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In the typical daydream, everything's perfect.
You're a born baseball talent, blessed with the kind of God-given size and coordination to be one of the very best young players in the country. You grow up as a local hero, so you’re hardly surprised that Major League scouts rushed out to report on your high school ballgames. Just check out how the NBA and NFL fawn over the child stars / first round draft picks. You just couldn’t wait for your turn in the draft spotlight and, of course, holding out for some big money.
In the daydream, you can’t wait to breeze through the Minors system, too, because that’s the passage to life as a Major Leaguer. At that point, by any definition, you’ll be a big shot. Of course you’ll bask in the celebrity treatment that comes with national media coverage. You deserve it. You’ll demand some R-E-S-P-E-C-T from your manager and teammates, too, especially when you’ve got some spectacular early numbers to back it up.
Hey, it’s only right. When you’re a brilliant young athlete in big time sports, you’re supposed to lock in on all the perks and star treatment.
It's an attractive little daydream, all right. Millions of Pastime fans have seen most, if not all, of it flashing before their eyes. But not Ryan Zimmerman. He’s too busy playing baseball in the real world.
The truth is, Zimmerman fits few expectations from the usual fan fantasy. For one thing, he was notably undersized and raw as a high school player, so much so that he went undrafted by Major League ball clubs starting off as a University of Virginia freshman in 2002.
Oh, to be sure, Zimmerman put together a fantastic game over the next three years, one that led to his selection by the Washington Nationals as a fourth overall pick and rapid promotion through Class A and Double-A ball this past summer. After the Nats called him up to the big club in September, the Virginia native batted .397 while hitting 10 doubles in 20 games.
That does sound like a dream come true, but even at that, Zimmerman doesn’t go along with the standard, starry storyline.
Family and close friends confirm the 21-year old’s complete lack of personal self-importance. He never brings up his world-class skills, a premier place in the draft, or the multi-million dollar contract negotiations that preceded his signing and rapid promotions that followed. To hear him talk, Zimmerman doesn’t seem all that taken by his September numbers or the rave forecasts on his playing future. When the Nationals’ rookie has fielded media questions on all the above, he consistently plays down the star treatment while bringing the focus back to the basics on the field.
If Zimmerman has been living out any fan’s rookie daydream, he seems to be doing it in his own way, a way characterized by a veteran’s level of focus and dedication. In a dizzying sports world fairly brimming with off-field distractions, his approach is refreshingly old-fashioned. Here’s a young man who’s no nonsense and all baseball.
On October 20th, Ryan Zimmerman took the time to discuss a grounded approach to some sky-high prospects.
How did you first get interested in baseball?
Growing up, I played a lot of sports - football, basketball, and baseball. Just like anyone, you just sort of pick one and go with it. With baseball, I had more fun learning and it was more of a challenge.
What did you find challenging about it?
I was always younger - I just turned 21 last month - and smaller than the other kids, so there was that issue.
Apart from that, baseball’s so challenging because little things can make you feel so different while you’re playing. It might not even be a physical thing - you’re not holding your hands back, but you feel like you are. Every day is different. That’s why it’s such a fun and difficult game, I guess.
Were you a fan of the Majors when you were growing up?
I did the baseball card stuff, yeah. I didn’t go to many games, though, just because there weren’t any teams nearby in Virginia. I might have gone to three or four Major League games, total, growing up. I liked the Orioles, but the Braves were always on TV, so I followed them.
Did you have any favorite players?
Chipper Jones and Cal Ripken, Jr., probably. I modeled myself after them.
Did you have a mentor growing up in the game?
My Dad, more than anyone else.
I was very lucky in that I had really good coaches, but Dad was the one who was always emphasizing the mental part of the game. You know, think about what you’re going to do before the ball is hit, play the game in your head so you know exactly what to do. It made the game so much easier. It slowed it down.
I almost had to do that anyway, being smaller than the other kids. In the last few years, when I got bigger, that was just a bonus to the mental part.
Did you have a breakout improvement while you were developing?
Everything about the game is pretty gradual in terms of improvement, I guess. A lot of people said, ‘Oh, he had a breakout year’. It’s not like that. It’s just that all the stuff from the previous year came all together at a certain point. It’s way too hard of a game to learn in a short time.
When did you first start thinking that you might have a future as a Major Leaguer?
By my senior year in high school, we had a really good team - a kid got drafted in the second round. There were a lot of scouts around and they told me they really liked me, but they said I was undersized. They liked my ability and baseball sense, but I knew I’d have to go to college to have any kind of a shot at the Majors.
Coming out of high school, UVA was basically the only big school to offer a scholarship and playing time. I worked hard, earned a spot, and played every game from freshman year on.
