- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — He sits quietly at his locker, talking softly with the veterans bunched around him but otherwise keeping himself well below the radar screen.

Ryan Zimmerman would have it no other way. He may well prove to be the best player in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, but he’s happy to let Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Brian Schneider and Livan Hernandez grab all the attention while he goes about his business preparing for his first full season in the major leagues.

“I don’t have any problems with that,” Zimmerman says of the lack of buzz surrounding him through the first two weeks of spring training. “I’m not going to be someone who needs to be in the limelight and needs to be in the paper or on TV every day. I’m perfectly fine going about my business the way I go about it and not worrying about anything else.”

Try as he might to keep the attention away from him off the field, Zimmerman may have a hard time remaining out of sight on the field, where it’s almost impossible not to notice him.

The Nationals’ 21-year-old rookie third baseman looks and acts much more mature than his age. An imposing physical presence at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he carries himself like a tenured veteran, not someone nine months removed from the University of Virginia.

And when he digs in at the plate, people stop what they’re doing and take notice.

“Sometimes you stand back and watch him during batting practice and say, ‘Wow, he’s only 21,’” said teammate Ryan Church, who’s rooming with Zimmerman this spring. “He’s got it all, everything.”

Including the kind of glove many baseball observers believe comes around once a generation.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden drew plenty of scoffs last summer when, upon drafting Zimmerman fourth overall, he immediately compared his defensive acumen to some of the greatest third basemen in history: Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen.

Zimmerman had those names thrown at him all winter, but he’s not sick of the comparisons.

“It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence as those guys,” he said yesterday morning before Washington’s exhibition opener against the Kia Tigers of Korea. “But on the other hand, it would be ridiculous for me in my first year to go out there and try to be Mike Schmidt or Brooks Robinson. … If 10 years down the road I’ve had some good years and they’re still comparing me to those guys, then I think you can talk about it.”

Two hours after making that humble statement, Zimmerman went out and made a Brooks Robinson-like play, charging in on a slow roller, picking it up bare-handed and firing to first for the out.

Maybe Bowden knew what he was talking about all along.

Truth be told, nothing about Zimmerman to date suggests the bold predictions won’t come true. He zoomed through Washington’s farm system last summer after hitting .393 his junior season at Virginia. He played only four games at Class A Savannah, hit .471 with a 1.059 slugging percentage and instantly was promoted to Class AA Harrisburg.

Sixty-three games and 76 hits later, Zimmerman had a locker in the major league clubhouse. And all he did in his 32 days in Washington was hit .397, rap out 10 doubles and flash that smooth glove enough to persuade team officials to trade incumbent third baseman Vinny Castilla during the winter.

Now here he is, his whirlwind tour — which included a stop at the Arizona Fall League — having arrived in Viera, all but guaranteed a spot in the Nationals’ Opening Day lineup.

It’s not inappropriate to wonder whether perhaps Zimmerman would have been better suited taking a slower path to the majors.

But the Nationals are convinced he’s ready for this. And maybe more importantly, so is Zimmerman.

“I feel like I’m ready,” he said. “You’ve got to be confident in yourself. I mean, do I wish I was in Triple-A? No. Am I going to have to learn on the fly up here like a lot of guys didn’t have to? Yeah. But I feel like I’m mature enough and I know the game good enough to handle that.”

And he knows he doesn’t have to put too much pressure on himself, because the Nationals aren’t doing it to him. Ask Bowden or manager Frank Robinson for predictions on the kid and they will say they’re keeping expectations low. If Zimmerman plays good defense, hits .260 and drives in 60 runs, they will be satisfied.

And even if he struggles early, his place in Washington’s lineup will be secure.

“Even if he doesn’t have a good spring, the kid is going to start the season at third base,” Robinson said. “He’s going to get a real good chance to play this year and perform here and be here. So don’t look at him after a month — I don’t care if he’s hitting .080 — to be out of the lineup.”

And don’t look for Zimmerman, accolades and all, to get a swelled head every time he hears his name in the same sentence as Brooks Robinson.

He will remain in that corner locker, talking softly, knowing his place.

“You’ve got to remember where you are and the guys around you have been here a lot longer than you have,” he said. “I was lucky in that they had to go through a lot more stuff to get here than I did.

“I don’t feel bad for being here by any means. They put me here for a reason. I earned it. But on the other hand, you have to respect them. They put in a lot of years to get here, and they’re up a rung on the ladder from you.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the http://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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