Ryan Zimmerman stands next to third base in his home away from home, Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Behind him is the green expanse of the outfield. Over his right shoulder, several miles away, is the Capitol dome. Zimmerman (Col ’06) can’t see it from where he stands, but fans in the upper deck can gaze at it the entire game.
Across the field, about a quarter of the way up the first-base line, a Nationals coach stands, holding a long fungo bat.
Whack.He sends a steaming ground ball to Zimmerman’s backhand side.
Zimmerman fields it cleanly and smoothly, then lobs the ball back to the coach.Whack. Another ground ball goes to Zimmerman’s backhand side. Again, he fields it cleanly, smoothly, and lobs it back to the coach.
Whack. Whack. Whack. Eventually, 20 ground balls go to Zimmerman’s backhand side.
Then 15 to 20 go to his left, followed by another set straight at him.
Day after day, week after week, from early March through the end of September, Zimmerman stands next to third base in Nationals Stadium or Wrigley Field or Shea Stadium or any of the National League stadiums and fields those ground balls in the late afternoon.
To him, the pregame routine is never dull. It’s part of not taking your talent for granted, and Zimmerman has plenty of talent to keep sharp.
“I’d say he’s one of the top 10 young players in the major leagues right now,” says UVA head baseball coach Brian O’Connor. Sports Illustrated magazine agrees, featuring Zimmerman among young stars on the foldout cover of its 2008 baseball preview in March.
“He has a good chance to be a Gold Glove-type player with a chance to be an All-Star,” O’Connor says.
The coach watched Zimmerman blossom after coming to the program from Virginia Beach largely unheralded. During three years at UVA, Zimmerman began turning heads, and in the 2005 draft he was the Nationals’ first-round pick, the fourth player selected overall. He soon won the starting job and joined two modern greats—Mike Piazza and Albert Pujols—as the only National League rookies since 1954 to drive in more than 100 runs.
“It’s really, really rare for a player to get to the big leagues that quickly, and not only get there but to perform at such a high level,” O’Connor says. “Now, he’s the face of the franchise in Washington.”
But a serious shoulder injury, followed by a minor hand injury, limited Zimmerman’s playing time this season. To make matters worse, the Nationals endured loss after loss, ending the year in the NL cellar.
A tough season. But Zimmerman is a tough guy. A few bumps haven’t diminished his appreciation for the big picture.
“Not too many people get to play in the big leagues at the age of 23,” Zimmerman says. “I love it. It’s a pretty good job.”
To the casual observer, it’s a glamorous job, requiring minimal effort. He “works” about three hours a night, four if the game goes into extra innings or if the pitchers think each throw needs to be considered with all the gravity of Plato’s Republic. Then, he heads into the night and all that it implies. The next day, he does it all over again.
The mistake, though, is thinking that Zimmerman’s life is all play and no work.
He had a realization early in his career, one that some players never quite grasp: Playing Major League Baseball is a job. It takes an enormous amount of talent to get to “the show,” but any player who thinks talent is all it takes to stay there won’t have a long career.
And Zimmerman wants to play baseball for a long, long time.
On the surface, Zimmerman’s schedule is the stuff of dreams. He sleeps until 11 a.m., goes to the stadium, takes a little batting practice, trots out to his position, removes his hat for the national anthem, bats four or five times, then fades into the night. He arrives home and hits the sack.
What’s not to like?
But there’s more to it than that. Zimmerman’s day begins at 11 a.m. because his work day doesn’t end until 2 a.m. He’s not barhopping. He’s going over how he just spent the previous three hours, analyzing mistakes and savoring successes.
“It’s such a long season, and the things you do off the field are almost more important than the things you do on the field,” Zimmerman says. “We play 162 games in 185 days. If you want to go out after, say, a Friday night game, you can. But if you’re doing that four nights a week, it’s going to wear on you. You have to really take care of yourself. I know what I can do at night and what I can’t do. I know how I need to eat.”
He does not eat whatever he wants whenever he wants.
“We have a team nutritionist,” Zimmerman says. “They [the Nationals] have a cook who works with the team and will come to your house and help you with what to eat and how to prepare it.
“Eating right is one of the biggest parts. I eat at home quite a bit. I can cook some.”
Zimmerman, who turned 24 in September, lives in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington. It’s an area filled with condominiums, restaurants and bars. Zimmerman moves around the area freely. He’s recognized, but that’s as much because he’s a neighborhood resident as it is he’s a Major League Baseball player.
At one of his favorite neighborhood spots one afternoon this summer, he was able to sit quietly and enjoy his lunch—a cup of soup, Caesar salad with chicken and a glass of water.
He had a game against the Colorado Rockies in six hours. He needed a good meal, not a heavy meal.
