- - Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ryan Zimmerman is having a comeback season, and we’re all enjoying it. Fans may lust after Bryce Harper, but the guy everyone fell in love shortly after baseball returned to Washington in 2005 was Zimmerman – a home-grown All-Star who represented the franchise with class on and off the field.

He nearly wound up with the Kansas City Royals.

Writer Joe Posnanski wrote in his blog recently that Allard Baird, the Royals general manager in 2005, debated whether to select Zimmerman, the shortstop coming out of the University of Virginia, instead of Alex Gordon with the second pick in the 2005 draft – two spots before the Nationals picked fourth in the first round.

Zimmerman, 32, in his conversation with me in the current edition of my podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” (available on the Washington Times website), said he knew that the Royals had some interest, but he was hoping that they would pass and he would wind up in Washington, just a few hours from where he grew up.

“We kind of knew if I was available the Nationals were going to (pick me),” Zimmerman said in the podcast conversation. “They pretty much told us that. What we didn’t know was what the three teams in front of them were going to do.

“We knew the Royals were interested, but we also knew they liked Gordon…so we had a feeling that they were going to take him. But honestly we didn’t know until draft day when we heard when they call the names just like everybody else,” he said. “Obviously I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

It has indeed worked out well for everyone, even with the rocky years of a damaged Zimmerman calling into question his future. He has emerged from three years of chronic injuries to return to All-Star status, perhaps the leading candidate for National League Comeback Player of the Year, with 28 home runs, 85 RBI and a .310 batting average through 108 games. Zimmerman has also carved out his place in Washington and franchise history, breaking former Washington Senator Frank Howard’s D.C. career home run record of 237 and breaking the Expos/Nationals franchise RBI mark of 905 recently.

He spoke of the dark days of the disabled list for the past three years, as well as the influence of his first manager, Frank Robinson, and the future of Bryce Harper in Washington:

Injuries: “The worst thing for any athlete at this level is to be hurt and not to be able to be out there. This is our life, this is our job, this is why we work in the offseason to try to stay healthy to play, and when you can’t do that you definitely feel a disconnect…when things continuously happen, you start to think, ‘Why are these things happening?’ You could understand it or live with it a little bit more if you were one of those guys who didn’t really work hard or didn’t do stuff in the offseason to prepare as much as you possibly could to play the season. But at the end of the day things happened and I was kind of at peace with myself because I knew there was nothing more I could’ve done to prevent them from happening.

“It was frustrating, but I don’t think I ever thought, ‘Would I ever be healthy again?’ I learned different things about my body, different things I had to do to start taking care of myself as my career got into the second half and you’re not 25 years old anymore. If anything I think I’d learned something in those two or three years that could maybe add an extra one two or three years onto the back end of my career, and who knows if I would’ve gotten that if I didn’t go through that. I kind of look at it that way positively and try to forget those tougher times.”

Frank Robinson: “When I got called up on Sept. 1, I was a 20-year-old literally in college earlier that year. To walk into a locker room and to go into the manager’s office and see Frank Robinson there was a little intimidating, honestly. You’re looking at one of the starring players ever. It’s kind a hard to think that was 12 or 13 years ago. Time really has gone fast. Every time we go out to L.A. to play the Dodgers, Frank has come by either come by the clubhouse or stopped by the hotel to chat for a few minutes.

“What I’ve learned from him (was) being a professional and how to handle yourself at the big-league level at such a young age. He still keeps tabs on me and keeps in touch with me. I respect him greatly as a baseball player but I was lucky enough to develop a relationship with him as a manager and kind of like, I don’t want to say like a Dad because everyone says that, but those first couple years in the big leagues are really important and you have to have veteran players that can help you…I had a veteran manager who has pretty much seen and done everything in baseball. I don’t really think it gets much better than Frank.

“I think Frank expected a lot from me. He pushed me to expect more out of myself that I might have not [have] if he hadn’t been there. I think he did that for me without me even realizing it.”

Bryce Harper in Washington: “I think Bryce really likes D.C. I think one thing that you learn the more you play and the more you are around is this is a business. Nobody likes to talk about it, the players or the front office, because the business side brings out things that honestly aren’t as glamorous or as fun to talk about. Everyone loves baseball because they love the sport of baseball. They love watching guys like Bryce Harper come out and play every day and do the things on a baseball field that he can do.

“When it comes down to the contract numbers and things like that is where it can get not so fun to talk about. I would never fault any player to get money or to get a contract because most people aren’t even lucky enough to get one contract. Take advantage of the opportunity that is put in front of you. But I think Bryce likes this area, likes this organization, likes this team, I think more than people realize. But that being said after next year he has earned the right to do what he wants to do

“I think he would love to stay here, honestly. That being said he’s going to have to be compensated fairly for what he brings to the table. He is a heckuva player. Each year he continues to mature. People forget how young he is and how much better he could become as a player, as scary as that sounds. I know one thing for sure — being able to play with him from age 18 or 19 or whatever it was and to see him mature as a player has been fun. But I’ve been lucky enough to see him mature as a person and as a teammate, where a lot of fans don’t get to see that. Being around him every day and kind of watching him grow up….maybe watching one of the best players to ever play the game….when I’m done playing that could be something I look back on and think about one of those moments and say, ‘Man, that was pretty cool to be part of that.’

“I hope he stays here…you never know what’s going to happen….but I think he wants to stay here more than people think.”

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network

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