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Ryan Zimmerman: The Nationals' model of perseverance, longevity & really staying in the fight

First draft pick in 2005, first to hit a walk-off homer to open Nationals Park, first to hit a World Series home run.

WASHINGTON — They call him Mr. National. 

It's not because of all those clutch hits, the walk-off home run that opened Nationals Park in 2008, or even belting a fastball from the world's most dominant pitcher Tuesday night over the fence in left-center field, homering in his World Series debut.

No, Ryan Zimmerman simply IS the Washington Nationals. He was the team's first draft pick in 2005, when they plucked him No. 4 overall out of the University of Virginia. He's gone from the 21-year-old kid in the clubhouse, learning at the knee of the late Hall-of-Fame manager Frank Robinson, to now the old head. 

Zimmerman is in the last year of a six-year, $100 million contract. The team is not expected to pick up his $24 million option, but the Nationals could offer him something in the $4 million to $5 million range to ensure he stays a National until he retires. He already holds all-time franchise records (Expos and Nationals) for hits (1,784), home runs (270), RBIs (1,015), at-bats (6,399), runs (936) and doubles (401). IF Zimmerman were to return and remain relatively healthy, he would need to play less than half a season (79 games) to break former Expo Tim Wallach's all-time games played record of 1,767 games.

And now, at 35, he's enjoying the rewards only resolve and resilience can bring.

“It’s a quick 14 years of tryin’ to get there," said his father, Keith Zimmerman, last week as he spoke outside his Washington, North Carolina, home with his wife, Cheryl, sitting by his side. "Same as he was when he was 7 years old tryin’ to get there.”

Like a lot of kids Ryan's age who played Little League, he fantasized about one day being a big-leaguer. The only problem was, young Ryan was about to hit his teenage years and he was a flat-out rail: Corn-silk thin, constantly looking like he needed a meal:

"Scrawny, skinny," said Cheryl, chuckling.

"Ryan was skinny," Keith added. "We told him we were going to throw him a party when he got to 100 pounds." 

RELATED: Nationals 1B Ryan Zimmerman hits home run in first career World Series at-bat

But he grew. And grew. And Ryan became so good at baseball -- his fielding, his power to both fields -- that the University took a gamble on the barely-recruited high school player and offered him a scholarship. He starred with the Cavaliers for three years before the Nationals beckoned. After a short stint in the minors, he was brought up to make his Major League debut on Sept. 28, 2005, sharing third-base responsibilities with the veteran Vinny Castilla. By next spring training, the job was all his. 

All these years later -- two All-Star selections, 270 home runs, 1,015 runs batted in, marriage, two daughters -- he hasn't changed much, his folks said.

"He's a good kid," Cheryl said.

"He's the same guy you see in the dugout and on the field," Keith said. "He's quiet. He's level-keeled."

He's also incredibly generous with his time and resources. Ryan has easily done more voluntary community service than any Washington athlete the past 15 years. Be it reading to kids or signing bobble heads, he bonded with Washington from the moment he was brought up from the minors. Now D.C. is feeling Zim like never before:

Credit: AP
Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman celebrating his three-run homer off Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Pedro Baez (52) with teammate Howie Kendrick in the fifth inning in Game 4 of a baseball National League Division Series, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“It’s about time," Cheryl said, laughing.

“It’s very gratifying," Keith added. "But the city has always taken him in.”

Zimmerman has also more tenure than any other Washington pro athlete, beating Alex Ovechkin’s 2005 Capitals debut by a month. If any player on the roster embodies Manager Davey Martinez's #StayInTheFight slogan on the Nats, it’s Zim. A myriad of injuries and postseason heartbreak have almost primed him for this moment. And if he was part of a team that won it all, Keith said it would be because of one reason: 

"I think it'd the culmination of a lot, lot of hard work." 

RELATED: Nationals, MLB's oldest team, are out to prove age is just a number

Having known Zimmerman and covered many of his games since his rookie year -- mostly as a sports columnist with the Washington Post -- I have a confession: I was worried he'd be the next Don Mattingly. Some context: Mattingly was one of the greatest hitters of all time; he had an eagle-eye like Wade Boggs or Ted Williams or Tony Gwynn, always finding a way to make contact and prolong an at-bat until he saw the pitch he liked. 

The problem was, Mattingly came along at a time when the New York Yankees were putrid on the field. He predated all of Derek Jeter's World Series-winning teams and his only real shot to win it all came in 1995. That chance went away when the postseason was canceled because of a bitter feud between the players and owners during collective bargaining.

So the Captain never got his postseason due. 

As the first-round losses in the divisional series piled up -- four in all from 2012 to 2017 -- Zimmerman appeared on the same path, destined to be that guy who carried the franchise during the lean years until they got good but not good enough.

To see him take Garritt Cole deep on Tuesday night, igniting a team down 2-0 against the Astros' ace was almost cathartic as a long-time observer of not only Zimmerman's career but his evolution as a person. 

It's hard to find many people, never mind pro athletes, that are worth rooting for more than Ryan Zimmerman.

Credit: ZiMS Foundation

He learned about humility and sacrifice young. In 1995, when he was just 11, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since 2000, she's needed a wheelchair. Ryan has said often that helped him grow up and take on responsibilities at a younger age than most. Cheryl's affliction also inspired him to found the ZiMS Foundation, dedicated to curing MS.

Zimmerman may be one of the few players in all of sports to ever have a field-for-a-night clause in his contract, where he actually gets to have National Park to himself one night a year. Night at the Park with Ryan Zimmerman became a staple. He would fly in magician David Blaine and different musical acts. All proceeds went to his foundation.

To the franchise he gave a face to and a generation of Washington baseball fans, he'll always be Mr. National. Yet to his parents, he's the boy who learned to care for others when he was young, the boy who grew up to help Mom and Dad long before he became a famous baseball player.

"He's good to everybody," Keith said as Cheryl nodded. "And especially us. He takes care of us and the rest of the family. He's pretty special."

RELATED: Nationals manager Davey Martinez got teary-eyed after Ryan Zimmerman home run

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