In this past year, when you were breaking school hitting records, were you recognizable on campus?
I wouldn’t say that people were walking around, saying ‘Ohh, oh, that’s him’. Nah. I guess you can ask other students what they thought, but I didn’t think of myself that way or carry myself that way.
What was it like dealing with advisors?
My family and I decided to get it all done by Christmas break of this past year, my junior year. A lot of my success this year was due to the fact that we got it out of the way and I could just play. A lot of that stuff is such a distraction.
I don’t doubt you genuinely feel that way, but you know that a lot of young ball players and families have other ideas. The entire process can be about control and flattery and maximizing the dollars in a signing bonus.
Well, I can’t really say how other people feel. Maybe some feel that way. I know we just met with three or four groups, had them do their presentations, and we just went with the group we were comfortable with.
Our thinking was that the top advisors can all do a good job. It was pretty much about finding someone we were comfortable with.
How did you feel going into the MLB draft this June?
We had been talking to the Nationals and a couple of other teams for a couple weeks before the draft, so we had a pretty good idea where I would go. We were almost 100% sure I would at four. It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking for me as it was for others.
As for the day itself, it was very nice. We had a bunch of family and friends over at the house so, once we got the phone call from Washington, we could sit back and enjoy ourselves.
Did you consider a NFL- or NBA-style first round holdout?
No, we were pretty much set with the Nationals. They knew that I wouldn’t ask for too much and they wouldn’t offer too little. They didn’t want to pick someone who was going to hold out, and that was fine with me, because I couldn’t wait to start playing.
I can’t knock the kids who hold out, though. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a tough business and it can be a waiting game.
Did you feel any pressure in being taken so high?
I liked the fact that they had confidence in me. It’s fun being that guy - the guy everybody’s watching, the guy everybody wants to get out. Apart from that, I just wanted to play the way I had been playing.
The media talks about pressure a lot, but if you don’t like pressure, you should pretty much avoid baseball. Or, pretty much any business. It’s the same if you’re a lawyer or a doctor. If you can’t handle pressure, you’re not going to make it far in anything.
Did you have any set notions about a timetable for getting promoted or putting up certain numbers?
No. I don’t think I’ll ever do something completely crazy at the plate. I just wanted to put up consistent, solid numbers while providing solid defense on the left side of the infield. And I think that’s all that was expected of me.
Was it an adjustment going over to Savannah and Harrisburg, just in terms of the Minor League lifestyle?
The travel and the motels, it didn’t matter to me. As long as I have someplace to sleep, it’s really not that big of a deal. If you love the game and you’re excited, none of that stuff should matter.
What was the biggest surprise in the Minors?
The biggest difference was in playing everyday. That was new. Apart from that, though, it wasn’t that big of a transition on the field. In the ACC, the level of competition is pretty much comparable to the low Minors.
When you were playing well in the Minors after those first few months, where you aware that the Nationals’ plans? There was plenty of speculation, due to their lack of production at third base and shortstop.
A lot of people said stuff to me, so it was kind of hard not to ignore it, but I did my best to focus on my game and trust that things would work out from there. By August, I was on track with Double-A pitching, so I was mostly just concerned about keeping it up in Harrisburg.
Were you surprised by the call up on September 1st?
Not really. [The media] had been talking about it forever, asking questions every day. It was pretty much pounded at me.
What was it like when you got the call?
Relief, more than anything. (laughs) After answering all these questions about playing ball in Major Leagues, it was more fun to play ball in the Major Leagues.
What’s your most enduring memory from your first Major League at-bat?
I was nervous. No, not nervous. Excited. I think that people get the two things confused. I don’t think I tried to do too much, but I did know that it was a very special moment in my life.
Was it tougher for you to perform when your family came to see you in person?
I was very happy to see them, but once we got started, it was just another game. You know, it’s like that for everything in baseball. When you start thinking about outside things, you can’t really play very well.
Did your veteran teammates help you out in the adjustment?
A lot of the older guys helped me a lot in the day-to-day stuff, where to go, what to do, how to act. ‘It’s better to be seen and not heard’, that kind of thing.
Do any examples come to mind?
(laughs) There’s a lot of stuff up there that people don’t necessarily want to disclose and I should probably keep it that way.
Were there any pranks or hazing for the rookies?
Well, there was the one road trip where they made us dress as girls. That’s something they’ve done with rookies on every team for a long time, just as a kind of initiation.
But it was a new experience for you, I’m guessing.
(laughs) Yeah, it was. Other than that, the guys were cool. They didn’t make us younger guys cater to them or anything like that.
Did your teammates help you out on the playing field?
