- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

From the moment he was drafted four years ago out of the University of Virginia, Ryan Zimmerman was touted as “The Face of the Washington Nationals Franchise.”

It’s a tag Zimmerman reluctantly accepts. A team player in the truest sense, the young third baseman likes to think everyone on the Nationals’ roster has as much to do with the franchise’s successes and failures as he does.

But if the events of the last two months are any indication, it should be obvious now to Zimmerman what everyone else has known all along: He is the best player on Washington’s roster. He is the most well-known player around the District and the country. He is the player everyone counts on to produce with the game on the line.

In other words, he truly is the Face of the Franchise.

“He’s special,” Nationals manager Manny Acta said. “He deserves everything he is getting. We know you can’t win with a bunch of straight-A students and Boy Scouts, but you need good people in order for you to have success. This guy is special. He is a better person than a player, which is actually hard to believe. He is that good. He is a coach’s dream.”

Fans around Washington have been appreciating Zimmerman’s sparkling defense and knack for dramatic home runs since he was selected fourth overall in the 2005 draft. But the rest of the baseball-watching public is now starting to take notice of the 24-year-old, thanks in large part to 30-game hitting streak that thrust Zimmerman into the national spotlight over the last month.

The streak began innocuously enough with a sixth-inning double to left field on April 8 in Miami, during the Nationals’ third game of the season. Little did Zimmerman or anyone else know it would be more than a month before he failed to go an entire game without a hit.

Around Game No. 20, the local media began catching on to the significance of a streak that already was the longest in Nationals history — Zimmerman, of course, owned the previous record of 17, which he set in 2006 — and was fast climbing the list of longest hitting streaks in Washington baseball history.

By Game No. 27, when Zimmerman extended the streak with an eighth-inning home run at Arizona to help lead the Nationals to a 2-1 victory, the national media took notice.

And by the time Zimmerman had become only the seventh player this decade to reach the 30-game mark, ESPN was providing “Breaking News” updates on each of his plate appearances.

The streak was halted at that point, with an 0-for-3, two-walk performance May 13 that still drew a standing ovation from the crowd at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Afterward, Zimmerman stood before a throng of reporters and cameras for 10 minutes, answering questions about the streak and pointing out he happily gave it up in exchange for a Washington win.

It was the first time in his career he was the center of national attention, and he handled it all flawlessly. It was important, he said, to be smooth in that situation because chances are he’d find himself back in that spot again someday.

“Any time you go through things you’ve never experienced, I think it helps you as a player and helps you grow up as a player,” he said. “I had to deal with things I’ve never had to before. Hopefully I’ll learn from it and be better for it.”

It’s that analytical approach to everything in his life that makes observers believe Zimmerman is destined for stardom. He has superior natural athletic ability, which certainly helps, but he also has the work ethic and drive to succeed that all true champions need.

It was for those reasons more than anything that the Nationals offered Zimmerman a five-year, $45 million contract extension last month. That’s the biggest contract the Lerner family has doled out since taking control of the organization three years ago, and as principal owner Mark Lerner explained upon announcing the deal the overwhelming belief is that Zimmerman can become “one of baseball’s premier players.”

With contract status, however, comes clubhouse status. Zimmerman isn’t a naturally vocal presence who will chew out a teammate for doing something the wrong way, but the organization believes he needs to take on a larger leadership role.

“I do think it’s time for him to assume the role that we all knew he would grow into someday: Being more of a leader in the clubhouse and on the field than he even has before,” team president Stan Kasten said. “I think he is ready to do that.”

After spending the last three seasons quietly observing and learning from his veteran teammates, Zimmerman understands what he now must become.

“When you are 21 and 22 years old, it’s hard to speak up when you have 30-year-old guys who have seven, eight years’ experience in the big leagues,” he said. “You have to get the respect of everyone and feel it out a little bit first before you start to go. I feel like I’m at that point now.”

Zimmerman has already earned the respect of his teammates. Now he’s starting to draw the attention of players, coaches and managers around the game.

Only one Nationals player has been elected by fans to the All-Star Game since the club debuted: Alfonso Soriano, who was voted into the starting lineup in 2006. Preliminary ballot results for this year’s Midsummer Classic, to be played July 14 in St. Louis, won’t be revealed for another couple weeks, but most believe Zimmerman will be in the running for the starting third baseman’s spot on the National League roster.

Whether he’s voted in as a starter or selected by his peers as a reserve, Zimmerman would gladly accept the first All-Star honor of his career. But it would pale in comparison to his glee if he can help lead the Nationals to a winning season at last, and ultimately to a championship.

Some may have questioned why Zimmerman, who could have become a free agent after the 2011 season, would commit himself to Washington for the next five years given the club’s massive struggles on the field. The face of the Nationals’ franchise, though, believes it won’t be long before the rest of the organization enjoys the kind of success and time in the limelight as he has come to experience.

“I really don’t think we’re that far, and it’s not going to be that hard to do it,” he said. “I don’t think if I didn’t have the trust in [the organization] 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. I enjoy winning, and I think we’re going to do it.”

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