- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

For anyone who has paid attention to the persona Ryan Zimmerman has crafted in his first four years with the Washington Nationals - public or private - his comments earlier this week represented a departure from almost anything he has said about the organization.

They were there, in black and white: The third baseman said the Nationals need more accountability. He said the “built-in excuse” of being young doesn’t apply because the team isn’t all that young. He said there needs to be more urgency and that some players are so used to losing that they “don’t have that fire to win.”

Speaking at his first All-Star Game the same day the Nationals announced manager Manny Acta’s firing, Zimmerman sounded more assertive and more willing to speak his mind on the direction of the organization than he has since he was given the face-of-the-franchise brand in 2006.

In short, he has never sounded more like a team captain.

And last Monday’s media session wasn’t the only time Zimmerman has spread his oratorical wings lately. The previous day, before the team’s final game of the first half, Zimmerman talked at length about his mother, Cheryl, her multiple sclerosis and how it prepared him to handle adversity without losing control of his emotions.

He said “it’s tough to see” the Nationals shipping out veteran position players in a trade later this month and mentioned the (assumed) signing of Stephen Strasburg as one of the reasons he’s more optimistic than he was when he signed a five-year, $45 million contract in April that the team will win in the near future.

(If Zimmerman was making a subtle suggestion to the front office about how expectant he is for them to sign Strasburg, well, maybe he’s more savvy with this veteran spokesman thing than anyone thought).

But for the 24-year-old to fully jump into the role, he’ll have to bridge the gap between his comments last week and the ability to become the tone-setter in the clubhouse.

There’s no question Zimmerman has the resume to be the club’s leader: He is the only player with a long-term contract; he is respected by teammates for his quiet, steady work ethic; and he has curried more goodwill with the organization than perhaps any other teammate.

Until this point, though, he has been reluctant to speak up. He stepped in as an alternate union representative last year but has backed off that role this season, and Acta asked Zimmerman this spring to take a more vocal role in the clubhouse. To this point, there hasn’t been much evidence of that happening.

It’s not as if the role wouldn’t have been a bit of a stretch for Zimmerman. He’s still only 24, is one of the younger players in the clubhouse and has been reserved about telling older teammates to shape up in the past. That’s a perfectly understandable position; what younger employee, in any business, is jumping at the chance to speak up and risk the perception that they’re speaking out of turn?

“It takes a lot of respect to get up in front of those guys and say things that are controversial. For me, the first couple years I was very quiet. I still am quiet. But you have to make sure you have the respect of your peers first,” Zimmerman said. “Now I feel like I’m past that. I’m an old 24, if you can say that. But I enjoy that role. I’m very lucky to do what I’ve done at such a young age and to have the opportunity to do what I’ve done at a young age. Now obviously being there 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.”

Acta was never a big believer in showy clubhouse demonstrations or bold pronouncements, but it was clear a well-respected veteran would have helped him out. If Zimmerman’s ready to be that guy, it will serve the Nationals’ next manager well.

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