No doubt. I think things started off on the right foot. The first thing I told them is, ‘Don’t be afraid to hurt my feelings. If you see me do something wrong or could do something better, please tell me. I’m not going to curl up in the corner. I’m here to learn’. Once they realized they could come up and teach me about whatever, that helped a lot.
Can you think of an example?
Just little things. What to look for in certain pitchers’ motions and in certain counts, that sort of thing.
I remember one time, when Preston [Wilson] walked on five pitches against Dontrelle Willis, I came up in the next at-bat and swung at the first strike. I fouled it straight back and ended up grounding out on, I think, a changeup. Later, Preston told me I should have taken a strike in that situation.
When you got to the Majors after less than half a season, you were teammates with Rick Short, who had played more than 1,000 pro games before he made it up. What was that like?
When you’re new, you’ve got to look for guys to be comfortable with, and he was very approachable. Rick was very easy to talk to and look up to.
Did you talk about your different backgrounds?
The media made a lot out of, ‘Hey, you’re pretty much total opposites’, but we never really sat down to talk about it. Besides, you wouldn’t know that Rick had to play 12 or more years in the Minors as a career .350 hitter or something ridiculous. He’s not bitter; he doesn’t bad-mouth or blame anybody. He just loves the game.
There are so many guys who play just because they love the game. You have some guys who say, ‘I won’t play unless I get x amount of money’, but there are far, far more guys like Rick. There’s something to be said for that.
Did you play against any opponents that you admired as a little kid?
Growing up as a Braves fan, I’d have to say John Smoltz was like that. I saw him on the mound how many times in video games, and there he was in real life during the Atlanta series.
Were you tempted to ask Smoltz, or anyone else, for an autograph?
At the end of the year, I got a bunch of autographs from our team but I didn’t want to go over to the other clubhouses. Hopefully, I can get some in the future. This year, I didn’t want to push the envelope too much.
When you were in the Minors, did you get the standard advice about dealing with the Major League press? You know, the typical ‘Bull Durham’ lines, ‘I’m just happy to be here’, etc.
What the older guys told me is, ‘Just tell them what they want to hear; they can only print what you say’.
I know [reporters] don’t like that sometimes, but baseball can be such a frustrating game for a player. If you stick to the clichés, it helps you compose yourself and you can avoid taking your frustrations out on them.
To you, are the members of the media more like friends or more like enemies?
My goal is to lay low and pretty much be friends with the media.
It’s tough sometimes. The media, when you do badly, they almost want to pick on you, so they can wait and say, ‘He’s back’. But there are never any surprises - when you have a good game, they’ll say something good about you and when you have a bad game, they’ll say something bad about you. It’s not like they’re lying.
Whether it was because you were both local guys or because you started off as third basemen / shortstop, your name was sometimes linked to Cal Ripken, Jr. How did you deal with that?
They’ve thrown that name around. That’s some pretty hefty competition.
What can you do? There’s not much to say about that except, ‘Thanks for the compliment’. It’s very, very cool to be in the same sentence with the Cal Ripken, but for me to compare myself with a future Hall of Famer is a little ridiculous.
Were you surprised by anything about the performances on the Major League level?
Obviously, everyone at the Major League level is a terrific player, but it’s still baseball. It’s the same game on a bigger stage. Once I got past that, I felt fine.
In the last game of the season, you were within a hit or two of hitting .400 in the Majors. Did you have a kind of Ted Williams moment, where you contemplated sitting down?
(laughs) No, I was nowhere near thinking anything about that. It was only something like, what? 60 at-bats? So it’s just a few good weeks where I was locked in.
Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy with my time in the big leagues. I took a step toward making the team, if not next year, then the year after next, and that was my goal. But getting hung up on that kind of thing doesn’t make much sense.
What are you working on right now?
I never played this many games in college so, right now, in [the Arizona] Fall League, I’m trying to learn how to play baseball every single day. Everyone can play well when they’re fresh, but I’m doing my best to play well despite some aches and pains. It’s a big challenge to play when you’re not necessarily rested and comfortable in a full 162 game season and, hopefully, the postseason, so I’m doing my best to get ready for that.
Now that you’ve played in the Majors, do you see baseball as something you’re obliged to do - your job, in other words - or as the sport you loved as a little kid?
Hmm. I see what you’re saying, but with everything that’s been going on these last few months, I haven’t thought about it that much.
I’d say that things have definitely changed this year, in the way that I feel about the game. In the brief time I’ve been a professional, it’s helped me realize how incredibly hard it is to perform against the best in the world, day in and day out. No doubt.
As for all the job and the money and off-field stuff, it’s been very nice, but I’m not sure it’s changed that much. As I said before, I basically hired my advisor to deal with outside things so I can go back to doing my thing. And I’ve always loved playing baseball.
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