking out with runners in scoring position?

“You have to learn how to fail and put it behind you,” he says. “There’s not much that you do in life where if you only succeed three times out of ten, you can be called great.”

And the seven outs?

“You have to learn how to fail.”

The guards at the RFK parking lot wave us in at 1:45. Zimmerman pulls the Range Rover into the last spot, farthest from the stadium.

“My parking spot is way in the back,” he says. “I’m the young’un.”

Zimmerman turned 21 last September. Not only is he the youngest player on the Nationals roster, he’s the youngest major-league starter who is not a pitcher.

A baseball team is like a family: The players live together for seven months. They dress together, eat together, work together, celebrate and mourn together—and that’s just home games. On the road they sleep together, too.

In the clubhouse, Zimmerman occasionally plays the gofer. “I go for coffee if one of the veteran ballplayers asks,” he says. “They have earned it.”

At 2 pm before the 7:05 game, there’s a handful of Nationals in the RFK clubhouse. Outside, the grounds crew is grooming the infield to the sounds of Led Zeppelin.

In the next four hours, Zimmerman and his teammates will take batting practice, stretch, perhaps get a massage from team massage therapist Makoto Takashima—“It hurts so bad I have to bite a towel,” Zimmerman says—stretch, take grounders, play pitch and catch, stretch, and get dirty if Joey Eischen walks by.

Zimmerman is in the dugout at 3 pm getting ready for batting practice. Catcher Brian Schneider leans in from the field. He and Zimmerman have hit if off. I ask why.

“I just took to him,” says Schneider. “He went about his business.”

And he went about doing errands for the veterans, like fetching bats and spikes and cups of coffee.

Hazing, I ask?

“A little bit,” says Schneider, “but no blindfolds.”

Schneider, 29, is in his seventh season in the majors.

“I pick friends I can relate to, get along with off the field,” he says. “I try to take care of Zimmerman, show him the ropes.”

Schneider has shown Zimmerman the White House and the city from above thanks to a ride on a police helicopter. He takes Zimmerman out for a decent meal after some games—he phones ahead to the Union Street Public House in Alexandria.

Says Schneider: “He’s made most opportunities for himself on the field. I just want him to have plenty of contacts in town beyond the field.”

Zimmerman takes his turn in the batting cage at 3:05. He’s wearing shorts, a red T-shirt, running shoes.

His stance is wide, his swing a smooth arc that makes a full circle. It’s so natural that it seems to take place in slow motion, but the balls crack off the wood in line drives, more than a few over the fences.

Manager Frank Robinson ambles onto the field. That morning he received an honorary degree from George Washington University. Now, dressed in his uniform, he’s a 70-year-old wise man who’s been walking onto fields of green for half a century.

He heads to the right side of the batter’s box and studies his third-base prodigy. Perhaps because the manager is watching, Zimmerman hits a few weak liners and grounders. Robinson stops him and points to his hip. “Try to keep your front leg straighter,” he says.

Zimmerman smacks a line drive. Then another.

Robinson stops him, asks him to change the tilt of his head.

Zimmerman hits one out of the park. Then another. And another.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden is holding a pregrame press conference. I grab him afterward. He drafted Zimmerman; was it worth it?

Bowden smiles.

“On a scale of two to eight, his character is an eight, his family is an eight, his caring for teammates is an eight, his intensity is an eight. This kid learns, and what he learns he applies.”

Bowden gave him number 11, a special one for him because it was Barry Larkin’s number in Cincinnati, where Larkin played for years under Bowden.

“Like Larkin, he’s going to be here his entire career,” Bowden says. “He’s going to develop into a leader of the team. He’s already Gold Glove caliber at third. He’s just a special kid. They don’t come around very often.

“When we drafted him, it was a very happy day.”

The night was a happy one for the Washington Nationals. They beat the Orioles 8–3 in front of 32,502 fans, their second-largest crowd of the season.

But it didn’t end well for the kid.

He came to the plate with the bases loaded at the bottom of the eighth inning. Pop foul. Pop foul. Brushback. Ball low. Foul back. With the count two and two, he hit a grounder toward third—right into a double play and the end of the inning.

But he had a good game: He had a double and a single and scored twice.

In the clubhouse, Zimmerman avoided the crowd of reporters gathered around Alfonso Soriano, ate a burger on the run, and drove home to Clarendon to rest up for Sunday’s day game.

Two Sundays later, I get a sense of why Zimmerman might keep his head on straight. His parents, Keith and Cheryl, and his brother are in town for home games during Memorial Day weekend. We meet at the DoubleTree Hotel in Crystal City.

Keith and I meet in the lobby. He’s got a warm smile. He’s wearing shorts—he’s in good shape for a guy in his late forties. He played football in high school and baseball at Barton College in North Carolina.

“We always had a very athletic family,” he says. “Millions and millions of pitches between myself, my wife, and anyone who babysat for the boys. A criterion was they had to play catch.”

Keith and Cheryl were high-school sweethearts in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. They were jocks. Cheryl played lacrosse at Lock Haven University.

He and Cheryl owned and operated a fitness center for a few years in the 1980s. The boys grew up working out on the machines.

But Keith knew there was something special about Ryan and baseball. “Before he was two years old, I would pitch balls to him, and he would hit them with a bat.”

So the Zimmermans were not surprised when their older son started to excel on the baseball diamond. “His hand-eye coordination and soft hands were God’s gift,” says Keith.

As we talk, Cheryl Zimmerman rolls up in her electric wheelchair. She has multiple sclerosis, which began to disable her when the boys were in their teens.

I ask how Ryan and Shawn got such strong values.

“They had to grow up and become more responsible,” Keith says. “They had to step up and do more chores, become more independent. They had to survive differently than their friends.

“It opened their eyes that, unfortunately, sometimes life isn’t fair,” Keith says.

But Keith and Cheryl were fair with their expectations. Cheryl told her older son, “You’re not doing this for us, you’re doing it for Ryan.”

“We’ve met many sports parents over the years who would force their kids into situations that weren’t right for them,” she says.

Keith says Shawn could be as good on the golf course as Ryan is on the diamond. His hopes for both: “Be happy and have some fun in life.”

The Zimmermans are going to have a family dinner, then Ryan plans to return to his apartment and try to unpack.

“Just in time,” he says, “to go on the road.”

National editor Harry Jaffe is a Phillies fan who admits a weakness for the Nationals. Editorial in­tern Caleb Hannan helped with research for this article.