Zimmerman’s home in Northern Virginia is just 15 minutes from his “office,” depending on traffic. The roads seldom are crowded when he heads out in the early afternoon, so he drives instead of taking the Metro.
Zimmerman arrives at Nationals Stadium by 2 p.m., 2:30 at the latest, for a 7 p.m. game. He then begins an afternoon of preparation that involves little down time.
“You get treatment, if you need it,” he says.
From late May until the middle of July, Zimmerman needed a lot of treatment. He suffered a small tear in the labrum of his left shoulder while sliding into second base. He had to go on the disabled list for the first time in his career—high school, college or professional.
Instead of fielding those 60 ground balls before each game, Zimmerman worked on strengthening his shoulder. Instead of taking batting practice and stretching with his teammates, he headed to the training room.
“He’s serious about what he does, but he still maintains a good attitude and has fun with it.”
—Nationals head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz
“The first thing we had to do was force him to rest,” says Nationals head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz. “He’s so active, and he wanted to keep playing. As he progressed, his daily activities would increase.
“He was a model patient, and he’s a model player,” Kuntz says. “Some guys, when they get hurt, want to hide. They don’t want to be around their teammates because they feel like they’re letting them down.
“Ryan was very supportive of his teammates, and they of him. He’s hard not to like. He’s serious about what he does, but he still maintains a good attitude and has fun with it.”
No sooner had Zimmerman returned to action than he was hurt again. This time, he was at bat, with two strikes, when the pitch, a sinker, caught him squarely on his right hand. The injury kept him out for a week. When he came back, he rarely missed a game and finished the season strong.
One reason for that is what he goes through every day to get ready to play. With the opening of Nationals Park this season, he could hardly ask for a better place to prepare.
The clubhouse is luxurious, with thick, dark blue carpeting. The dressing stalls are large enough to fit two players, and posts shaped like baseball bats separate the stalls. Several big-screen televisions dominate the center of the room, which sports a large “Nationals” emblem on the carpet.
And that’s just the dressing area. The hallways lead to a dining area, weight rooms, trainer’s rooms, massage rooms and video rooms with computers offering every pitch and every at-bat of every player in the league.
The video room is a regular stop for Zimmerman. “I’ll watch the pitcher’s last start. You can adjust it so you see only what he does against right-handed pitchers. You can see what he does with runners in scoring position,” he says
After he’s reviewed as much footage as he wants, Zimmerman heads to the indoor batting cage. He’ll spend 20 to 30 minutes there, working with the batting tee. He swings and swings and swings his 34-inch, 32-ounce bat, working to keep his swing pattern smooth and consistent. He breaks a good sweat, which helps him loosen up for the pregame warmups on the field.
For all his talk about the serious nature of his job, Zimmerman finds plenty of opportunities to keep loose. The Nationals stretch before each game. It’s a low-key, laugh-filled session, and Zimmerman keeps a steady banter going.
“All these guys are kids anyway,” Zimmerman says. “I have fun. That’s the way I look at it.”
Pregame batting practice, though, is no laughing matter. It’s 15 minutes of a three-man rotation. Each man takes several sets of five swings, then four, then three.
After the pregame work is done, Zimmerman changes into his game uniform for nine innings of thrills, spills and, occasionally, mundane innings where no ground balls come his way.
Then, there are nights when the ball always seems to come his way. In an August game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he started four double plays (one was unassisted) and just missed on a fifth.
“If you’re having a bad game or a bad streak offensively, you can’t let it carry over to the field and affect you defensively,” Zimmerman says. “You have to do whatever you can to help the team win. You have to be a complete player.”
The Nationals won that game, something that happened with little frequency this season.
On the mid-August night they play the Rockies, the Nationals suffer another loss. The Nationals lead early, forging ahead after the game is tied, but a three-run fifth inning by the Rockies is too much to overcome.
Afterward, the Nationals clubhouse is quiet and all but deserted when the sports writers enter. Outfielder Lastings Milledge walks in and is surrounded by writers looking for a quick quote to plug into their game stories.
Zimmerman comes in a few moments later. He is cordial, as always, but subdued.
His evening has not been a total loss. He drove in a run. At this point of the season, he’s still shaking off some of the rust from his two-months-plus layoff.
“I’m feeling better at the plate, and I’m making progress every day,” Zimmerman says. “But I wish we would have won.”
In a few moments, he’ll be in a large tub filled with ice-cold water. Several teammates might join him, and as they chill their muscles, they’ll go over what just took place on the field.
After that, Zimmerman will shower and head for home. Nine hours later, he’s at it again. And no matter what happened the night before, he’s always eager to get to the stadium, where 20 ground balls to his right, 20 to his left and 20 straight at him await.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he says.