There are multiple reasons why it might be easy for Washington Nationals fans to write off last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There was the shortened season that turned out to be only 37% of an actual schedule. There was the lack of fans at the ballpark. And for the first time since before the franchise moved to D.C., Ryan Zimmerman did not suit up for any regular season games at the Major League level.
But have no fear, the Nationals’ face of the franchise is back for 2021. And if his spring training performance is any indicator (five homers in his first eight games), it’s not in a ceremonial ‘victory lap’ role, but as a contributor to a contending club.
“I’m not coming back to get a last at-bat in front of fans,” Zimmerman said after signing his new contract in January. “I’m fine with how my career would have ended if I didn’t come back.”
The chance to return to the franchise where he had been a cornerstone for more than a decade made whatever pull retirement may have fade away.
“It’s still a pretty good close-knit group of some of the guys that were there the last time I played,” Zimmerman said. “If it was a different situation and we had a bunch of roster turnover, it might have made the decision (to come back) a little harder. But they do such a great job of keeping a good group of guys together. It’s something that you want to be a part of.”
And not being part of the Nats clubhouse was something that he never really got used to last summer.
“I think that’s what I missed the most, not being around the guys,” Zimmerman said. “Not having it for four months really made me realize how much I do love it.”
While Zimmerman missed the game, his team missed his presence at the plate, in the field, and in the clubhouse as well.
“For me, it’s his conversations — not just with me, but his teammates. He’s a super-positive guy all the time. He’s kind of that unspoken captain,” Manager Davey Martinez said.
“I love talking to him all the time. Talking to him about the game and life itself. He’s a tremendous player and a person.”
Martinez, who was able to play until he was 37, said he thinks Zimmerman, at age 37, is by no means winding things down.
“I tell him: I don’t think this could be your last go-round if you keep yourself in shape — and he’s swinging the bat well right now — he could probably play for a few more years,” Martinez said.
That possibility is definitely not lost on the Nationals’ first-ever draft pick as he plays in his third decade as a major leaguer.
“You know if I can kind of settle into this role and do well this year, by no means does this have to be my last year,” Zimmerman said.
After the trade for switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, Zimmerman’s role this year — in theory — will consist of pinch-hitting, batting against lefties and being the designated hitter in American League cities.
But he’s played long enough to know many theories are just that.
In theory, Zimmerman was supposed to be enjoying the sunset of his career in 2017 (after averaging 12 homers with 53 RBI over the previous three years) when he hit a career-best 36 home runs (to go with a second-best 108 RBI).
In theory, he was supposed to be a spare part after playing 52 injury-riddled games in 2019, and Zimmerman’s broken-bat single was a key part in the Wild Card game-winning rally.
Did we mention he also hit the first Nats home run in the World Series that year? Sunsets are funny like that.