Ten long months ago, Ryan Zimmerman might have taken the field with this subliminal sign flashing over his head: Future of the Franchise.
This season, though, has suggested a different and disturbing message for the Washington Nationals third baseman: Sophomore Jinx.
In his first year, Zimmerman batted .287, whacked 20 homers, drove in a startling 110 runs and failed to become National League Rookie of the Year only because fortune smiled rather inexplicably on Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins.
But as the skidding Nats and soaring Chicago Cubs met in an RFK matinee yesterday, Zimmerman presumably didn't feel much like celebrating. Over his first 83 games, the once and hopefully future wunderkind was hitting a mediocre .245 with just 42 RBI — numbers that hardly heralded the permanent arrival of another Mike Schmidt or even Scott Rolen.
Baseball history is littered with the carcasses of players who had a marvelous rookie year and then vanished into a horsehide Bermuda Triangle, Mark Fidrych and Joe Charboneau, to name two. Might Zimmerman, perish the thought, join their disgraced ranks?
Maybe the problem is that there simply aren't enough holidays on the calendar. Zimmerman had homered on Father's Day and Independence Day 2006 and Mother's Day and Father's Day 2007. Now he was at it again yesterday with a first-inning solo swat off the Cubs' Rich Hill, Ryan's first RBI in 14 games.
Most pleasing to Nats manager Manny Acta and interim hitting coach Lenny Harris was that it came on a 3-2 pitch. One of Zimmerman's problems this season, they say, is that he hasn't been patient enough — sometimes chasing bad pitches "while the ball is still in the pitcher's glove," as Harris put it.
Yet nobody with the Nats admits to being overly concerned, least of all Zimmerman himself.
There are extenuating circumstances for his offensive woes, chiefly the absences of departed Alfonso Soriano to get on base ahead of him and injured Nick Johnson to "protect" Zimmerman batting behind him.
Combine these factors with the unreal and unrealistic expectations placed on Zimmerman by his super stats as a rookie and you have a classic case of overbearing pressure on a guy who was playing college baseball two years ago.
"But you can't make excuses," Zimmerman said before yesterday's game. "I'm disappointed I haven't done better, but that's part of the game — and it's a hard game. Sure, there have been big situations when I've swung at bad pitches and haven't gotten it done. But in this game, you just have to go out every day, work hard and keep learning, whether it's your first year or your 20th. I'm sure Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are still learning, too."
With the Nats last in the major leagues in offensive production, Zimmerman has been trying consciously or subconsciously to do too much — a usually self-destructive tendency in rounders.
"We've been trying to get him to quiet down at the plate, reduce his movement," Harris said. "He hasn't been [hitting] on all cylinders because pitchers have been adjusting to him and he's been chasing and not using the whole field. But baseball is indeed a learning process, and he's one of the quickest learners and smartest hitters I've ever seen."
The perennially upbeat Acta also accentuates the positive.
"Sure he's been up and down, but we know he can hit and field," the manager said. "It's hard to keep learning at the major league level, and he's never failed before. Yes, pitchers are adjusting to him, and now he must adjust to them. We've told him, 'Don't try to do anybody else's job. Just do your own.' "
Other teams still respect Zimmerman's enormous talent. After he homered and singled in his first two trips yesterday, the Cubs walked him intentionally to load the bases with one out in the fifth. Lousy idea, Lou Piniella. Dmitri Young, who began the afternoon batting 86 points higher than Zimmerman, promptly added to his All-Star resume with a grand slam that powered the awakened Nats to a 6-0 victory before 39,207 mostly delighted and probably astonished spectators.
One game does not a season make, either for Ryan Zimmerman or his team. But at this point, any sign of a turnaround is welcome.
"You can always get better," Zimmerman said. Certainly he will — and the sooner the better.