- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When Ryan Zimmerman called agent Brodie Van Wagenen to discuss the numbers on his five-year contract extension one final time, he was in the bowels of Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, about five minutes from going out to stretch before the Nationals’ first game of the year. The team was 0-0 then, coming off a tumultuous spring that finished on a coda of optimism, and Zimmerman had every reason to stand firm in the long-term commitment he was about to make to the franchise.

Zimmerman called his parents after the game, told them about the five-year, $45 million deal he was about to sign and asked them to keep it quiet. Even the 12-6 loss to the Florida Marlins couldn’t dampen his optimism.

“I didn’t even tell my brother for a while. I didn’t want to get in trouble,” Zimmerman said. “That was the hardest part, for the week and a half or whatever it was, trying to keep it quiet. … You get excited, but you can’t tell anyone.”

Between the time Zimmerman gave his final approval to the deal and the time it was announced Monday, the Nationals stumbled to a 1-10 record. Their efforts to put together a respectable season have appeared as futile as last year, and the third baseman at times has wondered aloud whether he wants to be part of a perennial last-place team.

Yet Monday he sounded as confident as ever that he hasn’t signed off on spending the next five years in purgatory.

“They went after some people this offseason. I think next offseason, they’ll take another step and go after some more people. We’re really not that far away. … I really don’t think we’re that far, and it’s not going to be that hard to do it,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think if I didn’t have the trust in them that I would’ve done this deal. If someone says you’re going to lose 100 games every year, there’s no way I’m going to stay there.”

As much as Monday’s announcement represented a commitment by the Nationals - the $45 million deal is the largest in franchise history - it was also a show of faith by Zimmerman.

His first two years of free agency, the years when he could potentially sign a long-term deal with a contender, will be spent in Washington. There isn’t a no-trade clause in the deal, but that’s partially because Zimmerman and Van Wagenen fought harder for the fifth year of the contract to be guaranteed instead of a team option.

For the next five years, it appears the 24-year-old is falling or flying with the Nationals.

“This is a statement, not only for Ryan but for the Nationals, that they’re in partnership together,” Van Wagenen said. “Ryan, from the day he was drafted, felt a sense of community with this organization and with this city.”

Both sides had been thinking about a long-term deal since the end of Zimmerman’s first season, but the path to get there was circuitous. Van Wagenen said the two sides first discussed the possibility of a long-term deal Dec. 6, 2006. Team president Stan Kasten said there were “1,000 permutations” to the contract, and Van Wagenen said the two sides discussed every length of deal imaginable.

Van Wagenen praised former general manager Jim Bowden for getting the negotiations moving, saying it was Bowden who first saw the potential in Zimmerman as a franchise player.

But things didn’t move toward their ultimate conclusion until March 1, when Kasten took over negotiations after Bowden’s resignation. The team president was “truly relentless,” in Van Wagenen’s words, sometimes calling five or six times a day. The final step in the deal came 40 minutes before the Nationals were due to stretch on Opening Day, when the Nationals agreed to guarantee the fifth year.

Then Zimmerman played coy about the contract for two weeks, keeping his brother, friends, teammates and the media in the dark about the deal as Van Wagenen and Kasten hammered out final language before he finally married his future to the franchise’s fate.

“If someone says you’re going to lose 100 games every year, there’s no way I’m going to stay there,” Zimmerman said. “I enjoy winning, and I think we’re going to do it.”

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