After another trying evening at the plate, Ryan Zimmerman walks slowly back to the clubhouse.
Zimmerman has struck out twice in this game and generally looked overmatched during his stint with the Washington Nationals’ Class AA affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa.
Zimmerman tells Senators coach Frank Cacciatore he felt more comfortable in his final at-bat, even though he just watched a called third strike.
“You are doing fine,” Cacciatore tells the rookie. “You are being thrown to the wolves. Not only are you beginning at Double-A, but you are coming in in the middle of the season.”
The Nationals made Zimmerman the fourth overall pick in the June draft, giving him a $2.975 million signing bonus. But the club has lavished the 20-year-old with more than money: Zimmerman has drawn both high praise and higher expectations.
Nationals officials drop names like Hall of Fame third basemen Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt and current St. Louis star Scott Rolen when describing Zimmerman’s potential.
“This guy is right there with them,” special assistant and scout Bob Boone said on draft day. “He’s very impressive.”
“That was one of the easiest first-round picks I have ever been a part of,” said general manager Jim Bowden, who described the decision to take Zimmerman as the most important the franchise would make this season.
Zimmerman, a University of Virginia product, is projected to begin his major-league career in Washington when Vinny Castilla’s contract expires after next season. The gangly 6-foot-3, 210-pounder is expected to bat .300, hit 20 to 30 home runs and stockpile Gold Glove awards.
“I try not to let it get to me at all,” Zimmerman says. “I am still a 20-year-old. I am a young man still learning things. When you sit back and think about it, it is pretty crazy. I just think how lucky I am and look at it that way instead of all the expectations. Just come out and have fun and play ball like you have your whole life.”
Not quite like he has his whole life. The Virginia Beach native is getting immersed in his new pro baseball life: the overnight bus rides, the monotony of days in nondescript hotels, the games every day.
He also is getting a hardball education.
Zimmerman took a brief tuneup at Class A Savannah (Ga.) and now is getting a crash course at Class AA, an unusually high placement for any rookie. He is at least two years younger than anyone else on the roster, and he is the only player not in at least his fourth professional season.
The early results have not been good: Zimmerman is batting .211 with one home run and seven RBI at Harrisburg. He has four doubles and has shined in the field, but that was little consolation as he walked out of Prince George’s Stadium last week after a game against the Bowie Baysox.
“I knew it was going to be real tough,” says Zimmerman, who batted .393 at Virginia last season. “These guys know how to pitch. It is a lot different than college. It is going to take a little while to get used to.”
His defense has lived up to its billing, evidenced this game by the way he smothered a hot shot to his backhand side just inside the bag and easily threw out the runner.
However, he has looked overwhelmed at the plate, with his long swing that begins with a twitching motion well above his head and a stance deep in the batters box. Zimmerman has struggled (he is re-learning wood bats after using aluminum in college) and has been fooled by experienced minor leaguers.
“Pitchers here have a lot more movement on pitches,” Zimmerman says. “They are smarter pitchers. When you are expecting a fastball, you are probably not going to get one. That is going to be the hardest thing for me, and what I am going to try to work on the most this year is recognizing pitches and getting used to how they pitch.”
This struggle is new for Zimmerman, but challenges in life are not.
He was a lightly regarded shortstop at Virginia Beach’s Kellam High School, was not drafted by a major league team and recruited mainly by small college programs. Virginia was one of the few major programs that showed interest, and he accepted a partial scholarship to head to Charlottesville.
There he became a regular, largely because of his defense when he was converted to third base.
“When I came to college, I was only 17,” Zimmerman says. “I wasn’t quite physically mature as everyone else. I put a lot of pride in my defense. Even in high school when I was younger I couldn’t hit as well as the other guys, so I took a whole lot of pride in defense.”
The on-field challenges paled compared to the lessons he learned at home with mother Cheryl and father Max, a former third baseman at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) in North Carolina.
Cheryl, an elementary school teacher, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Ryan was a sophomore in high school. She has required a wheelchair since 2000.
“Watching my mom and what she has gone through has given me more courage and reminds me to appreciate every day,” Zimmerman says. “It just shows you can’t take anything for granted. You have to come ready to play every day because you never know what can happen the next day.”
Those around him sense more than a mature approach to his game and his life; they see a quiet confidence and the look of a talented prospect ready to work through the obstacles and reach his potential.
“He is a special kid,” Harrisburg manager Keith Bodie says. “You can see that. He’s got a lot of [Derek] Jeter in him. He’s got a lot of [Alex Rodriguez] in him. I see those qualities in him. He’s very composed and he’s got obvious talent. He is going to have to make some adjustments along the way. There is no doubt. Everybody does.”
Bodie used to work in the Houston Astros farm system and was Craig Biggio’s first manager in the minors in Asheville, N.C., in 1987. The skipper sees a lot of the seven-time All-Star in the Nationals rookie.
“[Biggio] said to me, ‘Listen, you don’t have to pat me on the back. If you want to, that’s OK. You won’t have to kick me in the [tail] either, but I want you to tell me everything I need to know so I can get to big leagues as soon as I can,’ ” Bodie says. “It was a refreshing attitude. Just the way he carried himself and his intensity. That’s what Zim reminds me of.”
Not surprisingly, Zimmerman prefers not to look too far ahead. And before he can claim a spot on the hot corner at RFK Stadium, he must solve minor league pitching.
“I know I am not going to come out here and do as well as I want to,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know I am going to struggle a little bit sometimes. But that’s baseball. You can’t really get down too much on it.
“You just have to come out every day and try to get better. And realize what a great situation you are in and just take advantage of it.”