- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

A few hours before the Washington Nationals’ last game of 2005, Ryan Zimmerman sat in the nearly empty dugout and squinted into a surprisingly hot early October morning.

The sun was dazzling. So is his future.

As teammate and career journeyman Jamey Carroll put it, “Who wouldn’t want to be Ryan Zimmerman right now? You’d have to be crazy not to want to be in his position. I’d like to play on the same team with him for many years.”

At the end of an intriguing and startlingly inconsistent first season, the Nats remain in a state of nearly complete flux. Nobody knows who the owner, general manager and field manager will be when spring training begins 41/2 months from now. And who would dare to guess what lies immediately ahead for a team that in 2005 proved stellar in the season’s first half and stinky in the second?

But write this down and mark it well: Ryan Zimmerman will have a tremendous impact, and the feeling is that it will be sooner rather than later.

One of the biggest decisions to be made about 2006 is whether Zimmerman or gimpy, 38-year-old Vinny Castilla will be the regular third baseman. Unless the Nats are nuts, bet on Zimmerman. Many baseball men in the organization and elsewhere think he’s ready now, a scant five months after leaving the genteel University of Virginia campus.

“I have signed a two-year contract [for $3.2million a season], and I expect to be back,” said Castilla, whose power numbers declined precipitously this season away from hitter-friendly Coors Field. “As far as I know, I’ll be the everyday third baseman.”

Do you suppose Vinny also believes in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus?

Because Zimmerman is about the same age (21) and size (6-feet-3, 210 pounds) as Cal Ripken when the latter joined the Baltimore Orioles in 1981, some are comparing him to the Iron Man. That’s fine, as long as we remember that potential isn’t the same as performance.

And if you want to hear something really scary, how about this? Ripken batted .128 in 23 games for the Orioles at the end of 1981. Zimmerman batted .397 in 20 games for the Nats this season.

As Red Barber, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster, might have put it, “Oho doctor!”

Conversationally as well as athletically, there are similarities between the two infielders. Like Ripken, Zimmerman is friendly, polite and guarded in his remarks: “It’s been a crazy year, but I don’t think you can reflect on it while you’re still doing it.” … “I’m happy to be here [shades of ‘Bull Durham’] — everything else is a bonus.” … “Yeah, I’m a little surprised, because I didn’t think I’d perform this well at the beginning.” … “It’s the same game up here — you just have to get used to playing against guys you’ve always watched on TV.” … “You’re going to fail at times, and you have to accept that.”

So the guy isn’t Eminently Quotable — so what? Neither was Ripken, and nobody complained.

On the diamond, Zimmerman indeed could evolve as the next Ripken as thousands cheer. Or he could become the next Bobby Bonner, who was considered a better prospect than Cal in the Orioles’ farm system and proceeded to bat .194 during a 61-game jolt of java in the bigs.

Ya just never know. Which is, after all, why they play the games.

Unlike Teddy Ballgame in his epic season of 1941, Zimmerman’s batting average slipped below .400 on the final day. There was both good and bad to be noted during his four appearances at the plate. Facing veteran Jon Lieber of the Philadelphia Phillies in the second inning, he smashed a ball just inside the bag at third for his 10th double in just 56 at-bats. But he also was fooled badly on two subsequent strikeouts, taking weak swings at pitches from Lieber and Ugueth Urbina.

Zimmerman is still awaiting his first major league home run, though most of those 10 doubles and many of his singles were shots. But not to worry, said hitting coach Tom McCraw.

“He hits line drives, and that’s what you have to do to be a good hitter,” McCraw explained. “He’s confident, he does what he has to do in practice, and the power will come. He just has a tremendous upside for a young ballplayer.”

Like you-know-who?

“It’s hard to make comparisons,” insisted first base coach Don Buford, who occupies a spot alongside Ripken in the Orioles Hall of Fame. “Let’s just say Ryan has all the tools.”

After 10 days or so of R&R; at home in Virginia Beach, Zimmerman will begin play in the Arizona Fall League. He says he’s looking forward to it — and what lies beyond.

“But I’m not thinking about next season right now,” he insisted. “I’ll just go out and play, and whatever happens happens. But it should be fun.”

For us, too.

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