- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ST. LOUIS | The scene Ryan Zimmerman found himself in Monday was one every young ballplayer dreams of realizing. Whether holding court with the media in a hotel ballroom or hanging out on the field during batting practice with fellow All-Stars, Hall of Famers and celebrities, the Washington Nationals third baseman reaped the benefits of his first trip to the Midsummer Classic.

But what should have been a joyous moment symbolizing a player’s emergence on the national stage instead was shrouded by sorrow. A confluence of events in the previous five days - the death of Zimmerman’s grandmother Ilene and then the firing of Nationals manager Manny Acta - cast a pall over the 24-year-old’s All-Star experience.

“Some week, huh?” he said with a sigh and a shrug during a break from his media session at the Hyatt Regency.

No one would fault him if those negative developments prevented him from fully appreciating this high point in his career. In the past week, he traveled from the District to Denver to Houston to Pinehurst, N.C., back to Houston and now to St. Louis, a journey that has been taxing physically and mentally.

But Zimmerman’s strong family bonds are helping him make the most of the trying circumstances.

“My parents have done a good job making sure I appreciate everything that happens to me,” he said. “With all the things that have gone on, it definitely makes you think about how lucky you are to be where you are and have what you have. It makes it that much more special.”

Though he is the lone Washington representative in St. Louis, Zimmerman has plenty of familiar faces around him. The NL roster is loaded with budding young stars whom the Nationals’ third baseman has befriended, most notably the Mets’ David Wright and the Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton.

Those three grew up together in the Tidewater area and played together on youth teams. As the most experienced of the group, Wright had some words of wisdom for his longtime friend.

“The biggest piece of advice is just to enjoy it,” said Wright, who is making his fourth All-Star appearance. “Sometimes you can get caught up and not soak it in as much as you should.”

Since the day the Nationals picked him fourth in the 2005 draft, Zimmerman has been touted as the key member of the organization’s rebuilding efforts. With that, of course, comes an expectation of leadership.

Zimmerman was reluctant to accept the role in his first three big league seasons. But the combination of his personal success, his financial success (he signed a five-year, $45 million extension in April) and the state of the franchise made him realize he needs to take on more responsibility.

“The first couple of years, that was kind of pushed on me, and I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “It’s hard to come into a big league clubhouse and be a 21- or 22-year-old kid and be looked upon to be a leader. … Now I feel like I’m past that. Obviously being here for the long term, I feel it’s my responsibility to mold the team and build this organization to what all the front-office guys want now.”

To that end, Zimmerman spoke Monday with more authority, confidence and edge than perhaps he ever has shown in public. He spoke sympathetically of Acta and supported his former manager but at the same time spoke of the need for more accountability, responsibility and character in the clubhouse.

Three months ago, Zimmerman made a commitment to the Nationals to ride out the lean times and be part of the long-term vision. Since then, he has seen the franchise stumble to the majors’ worst record, lose its general manager, fire its pitching coach and now replace its manager.

But asked whether this season has changed his outlook on the organization’s overall direction, Zimmerman offered a somewhat surprising answer.

“Actually, I think it adds to my optimism,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we were a bad character team before. But a lot of the moves [acting general manager Mike Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten] have made are building to us being a better character organization. If you look at all the teams that win, that year in and year out are competitive, they have good guys on their team.

“If you don’t want to come to the park because you’re not excited to see the guys you’re playing with, that wears on you. I think they’re taking steps in the right direction to make the clubhouse more enjoyable for everyone.”

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