Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Star Talents & Qualities

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2005, MLB’s hollow promises ran dry and the fiendish opposition by Peter Angelos, curmudgeon owner of the Orioles, was overcome - finally.  The Montreal Expos moved south, donned script “W” caps and were reborn as the Washington Nationals.

The honeymoon was brief.  For years there wasn’t much to celebrate beyond the team’s presence.  Stephen Strasburg didn’t arrive until 2010.  Jayson Werth was signed a year later.  In 2012, Bryce Harper was called up and the Nationals managed their first winning season – eight years since fleeing the great white north.  Before “that” - the dark period between 2005 and 2010 - there was Ryan Zimmerman…and little else. 

Zimmerman attended high school in Virginia Beach and played baseball at the University of Virginia.  In 2005, the rebooted Nationals, an organization pillaged of talent while languishing in Montreal and in desperate need of a franchise player, selected the local prospect with the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft.  Since debuting later that year, Zimmerman has been everything for the Nationals: a silver slugger, gold glove awardee, an All-Star, kindling for a budding fan base and a pillar in the community.  Until all the aforementioned “help” arrived, Zimmerman was the only player on the roster likely to be a Nat beyond a single presidential election.  He wasn’t just the team’s third baseman and best player; he was the Nationals’ identity. 

It would be sacrilegious around these parts to compare Zimmerman’s connection to the area, arrival in Washington and meaning the Nationals franchise with the real-life fairytale of Aberdeen’s Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore and the Orioles; but there are similarities.  Baseball acumen aside, there aren’t two better people in the game. Ripken’s reputation speaks for itself.  Zimmerman is the consummate professional, a gentleman’s gentleman and in 2006 put his name on the ziMS Foundation, a charity dedicated to combating Multiple Sclerosis, a disease afflicting his mother.  I personally witnessed Zimmerman’s community work when he spent an unpublicized afternoon with a group of very sick kids at Children’s National Medical Center in 2010.  I’ll never forget it.

And now there’s another parallel in Ripken and Zimmerman’s stories: a position move.  Ripken, a long-time shortstop, was moved to third base in 1997.  Zimmerman, a third baseman with hot-corner skills that were once compared to Brooks Robinson, is now playing left field.  Unlike Ripken, whose shift to third occurred late in his career, Zimmerman’s reassignment to left field is happening in his prime and as a result of an uncooperative right shoulder ravaged by injury.  Father time - Ripken’s culprit - defeats us all; Zimmerman’s circumstance – bad luck – is much more difficult to accept.

But here are a few thoughts, as reported by Adam Kilgore in The Washington Post, from Zimmerman on the matter.  Regarding his viability at third base, Zimmerman said, “I don’t know if I’m the best option over there anymore.”  Zimmerman touched on the impact to the team with this gem: “My goal is to win games…get to the playoffs…this gives us the best chance.”  And then, the reincarnated outfielder offered this reflective thought: “I have a hard time taking anything negative from baseball…I’ve had a pretty good life…I look at it as more of, maybe just a new chapter, something like that.”

That’s about as good as it gets – textbook stuff.  A potentially toxic issue was completely diffused by objectivity, humility, optimism, selflessness and class.  I initially characterized Zimmerman’s reactions as obligatory for an established professional athlete.  Alas, I’m showing my age.  There are few people today – athlete or otherwise – that would have handled an analogous situation with such dignity.  And if any D.C. athlete qualified to play the entitlement card, gripe and placate an inflated sense of self-importance, it would’ve been Ryan Zimmerman.  But Zimmerman is the anti-diva.  He’s a throwback to a period when people routinely thought beyond the boundaries of their personal world and considered others - team and teammates in this case - ahead of themselves. 

Zimmerman’s perspective is as rare as his baseball talent.  I suspect Cal Ripken Jr. is tipping his cap to Nat’s new outfielder; for what it’s worth, so am I.

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