June 17, 2022
[Being short on time, I made several mistakes and omissions in the original post on Friday afternoon (17 Jun 2022, 3: 29 PM). Asterisks below indicate corrections, and [brackets] indicate text that has been added.]
Early in the spring, the man who led the Washington Nationals from their dark early years to their ultimate World Series triumph in 2019, Ryan Zimmerman, announced his retirement in a letter to fans.* This weekend there will be a series of retirement ceremonies in his honor, and I'll be there! It's certainly not the best of times for Nationals fans, having just been swept by the Braves and then clobbered by the Phillies thanks to an unusual set of circumstances last night, but it's "times like these" that define who the true fans are.
[Significantly, perhaps, he was born in Washington, North Carolina, and after his family moved to Norfolk, Virginia he became a baseball team mate and friend of David Wright, who went on to become a star player for the New York Mets. From the beginning] I have paid close attention to Ryan Zimmerman in part because he also went to the University of Virginia, where I earned by doctoral degree about the same time he entered. After starring on their baseball team, helping make it a true national team for the first time in program history, in June 2005 the Nationals drafted him as their number one pick. It was the first draft by the franchise since relocating from Montreal after the previous year, and Ryan came to embody the new team's identity.
As it happened I was there at RFK Stadium in September 2005 when he got his first big league hit, a double in the fifth inning. In June of 2006 he made a name for himself by hitting a walk-off home run to beat the New York Yankees, converting a likely 2-1 loss into a 3-2 win. That November 2006 Zimmerman came in second place to Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins won the NL Rookie of Year award: a margin of 14 first-place votes to 10 first-place votes. The total number of points was 105 to 101 -- "the closest NL vote since 1980." Another memorable moment came in May 2007, when Ryan hit a walk-off grand slam to break a tie in the bottom of the ninth, helping his team to beat the Florida Marlins 7-3. In August 2007 Zimmerman hit two huge home runs, helping the Nats sweep World Champion St. Louis Cardinals! (I was there for the 12-1 victory!)
Perhaps Zimmerman's most famous walk-off home run was when he inaugurated Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. It was a line-drive to the "Red Porch" power alley in left center. In May 2009 Ryan had a hitting streak that topped out at 30 games. In September 2009 he smashed a low-trajectory home run into the "Red Porch" seats in left-center field, quickly ending the game in an unimaginably dramatic and spectacular fashion.
One of the most wistful moments in Ryan's career is when he was part of a big first-inning rally in Game 5 of the National League Divisional series against the Cardinals, October 13, 2012> he hit a home run into the seats to the right of center field. Just like that, it was 3-0 with nobody out. But later in the game, things fell apart, and the rest is (sad) history.
In May of 2013 Zimmerman hit three home runs, giving the Nats a 6-2 lead, but pitcher Jordan Zimmermann faltered in the the bottom of the seventh inning.
One of my favorite moments was when Ryan hit a home run that landed close to where I was sitting [in the Red Porch section], and a father grabbed the ball and gave it to his son, who surely experienced the thrill of a lifetime.
Zimmerman experienced various physical ailments during the middle of his career, but he staged a huge comeback in 2017, perhaps his best year ever. The Nats went to the postseason once again (the fourth time!), but once again the outcome was a crushing disappointment, [thanks this time to the Chicago Cubs]. (See October 2, 2017.)
["After further review," I was surprised by the number of games that Zimmerman missed during the second half of his career. In early April 2014 he broke his thumb, which took two months to heal, and in July he tore a hamstring muscle. As a result, he ended up playing only 61 regular season games that year. In the next year plantar fasciitis became a big problem (see June 2015), limiting him to just 95 games. By then he had shifted from third base to first base, where he remained for the rest of his career. That condition apparently abated in 2017, but in 2018 he suffered an oblique strain, causing him to miss nearly two months. He bounced back quickly, however, and in August 2018 he was named National League Player of the Week for the fifth time. In 2019 (when the Nats won the World Series) he only played in 52 regular season games plus 16 postseason games, and due to the covid-19 pandemic, he skipped the 2020 season entirely. In his final year, 2021, he played in 110 games. Given his history of injuries, and all the pain he must have endured, it's no wonder that he decided to hang up his spikes this year.]
[In that world championship year of 2019, one of Zimmerman's biggest contributions was as pinch-hitter on September 3rd. The New York Mets had staged a 5-run 9th-inning rally to take a seemingly insurmountable 10-4 lead. After the Nats had narrowed the gap by two runs, Ryan smashed a two-run double to the gap in right-center, soon followed by a three-run walk-off homer by Kurt Suzuki. That incredible 11-10 comeback win played a big role in securing a wild card spot for the Nationals in the postseason. Likewise, in the memorable wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, it was Ryan's pinch-hit single with two outs in the eighth inning that sparked the big rally that culminated with Juan Soto's three-run single that put the Nats ahead for good. Once again, Ryan came through in a clutch situation. In the fifth inning of Game 4 of the National League Divisional Series, with the Nationals facing elimination, Ryan belted a three-run homer to center field that put the Nats ahead by four runs, virtually assuring that the series would go to a fifth game. And in the top of the second inning of World Series Game 1, just after Max Scherzer had given up two runs to the Astros, Ryan's solo home run to center field in Minute [Maid] Park revived the team's spirits. That changed the entire psychological context of the game, helping the Nats to win an upset game on the road, and was probably one of the most decisive turning points of that historic series triumph.]
For the record, I made a few updates to my Washington Nationals BIG moments page, [the contents of which used to be part of the Washington Nationals page.]
Zimmerman holds the Nationals' record for most number of career grand slams, with six. The Nationals lost the first of those six games but won the rest. All but the first and last ones were at home in Washington, either in RFK Stadium (1) or in Nationals Park (3). I never had the fortune to see one of them in person. Appropriately, two of Zimmerman's grand slams were walk-off home runs: [in the 9th inning at home].
Zimmerman not only holds the Nationals' record for most number of career walk-off home runs (11), he is only two behind the leader (Jim Thome) among all MLB players in history! I actually did see one of his walk-off homers, on September 6, 2009. (See the blog post next day.) The list below (from MLB.com) was up to date as of last December, and the vast majority of them are either in the Hall of Fame, or are destined be so named in the future:
BOLD FACE denotes players who remained with the same team for their entire career.
# : overcame score deficit, turning defeat into victory.
Because all information about players were taken down from the MLB website and mobile apps during the lockdown, there was no way to track Zimmerman's lifetime performance statistics [during the off-season]. Zimmerman came in second place in voting for Rookie of the Year in 2006, just behind Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins in the voting; it was the "the closest NL vote since 1980." (See November 13, 2006.) He won the National League Golden Glove [for third basemen in 2009, consistently excelling on defense. Zimmerman won also the NL Silver Slugger Award for third basemen in 2009, and repeated that accomplishment in 2010. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 2009 and in 2017. As a reflection of his repeated injuries, unfortunately, his cumulative career numbers are not up to the standards expected of Hall of Fame members.]
For all of the cumulative statistical measurements above except for walks, Zimmerman ranks #1 all-time among Nationals and Expos players, as indicated by a pale orange background. He ranks #2 in walks. He also ranks #1 in all-time strikeouts, with 1,384.
[ Congratulations on a wonderful career, and thank you, Ryan!
You will always be "Mr. National"! ]