Ryan Zimmerman draped his arms over the railing of the dugout. He looked to his left, and then to his right, at the frenzied fans dancing in the aisles at Nationals Park. Behind him, his teammates continued dispensing the hugs and high-fives that began with fervor seconds earlier.
He let the pandemonium wash over him. He let the words displayed on the center field scoreboard sink in.
The Washington Nationals — his Washington Nationals from the very moment he was drafted — were the National League East champions.
“The odds were in my favor that I was going to win at some point here, right?” Zimmerman said later, soaked from head to toe in celebratory beer and champagne.
Three seasons ago, Zimmerman’s team lost 103 games. The year before that, it lost 102. The Nationals were not just doormats but often laughingstocks, with Zimmerman as the light they hoped would someday guide them out of those dark days.
Before the 2012 season began, Zimmerman had witnessed 573 of the Nationals’ 640 losses. He spent his formative years in the major leagues around plenty of players who saw winning as a lower priority than filling their coffers and were beaten down by years of mediocrity or worse.
And yet there he was Monday, the man those closest to him say is largely unchanged from the day he reached the majors in September 2005 as a baby-faced 20-year-old, enjoying the moment he’d only seen in his vague visions of the future.
“It was, without question, the most satisfied and content he’s ever been in my time knowing him,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman’s agent and co-head of CAA baseball.
His even-keeled demeanor finally gave way to pure joy. He’d never let the losing beat him. He’d never let himself fall victim to those around him with lower aspirations.
“A few years ago, I even heard a few guys say the only times they’re happy are on the first and 15th of every month,” said left-hander Ross Detwiler, who made his major league debut with the Nationals in 2007. “I’m going out there and trying my hardest, and you’ve got a guy who doesn’t care about anything but a paycheck? Those people obviously broke.
“I’m glad Zim never got to that point.”
Never too high, never too low
When the Nationals’ regular season ended Wednesday, Zimmerman appeared in his 990th major league game.
As a member of a team awaiting its Division Series opponent, he will fall just shy of reaching 1,000 games without a playoff appearance.
Former National Adam Dunn is the active leader in that department at 1,721 games.
So for figures such as Zimmerman, who spend much of their careers as the best player on a bad team, the line they walk is a thin one. Submit to the losing and be labeled a “losing player,” or hope the day will come when the current shifts. Keeping one’s head above the fray becomes a Herculean task.
“It’s frustrating when you’re losing,” said outfielder Nick Markakis, whose Baltimore Orioles are playoff-bound for the first time in 15 years. “But we play baseball for a living, and it’s great to be able to do what we love doing and get paid for it. You want to win, and losing’s tough. Whether you’re up or down, you still have to keep your composure and be the same person.”
Zimmerman, who even his fiancee, Heather Downen, said rarely breaks from his steady demeanor, is not unlike many of his homegrown Nationals teammates: When he arrived, he was stunned by some of the players that surrounded him.
He remembers once witnessing a jovial scene in the showers after a loss and asking a reporter, “Aren’t you supposed to care for 10 minutes that we lost again?”
“At the beginning, you’re in the big leagues so it doesn’t really matter,” Zimmerman said. “You’re just excited to be there. But then, as you get older and you get going, some of my friends have been to the playoffs and been on winning teams and you’re like, ‘Well, hopefully, you know? Hopefully, one day I’ll get there.’
“You start to want that more and more, and the happiness from being in the big leagues and being able to play rubs off a little bit. You’re happy when you do things for your career, you take that next step, become a better player, but after that, ultimately everyone wants a team that wins.”
But as the Nationals went through this season, frequently reaching new high-water marks, teammates never saw a change in Zimmerman.
Even as he struggled through some of the most trying weeks of his career, when inflammation in his right AC joint made his shoulder ache and robbed his bat of strength, he never snapped.
His approach, which everyone uses the words “never too high” and “never too low” to describe, was the same as it had been for the previous seven years.
“Zim doesn’t really wear his heart on his sleeve,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the few players whose tenure predates Zimmerman’s in the organization. “He’s not only the face of the franchise, but he’s like the heartbeat. He’s the same guy all the time. You can’t ever tell if he’s upset, if he’s frustrated, if he’s happy, if he’s sad. It’s just Zim.”
