Eight years ago Sunday, a just-turned 19-year-old made his Nationals debut in Atlanta. The kid from Virginia Beach via the University of Virginia struck out in his lone at-bat. The next night in his first game in Washington, Ryan Zimmerman was in the lineup at third base and went 1-for-3 with a double.
Zimmerman almost surely will be in the lineup at third base when he celebrates those anniversaries because he almost always is. During the franchise’s 45 seasons, only five players – including Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson — have appeared in more games than Zimmerman’s 1,109.
If Zimmerman remains a regular and plays out his contract, which runs through 2019 when he turns 35, he should easily top Tim Wallach’s record of 1,767. By then, Zimmerman should also rank first in hits (he’s currently sixth with 1,234), RBI (fifth with 654), home runs (fifth with 168), runs (fifth with 642), doubles (fifth with 274), walks (fifth with 447) and total bases (fifth with 2,046). He’s ninth with a .286 batting average and a .474 slugging percentage.
Not that the Montreal Expos/Nats have anything approaching the tradition of ballclubs like the Yankees,Cardinals or Red Sox, but to be number one in so many categories for a franchise that by then will have been around for more than half a century is pretty amazing.
It’s as if Zimmerman is Washington’s equivalent to Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial and Ted Williams, superstars who spent their entire illustrious careers in New York, St. Louis and Boston, respectively. I’m not saying that Zimmerman, a one-time All-Star, is anywhere close to the player those legends were, but his longevity in our town could make him as special in that way here as they were in theirs.
However, this season has been one of the most frustrating of Zimmerman’s career. After he carried the Nats for much of 2012 with 25 homers, 95 RBI and a .282 batting average following a very slow start, Zimmerman has hit just .275 – his lowest since 2007 — with just 15 homers and 61 RBI. And after so many stalwart years in the field, he has been plagued by throwing errors for a second straight summer despite having offseason surgery on his shoulder.
What’s worse is that the Nats, after finally soaring to the top of the National League East in 2012, have plunged back to mediocrity. That’s still better than the last-place finishes of 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 or winding up in fourth-place as was the case in 2007, but it’s also a far cry from last season when Washington’s 98 victories were the most in the majors.
Since Zimmerman has been with the Nats his entire career, their fortunes probably resonate with him more than they do with center fielder Denard Span and second baseman Anthony Rendon (first seasons in Washington), left fielder Bryce Harper (second), right fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche (third) or even shortstop Ian Desmond (fourth).
“Last year was one of those years where we were so consistent and we didn’t really have too many bad times,” Zimmerman said. “I think a lot of people got spoiled with that and expect it to be that way every year. … It’s tough to do.”
It can also be tough to look at Zimmerman and consider him an older player, but among those who played for Washington the night in 2005 that he debuted were Carlos Baerga and Deivi Cruz (in their final seasons), Vinny Castilla (final season, 2006), Hector Carrasco, Mike Stanton and Preston Wilson (all 2007), and Tony Armas, Jose Vidro and Brad Wilkerson (all 2008). Or to put Zimmerman’s longevity in a different perspective, Harper had yet to become a teenager when the former broke into the majors.
Zimmerman is also Washington’s longest-tenured pro athlete. Santana Moss debuted with the Redskins 10 days later. Alex Ovechkin began his Caps career five weeks after Zimmerman got going with the Nats. D.C. United coach Ben Olsen was then in the midst of his playing days with the club. Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie began their tenures with the Mystics in 2008. And John Wall is the senior Wizard despite having played his first game for Washington in 2010.
Unlike immortals Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson and beloved slugger Frank Howard, Zimmerman might never be honored with a statue outside Nationals Park. But after eight years in the nation’s capital, he certainly is a Washington institution.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.