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Nationals honor Ryan Zimmerman, giving fans a chance to cheer in a down season

WASHINGTON — The unofficial start to Ryan Zimmerman Weekend at Nats Park was very funny and also a little bit awkward. Jayson Werth, Zimmerman’s former teammate, was sitting on a Nationals-branded stool atop the visitor’s dugout. He was there Friday evening, between the games of the Nationals’ doubleheader against the Phillies, with former Nationals Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, as well as Nationals play-by-play broadcaster Bob Carpenter. The assignment was a Zimmerman-focused question and answer session — tell us about your memories of Zim, your favorite stories, that sort of stuff. Fans, arriving early for the 7:05 p.m. start, congregated in the seats along the third-base line.

With the first meaningful question — “What’s one thing you can tell us about Ryan Zimmerman from your careers together?” — Carpenter went to Werth first. This was a mistake. Werth was leaning on the back at the edge of the setup, wondering how he’d allowed himself to get roped into a Q&A. He was patently trying to avoid having to say anything. He had on massive sunglasses. His hair looked great. He wore the knowing smile of a man who had been told there was a party and had already found his way to it.

“Why do I have to go first?” Werth asked. A long silence ensued. “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that one, Bob. I didn’t expect to come out here and get all these questions with all these people.”

“It’s Ryan Zimmerman weekend,” Carpenter replied. “What did you think we would be talking about?!”

“I’m just here for the party,” Werth said.

Fortunately for Carpenter, and for the viability of this particular portion of the evening, Werth soon came around. By the end of the Q&A, he had fully joined in; he was waxing lyrical about his friend and former teammate Zimmerman, and in terms as elevated as anyone would utter all weekend. It made for a fitting start to a 48-hour festival of praise and gratitude, all of it devoted to the most beloved player in Nationals history, the cornerstone of the still-new franchise’s foothold in its city.

The love flowed both ways. Zimmerman said he felt like he was going to a wedding, in the sense that he had to take advantage of having so many important people in the same place at the same time, and, being Zimmerman, he might as well have been referring to Nationals fans, too. In the Q&A, in his appearances in the broadcast booth and most of all in his number retirement ceremony before Saturday’s game, Zimmerman professed his everlasting affection for the only home crowd he ever played for.

“I hope it gives you the same feeling inside,” Zimmerman said to a sold-out, 42,730-strong Nats Park crowd Saturday afternoon, wincing through tears. “It is as much yours as it is mine.”


Ryan Zimmerman waves to an adoring Nationals Park crowd. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

By the time he’d said this, Zimmerman had already bought Nationals fans their first beer at the Salt Line, a bar and restaurant across the street from the ballpark. Werth had the right idea after all. This was a party. The party was the whole point. For a couple of days, and particularly on Saturday, when the park was full and buzzing in a way it hasn’t been all that much lately, the baseball was entirely secondary. The focus, instead, was on honoring Zimmerman, on thanking him, on remembering his remarkable career and on soaking up wistful reminders of better times.

It was, undoubtedly, a much-needed tonic for Nats fans, more soothing than anything they consumed at the Salt Line. Here, finally, was some happy distraction, some temporary psychic relief, from yet another season that isn’t going the way anyone involved would prefer and doesn’t appear to be getting better. Hey, remember Ryan Zimmerman? Yeah. That was awesome.

“He’s the face of this organization,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I love the guy. … It’s a big day for him. Today is all about Ryan Zimmerman.”

To be fair, it’s not like the adulation was undeserved. There are few players like him in recent baseball history. Zimmerman, a local(-ish) kid from Virginia Beach who played at the University of Virginia, was the franchise’s first draft pick after it was relocated from Montreal. He was called up to the big leagues almost immediately and appeared in the Nats’ inaugural season in 2005. In his first full season, in 2006, the team finished 71-91, but Zimmerman was an immediate burst of hope, someone around whom early Nats die-hards could coalesce. Zimmerman recalled his first meeting with his first manager, Frank Robinson; Robinson had been hesitant to call up a star prospect so early, and Zimmerman was walking into a clubhouse earlier, and greener, than most.

“I was terrified,” Zimmerman said. “I had to put on a suit and go introduce myself to Frank Robinson. Nobody at age 20 ever got called up, especially in the first year you got drafted, and I guess that was my fault. Everyone hates you when you get called up like that because you didn’t have to go through the minor leagues.

“I remember that day — you walk in, and you’re scared to death. You don’t want to do anything wrong. You’re coming into a clubhouse of grown men. As a 20-year-old, and I’m drinking, like, $2 pitchers. … But then you meet the guys, you get into a couple of games, and then you realize it’s the same thing you’ve been doing. It’s the same game. It’s just a different level.”

Zimmerman found that level immediately. He finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2006. By 2008, he was already the clear franchise player, one with a reputation for late-inning heroics, including his walk-off home run in the first game ever hosted in the Nationals’ newly christened stadium.

Having long since graduated from childlike concerns about fitting in or maintaining his career in the majors, Zimmerman played himself to a place where he could have gone almost anywhere in free agency and probably made more money in his career in the process. Instead, he stayed. This was the great legend-forming decision of his career, obviously. Aspersions are cast on players who move from franchise to franchise via free agency. He just felt good in D.C., at home with a franchise and with a fan base that loved him. He never felt the Nationals tried to prey on his loyalty in contract negotiations. Everybody got along. “Being comfortable, you can’t quantify that monetarily,” Zimmerman said. “I always liked the people around here. I like knowing the clubhouse people, I like knowing the spring training people, I like being comfortable. And I think I perform better.”

