Ryan Zimmerman’s spirit persisted over the years

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So for figures such as Zimmerman, who spend much of their careers as the best player on a bad team, the line they walk is a thin one. Submit to the losing and be labeled a “losing player,” or hope the day will come when the current shifts. Keeping one’s head above the fray becomes a Herculean task.

“It’s frustrating when you’re losing,” said outfielder Nick Markakis, whose Baltimore Orioles are playoff-bound for the first time in 15 years. “But we play baseball for a living, and it’s great to be able to do what we love doing and get paid for it. You want to win, and losing’s tough. Whether you’re up or down, you still have to keep your composure and be the same person.”

Zimmerman, who even his fiancee, Heather Downen, said rarely breaks from his steady demeanor, is not unlike many of his homegrown Nationals teammates: When he arrived, he was stunned by some of the players that surrounded him.

He remembers once witnessing a jovial scene in the showers after a loss and asking a reporter, “Aren’t you supposed to care for 10 minutes that we lost again?”

“At the beginning, you’re in the big leagues so it doesn’t really matter,” Zimmerman said. “You’re just excited to be there. But then, as you get older and you get going, some of my friends have been to the playoffs and been on winning teams and you’re like, ‘Well, hopefully, you know? Hopefully, one day I’ll get there.’

“You start to want that more and more, and the happiness from being in the big leagues and being able to play rubs off a little bit. You’re happy when you do things for your career, you take that next step, become a better player, but after that, ultimately everyone wants a team that wins.”

But as the Nationals went through this season, frequently reaching new high-water marks, teammates never saw a change in Zimmerman.

Even as he struggled through some of the most trying weeks of his career, when inflammation in his right AC joint made his shoulder ache and robbed his bat of strength, he never snapped.

His approach, which everyone uses the words “never too high” and “never too low” to describe, was the same as it had been for the previous seven years.

“Zim doesn’t really wear his heart on his sleeve,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the few players whose tenure predates Zimmerman’s in the organization. “He’s not only the face of the franchise, but he’s like the heartbeat. He’s the same guy all the time. You can’t ever tell if he’s upset, if he’s frustrated, if he’s happy, if he’s sad. It’s just Zim.”

“Even when the team was bad, he never broke character,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “He stayed himself. He kind of hovered above it. You can see why he made it through it OK, and why he played so well on such bad teams. It’s just who he is. He’s just a really good player with a really good mindset. Sure it wore on him. It had to. But it didn’t affect him.”

At a crossroads

There were times, though, when Zimmerman wondered if he’d ever get to celebrate the way he did Monday night. Or, if he did, if it would be in the District.

“That was such a cool moment for him,” said Downen, a Washington native who’s known Zimmerman since 2006. “He’s worked so hard and every year he’d just get kind of disappointed.”

Zimmerman never publicly questioned the Nationals‘ plans or their path to this point, but there were times he evaluated the situation and knew he’d have to decide whether to continue to be a part of it.

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