WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Seventeen years and 11 days after Ryan Zimmerman was the first player ever drafted by the new-to-town Washington Nationals, and a little more than eight months after he appeared in his last game for the franchise, his No. 11 became the first jersey number retired by the club.
During a ceremony before Saturday’s game between Washington and the Philadelphia Phillies, the man known as “Mr. National” removed a blue uniform shirt with “11” on the back and handed it to his father, who handed it off to clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace.
Then a plaque with Zimmerman’s name and number were unveiled on a façade of the upper deck in foul territory between home plate and right field at Nationals Park.
“The unique, kind of, story of my career is I was here from the very beginning,” Zimmerman said at a news conference where he was introduced as the team’s special advisor for baseball and business operations, “and it’s just sort of being lucky to be here in the first year and then staying here and being able to grow — with the fan base, with the organization. ... So I think that’s what makes me a little bit different, a little bit special. It’s nothing that I did; I was just here.”
A classic example of Zimmerman understatement.
“He was that very subdued leader. He didn’t say much, but when he spoke, everybody listened. ... He’d do it very discreetly, but his message would get across,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s who Ryan is.”
He grew up not far away in Virginia Beach — playing baseball as a kid with the likes of David Wright and the Upton brothers, among other future major leaguers — and never left the area, going to the University of Virginia before playing his entire career with the Nationals.
Zimmerman, who began as a third baseman before shoulder injuries prompted a move to first base, retired after last season as the club’s statistical leader in more than 10 offensive categories, including hits (1,846), home runs (284), RBIs (1,061) and game-ending homers (11).
He was a two-time NL All-Star. He was there when the ex-Expos lost 100 games — twice. And he was there to help the Nationals win the 2019 World Series.
“I’ll remember just the way ‘Zim’ was on the field, away from the field. He was so in tune with the community, as well. Never took the game for granted,” said Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, a teammate of Zimmerman’s from 2012-18. “Just a lot of fun to see him get honored this way. He’s Mr. National. Everybody knows it.”
Harper’s current team happened to be visiting, so there the two-time NL MVP was, perched on the top dugout step Saturday, applauding right along with the crowd who gave Zimmerman multiple standing ovations.
Several other former teammates, all since retired, were on hand, too, offering praise for the man of the hour, including Jayson Werth — “One of the main reasons why I came to Washington was Ryan Zimmerman; without him, this franchise is a different place” — and Ian Desmond — “The time, effort and energy that he put into the organization; the loyalty through it all” — along with Daniel Murphy, Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche, Brian Schneider, Gio Gonzalez and more.
“He’s a special young man. All class,” said Mark Lerner, the principal owner who is exploring the possibility of selling the Nationals. “People appreciate the fact that he stayed with one franchise his entire career. He’s a National for life.”
Plenty of former teammates offered good wishes during one video tribute during the pregame, on-field festivities, while another video featured narration by Zimmerman’s wife and parents.
Zimmerman, holding one of his two sons, threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch — caught by his father — while his two daughters yelled, “Play ball!” before the real first pitch was tossed by Josiah Gray.
As for the number that never again will be worn by a player for the Nationals? Zimmerman said it came about by accident.
As a kid, he wore No. 1 — not because of any major leaguer but because of 1990s NBA All-Star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, his favorite basketball player. Turned out that was assigned to a classmate at Virginia, Matt Dunn.
“They gave me 11, just by chance. I wasn’t going to ask for anything as a freshman in college, so I just was like, ‘All right. Well, that, that’s kind of cool. I used to be ’1,’ now I’m ‘11,’” Zimmerman said. “So super boring story, but that’s how it is.”