At age 32, after a couple of seasons of just-OK hitting and occasional injury woes, Zimmerman took off again, making the second All-Star appearance of his career. Two years later — after a decade of consistent contention — the Nats finally broke through in the playoffs, getting past the NLDS for the first time in franchise history on the way to the franchise’s World Series win. His first career World Series at-bat was the Nationals’ first, too. This is how things usually went during Zimmerman’s career — if someone was doing something for the Nats for the first time, setting some record or breaking some new ground, it was usually him. Along the way, he became central to the team and franchise’s culture, such as it is.

Zimmerman talked at some length Saturday about that, about the clubhouse and the flights together, the stuff he and his fellow former players missed the most. None of them seem to miss the weeks away from family, not taking part in whole summers’ worth of activities, even if they are handsomely paid to do so. All of them talk about the process of figuring out what’s next, learning how to embrace a totally different part of your life of enjoying the suddenly open schedules. “Welcome to the afterlife” is how Werth, the franchise’s first $100 million signing, put it.

“Nobody expects this to happen,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t take it for granted, you appreciate it, and you just want to continue to do things to help the organization, help the community, and it doesn’t stop after today. I think you continue to go and, like I said, I’ll be around. We’re gonna raise our kids here. I’m gonna be involved with the team. So this is obviously a great honor, but life moves on after today as well.”

About that involvement with the team: On Saturday, the Nationals also announced that Zimmerman will become special advisor for baseball and business operations, a formal position with the organization.

His first weekend on the job, such as it was, was not a strictly successful one.

Friday’s two-loss doubleheader did not exactly usher in the joyous spirit of the weekend of the Q&A that bisected it. In the first defeat, the Phillies scored two runs after struggling star Juan Soto failed to go all the way for a catchable fly ball that led to a Nick Castellanos double; Soto also drew criticism from his manager for jogging on a groundball in a double-play situation. (“He needs to start running balls out,” Martinez said after the game.) In the second game, the Nats were burned by bad defensive mistakes and also bad umpiring in a crucial moment; a borderline nonsensical fielder’s obstruction call against shortstop Luis Garcia helped push the Phillies’ two game-winning runs across the plate in extra innings. Martinez was ejected after disagreeing with the decision.

Saturday began more promisingly. If Friday starters Joan Adon and Paolo Espino had slightly overachieved by managing five-inning outings each, Saturday starter Josiah Gray hit the stratosphere. Gray pitched six innings, allowed one hit and three walks and — with a merciful couple of rest days on the Nats schedule next week — blew past his all-time high pitch count, finishing with 117 thrown. The Nats managed just one run of their own before the Phillies retook the lead in extra innings. Even one of the best starting pitching performances of the season — maybe the best — wasn’t enough to earn the Nats a win.

Friday and Saturday’s results were the team’s sixth, seventh and eighth consecutive losses. They followed a home sweep to the Atlanta Braves. They also — maybe worst of all — followed pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s latest injury setback, one that has put the 33-year-old’s medium-term future in serious doubt. Having rehabbed from thoracic outlet surgery for the better part of a year, Strasburg made his major-league return against the Miami Marlins on June 9, after which he immediately felt off. On Tuesday, Martinez acknowledged that the issue was more than a simple stress reaction and that Strasburg’s problem was related to the surgery from which he had just ostensibly recovered.

Strasburg may not have sparked a total Nats pitching turnaround in the second half of the season, but he at least represented some hope, particularly for a team that has struggled to find viable pitching as the games have stacked up in May and June.

But, again, none of this was remotely the point of the weekend. The Nats are where they are at the moment, something Zimmerman himself is all too aware of. He, like everyone involved with the Nationals, realizes this is a long-term project, even if that doesn’t make the day-to-day grind any less frustrating.

“(Rebuilding) is part of it,” Zimmerman said. “We had a decade where we either in the playoffs or competing in the playoffs, at the trade deadline acquiring people. At some point, something’s got to give. Last year was that point. They traded everyone away and got a ton of players.

“That’s what you have to do. Nobody likes to lose. Fans don’t like to lose. Players don’t like to lose. Davey doesn’t like to lose. But it happens, it happens to every organization, but I know this team doesn’t want it to happen for a long time — so I don’t think you’re looking at a long time of this. … Support them, stick with them, and you can be those fans that were our fans from 2006 to 2012.”

This weekend the definition of success was different. It was about celebrating Zimmerman, about putting his number up in Nats Park forever, about getting all of his old buddies back together, about consumption in untold quantity. “I’m sure after the game we’ll be drinking a lot of Sprites together,” Martinez said before Saturday’s outing, and one assumes the result didn’t harm his enthusiasm for the idea.

For Zimmerman, the weekend was a chance to take stock of an incredible career, to thank the fans who helped persuade him to stay in the first place. “We all pretend to be this person when you’re little,” Zimmerman said. “But nobody ever believes it’s going to happen.” For Nats fans, it was also a psychological respite from another difficult season, two days when the team’s struggles could recede into the background and everybody could take a moment to remember how good they once had it, and for how long. They were all just here for the party.

(Top photo: Brad Mills / USA Today)

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