- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Ryan Zimmerman walks into the clubhouse with the presence of an established star.

It’s not that the Washington Nationals third baseman tries to draw attention to himself or has an ounce of conceit in his 200-pound body. He just carries himself the way a 10-time All-Star would be expected to: with poise, character and the desire to be a veteran clubhouse leader.

Zimmerman, though, is just 22 years old, the second-youngest player on the Nationals’ 71-man spring-training roster (only a month ahead of rookie catcher Jesus Flores). By all accounts, he should be the one looking up to others, not vice versa.

But as Zimmerman points out, “Age is just a number.” And on a club that is embarking on a long-term rebuilding project, a 22-year-old with one full major league season under his belt is capable of being a leader.

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“Yeah. I mean, I’m going to have to be,” he said. “There’s so many things that we don’t know about [on this team], but some people are going to have to be the veteran guys, and I’m going to have to be one of them.”

It’s an unusual situation, and perhaps it says more about the current state of the Nationals franchise than it does about the young third baseman. But it takes a certain kind of ballplayer, even on a team like this, to be both willing and able to handle the immense pressure now being placed on Zimmerman’s shoulders.

And make no mistake: The Nationals are putting plenty of pressure on him, having all but anointed him the face of the franchise for the next decade.

Not that he doesn’t deserve the title.

“I’m shocked at how mature [for] his age he is,” said manager Manny Acta, who got to know Zimmerman a little bit last year as the New York Mets’ third base coach. “That’s why he’s respected all around the league. Because he respects the game and he respects everybody and plays the game. He’s a pro, on and off the field. He’s a unique guy.”

Nationals fans don’t need to be reminded of that. They saw all those qualities during Zimmerman’s fabulous rookie season, in which he hit .287, hit 20 homers, led the club with 47 doubles and 110 RBI, played sparkling defense and constantly came through in the clutch.

That impressive resume nearly earned Zimmerman National League Rookie of the Year honors. He wound up losing to Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez by four points in the closest race since the Baseball Writers’ Association of America adopted the current voting method in 1980.

Inside the Washington clubhouse, players speak of Zimmerman as though he had won the award. Few guys in uniform command the kind of respect or receive the kind of accolades he does.

“Just the maturity, how he handles his business,” right fielder Austin Kearns said. “And consistency. I don’t think he was ever too high or too low. He was very consistent every day.”

He wasn’t, however, very vocal. Like most rookies, Zimmerman didn’t feel it was his place to criticize teammates or speak up when he saw something he didn’t like. Even if he wanted to.

“There were definitely a few times last year where some things were being done in ways I’d never done it,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean it was wrong. But I thought if they were handled differently, we might have had a better chance of being a better team. And that’s the goal: Everyone wants to be a better team.”

This time around, Zimmerman believes he (and other clubhouse leaders) will feel comfortable making their views known.

“If someone does something, we’re not going to be afraid to step up and say, ‘Hey, that’s not right,’ ” he said. “That’s what we needed last year, and I don’t think we had a lot of people who were willing to do that. But with the relationships we have this year, I don’t think we’re afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. We’re not afraid that person’s going to look at you a different way.”

Don’t confuse Zimmerman’s newfound bravado for arrogance. Despite all his success, he has maintained a level head, even if he’s now afforded all kinds of opportunities he never before imagined.

Like partying at the Super Bowl with Scarlett Johansson. (Explanation: Zimmerman was invited to attend a party thrown by his agency, CAA, which represents a who’s who list of Hollywood actors, including Johansson, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.)

“You look around the room, and it’s kind of funny to be in the same party as those people,” he said. “It kind of makes you want to keep doing well in baseball and keep doing the things that make the offseason fun.”

Baseball, though, is always first on Zimmerman’s mind. He barely took any time off this winter, just a couple of weeks for a vacation to Cabo San Lucas before returning to his home in Virginia Beach to begin an offseason training program. He also took some time to shop for a new townhouse in Arlington, where he’ll now settle in. He wants to make the Washington area his home for good.

Zimmerman has been in Florida since early January, working regularly with Nationals special assistant Barry Larkin on his defense, particularly footwork drills that Zimmerman says could eliminate at least five of the 15 errors he committed in 2006.

He wants to set an example on the field as someone who’s willing to put in as much time as necessary to make himself a better player. And he wants to set an example off the field as well, as someone who’s willing to become a leader for the franchise he has now come to embody.

“I’m going to be here for a long time,” Zimmerman said. “Might as well start now.”


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