“Even when the team was bad, he never broke character,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “He stayed himself. He kind of hovered above it. You can see why he made it through it OK, and why he played so well on such bad teams. It’s just who he is. He’s just a really good player with a really good mindset. Sure it wore on him. It had to. But it didn’t affect him.”
At a crossroads
There were times, though, when Zimmerman wondered if he’d ever get to celebrate the way he did Monday night. Or, if he did, if it would be in the District.
“That was such a cool moment for him,” said Downen, a Washington native who’s known Zimmerman since 2006. “He’s worked so hard and every year he’d just get kind of disappointed.”
Zimmerman never publicly questioned the Nationals’ plans or their path to this point, but there were times he evaluated the situation and knew he’d have to decide whether to continue to be a part of it.
When Dunn left as a free agent after the 2010 season, which featured 93 losses, Zimmerman pondered his future.
“I think from Ryan’s perspective the Nationals were at a crossroads at that point in time,” Van Wagenen said, pointing to conversations that fall with ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo that reassured Zimmerman.
“They were coming off of another difficult season, another losing season, and one of the productive, veteran, high-paid major league players was up for free agency and signed elsewhere. Ryan had to really look around and begin to question whether or not this franchise was going to go down a positive road or whether it was going to continue to repeat the status quo.”
Two days after Dunn joined the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals signed Werth. They won 80 games in 2011 with a largely homegrown roster. They traded for pitcher Gio Gonzalez in the winter. In February, Zimmerman agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract extension that could keep him in a Nationals uniform through 2020.
In April, he proposed to Downen and they set a January wedding date. In September, the Nationals, a team now filled with players who truly believed they were good enough to be the best, clinched the first playoff berth for a D.C. team since the 1948 Homestead Grays.
October brings new possibilities
“This year has been so surreal,” Downen said. “I feel like sometimes this isn’t happening, or I’m in ‘The Truman Show’ and I’m like, ‘Is this all being set up?’ Because this has been the most perfect year. Everything has been happening exactly the way you envision it to happen in your best possible expectations.”
Savoring the experience
Examining the reasons why Zimmerman became an exception, and not the rule, during all of the losing years, often leads one back to the same truth: It’s the person he is that enabled the Nationals to build around his talent.
“I think that’s where he fought the label,” Desmond said. “He was part of [the team’s improvement every year]. It wasn’t like he was just staying idle. He continued to get better, the team continued to get better. I think if he would’ve not panned out, everything might have gone in a different direction.”
The 2012 Nationals are a lot of things, and they get contributions from all of their parts, but in many ways they are a team made in Zimmerman’s image. They’ve taken their success in stride, with quiet — and sometimes not-so-quiet — confidence.
“There are losing players, even with good statistics, and there are winning players even with good or bad statistics,” Rizzo said. “And Zim has been a winner since we signed him. He’s shown a steady professionalism each and every year. A guy who could’ve really been a malcontent and never let it affect him. He’s been a dream.”
The Nationals will open the playoffs Sunday, either in St. Louis or Atlanta. Zimmerman, who quipped when the Nationals clinched a playoff spot that it was the first time he’d won anything since “friggin’ Little League,” will finally be on the game’s biggest stage.
The advice from others is to savor it because “it’s much more difficult to accept mediocrity once you’re at the pinnacle,” Rizzo said. “And that’s something we have to, as an organization, really guard against.”
“You never know when the next time’s going to be,” said New York Mets third baseman David Wright, who grew up with Zimmerman in Virginia Beach. “It’s been nine years for me, and I’ve been to the playoffs once.”
Said Zimmerman: “People always ask me what it feels like, and it feels the exact same as the other years, except we’re winning instead of losing.
“If you can play and be professional and continue to do your job when you’ve lost 100 games, this is a lot easier. We’ve had to learn how to win over the last few years. We obviously lost a lot. And losing all those games, you kind of learn why you were losing and what you did wrong. I think all of that helped us get to where we are now.”