Friday, September 1, 2017

Washington's Wahoo

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This isn’t about Charlottesville, Virginia, but rather a man who spent a lot of time there – Ryan Zimmerman. 

Several years ago, too many for comfort, Zimmerman starred for the University of Virginia baseball team.  He was a slick-fielding third baseman with impressive offensive chops - a rare combination that earned him the eye of MLB scouts. 

About the same time Zimmerman was done playing ball for the Wahoo’s, a really bad MLB team was jettisoning Montreal and settling in to a new home in the lower 48, one that had been without a professional baseball team for over 30 years.  The team, of course, became the Washington Nationals and it used the fourth overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft, its first since moving south, to select Zimmerman. 

It was an unlikely marriage given that the team didn’t exist when Zimmerman enrolled at Virginia, but it had a storybook quality too obvious to ignore: The semi-local kid – Zimmerman grew up in Virginia Beach before moving to Charlottesville - gets picked by the new home team in need of a young star to enrapture a newborn fan base. 

Zimmerman was all the Nationals could have hoped for.  With his extensive college experience, Zimmerman fast-tracked through the minor leagues and was called up late in the 2005 season.  From 2006-2012, a period when Washington transitioned from a bottom-feeder to playoff mainstay, Zimmerman was the franchise rock.  Before Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and a whole lot of wins arrived, Zimmerman consistently batted around .280, hit 20-25 homeruns a year, played a gold glove-level third base and was, in short, one of the few reasons to care about the Nationals.  He also had what fans love – a flair for the dramatic.  In his first major league at-bat, Zimmerman stroked a double.  And in the first game at Nationals Park in 2008, Zimmerman hit a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth.

But reality sometimes intervenes to spoil fairy tales. 

As the Nationals finally became a contender in 2012, Zimmerman began having chronic shoulder problems.  Errant throws and stints on the disabled list became the norm.  To compensate, Zimmerman was moved to first base on a full-time basis in 2015.  It didn’t work.  Zimmerman, who had batted under .275 only once from 2005-2014, saw his average drop to .249 in 2015 and crater to .218 in 2016.  It was painful to watch.  Wholly indecent and unfair.  The one-time face of the franchise looked done. 

But baseball’s a funny game, one where magical seasons can appear from nowhere to make or rejuvenate careers.  Zimmerman is in the midst of such a season.  With roughly 40 games remaining, Zimmerman is hitting .307 with 29 homeruns and 86 RBI and is on-pace to set career highs in all categories.  More importantly, he’s avoided the disabled list (knock on wood).  It is a heart-warming renaissance that is reminiscent of one experienced by another franchise legend in Baltimore a generation ago.

Entering the 1991 season, Cal Ripken Jr. hadn’t hit above .264 since 1986.  The Streak was alive and well, but his career was at a crossroads.  Then he found something…something spectacular.  Ripken solidified his status an immortal by hitting .323, belting 34 homeruns, recording 114 RBI – all career highs – and winning the 1991 American League MVP award.  Zimmerman’s not quite having a year like that (nor is he the player Ripken was), but the rejuvenating and validating effect is the same, and it couldn’t have happened to two better or more humble and classy men.

In late 2016 and in late 1990, Zimmerman and Ripken, respectively, faced a chasm between the players their stats said they were and the players they still hoped to be.  Battered but not broken, inspired more than deterred, both men persevered through the ugly, the unrecognizable and the completely unacceptable and rediscovered the best of themselves.  President Barrack Obama once said, “The best way not to feel hopeless is to get up and do something.”  Zimmerman and Ripken clearly did.   

That’s good soul food – for individuals and society at large.  Hmm…maybe this was more about Charlottesville than I originally thought.

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