- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

Cal Ripken has heard about Ryan Zimmerman. It would be hard not to for anyone who has followed the Washington Nationals at all.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden often would mention Zimmerman, a third baseman drafted out of the University of Virginia, in the same sentence with the likes of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen.

But when Zimmerman took the field Wednesday night at RFK Stadium to make his major league debut at shortstop [-] only his second start since being called up last week [-] there was one image that came to mind, as if stacking up to Scott Rolen wasn’t pressure enough.

It was hard not to help but think of Cal Ripken, another name Bowden has thrown out when talking about his first-round pick.

Of course, there was the size comparison. Ripken changed the expectations for the shortstop position, opening it up for big men like Alex Rodriguez. Ripken was a 6-foot-4, 220-pound shortstop. Zimmerman is 6-foot-3 and listed at 210 pounds.

Ripken was a high school shortstop and pitcher who played third base in the minor leagues but was switched back to shortstop early in 1982, his first full season with the Baltimore Orioles. Zimmerman played some shortstop in high school but was a third baseman in college.

Ripken was a hometown boy who grew up not far from Baltimore in Aberdeen, Md. Zimmerman is at least a regional boy, having grown up in Virginia Beach [-] though, unlike Ripken, he had no more-or-less hometown team in Washington to follow.

And both Ripken and Zimmerman were 20 when they were called up.

What was the biggest adjustment for Ripken to go from third to shortstop?

“It’s a challenge for a big guy,” said Ripken, who faced the reverse challenge at the end of his career when he moved back to third base in 1997, in a telephone interview. “The difference is the footwork and getting in position to throw. It’s different timing. But it can be done. It’s just a matter of working on the repetition of doing it.”

If the comparisons continue throughout his career, Ryan Zimmerman may be Bowden’s greatest claim to fame [-] or a miscalculated footnote if Zimmerman flops along the way.

Orioles manager Earl Weaver moved Ripken to shortstop, going against the conventional wisdom of putting such a big man in a position that had been dominated by smaller, seemingly more agile players. Bowden is the one who pushed for Zimmerman to play shortstop during his brief stay at Class AA Harrisburg shortly after signing with the Nationals.

Zimmerman had one previous start with the major league club, playing third base in place of Vinny Castilla. He looked smooth and comfortable, both on the field and at the plate. His play Wednesday night at shortstop wasn’t as smooth. He committed two errors late in the game and appeared to be anxious at times.

Afterward, Zimmerman said it “was fun, [but] I wish I could’ve done a little better.”

Bowden believes he will and doesn’t consider Zimmerman an experiment or gamble at shortstop.

“He has such tremendous hands and a strong, accurate arm there is no reason why he can’t play,” Bowden said. “We don’t consider Zimmerman a project at shortstop. Certainly there is so much more learning to do at the major league level, but we feel he can play adequate shortstop in the big leagues.”

Adequate would be a step up for the Nationals in the final weeks of the season, compared to five months of suffering with Cristian Guzman at that position. But there is no reason to believe Zimmerman will be the starting shortstop or third baseman or anything else while the Nationals fight for the wild card.

Manager Frank Robinson is expected to keep rotating Guzman, Zimmerman, and Deivi Cruz at shortstop, and whoever gets the hottest hand probably will play the most down the stretch.

Robinson, initially reluctant to put Zimmerman out there at shortstop in such a pressure-packed situation, said he has seen enough to keep the newcomer in the mix.

“I want to take a look at him,” Robinson said. “It could work with him as a shortstop.”

He doesn’t have to be Cal Ripken for it to work. Right now, he just has to avoid being Cristian Guzman.


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