Sunday, February 04, 2007

Chatting With Ryan Zimmerman

"I took about a couple of weeks off, then I started to lift again." He said, "I actually felt really healthy, no injuries (throughout the entire season) at the end of the year. So, I really didn’t feel that tired. So, that was one of the things I was kind of worried about, and how I was going to feel. I made it through the season pretty good. I was really happy about it (his condition)."

Those were the very first words The Washington Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman, said to me, when we first started chatting. Not that his Rookie Season was FABULOUS! Not that he far exceeded all expectations laid on him in 2006. No, it was his health that concerned him the most, because "when you are injured, you can't perform, you can't do your best," Zimmerman concluded.

As Our Washington Nationals regroup for the long haul, there are alot of different faces. Some veterans mixed in with a lot youth. And, on a daily basis, if the right deal comes along, you can bet every single one of those players is tradeable, expect for one: Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman was the very first draft pick of The Nationals in Washington. Going as the Number 4 pick, overall, in the 2005 Entry Draft. Out of The University of Virginia, and a late bloomer--Ryan was not a hot prospect growing up in Tidewater, Virginia. Sure, he was good, but not highly touted.

Now, HE IS THE FACE OF THIS FRANCHISE, a consummate professional, entering only his second full season of Major League Baseball. At Age 22, The Washington Nationals are being built around this terrific all around young talent. Diving to his left to grab a hot a hot liner, rushing in on a dribbler, then one handing it (all in one motion), tossing to first for the out--in 2006--Zimmerman was an a top third sacker. At the plate, he was Mr. Clutch, leading the league in knocking runners in from scoring position; HAMMERED OUT the most FAMOUS HOME RUN in the history of this young franchise. The bottom of the 9th Homer against New York Yankees is THE SIGNATURE MOMENT in team history, so far!! And, if you were at RFK Stadium that GLORIOUS DAY, and rooting for Our Nationals, there was NO BETTER FEELING--all season long--PURE, UNEXPECTED JOY!!

At the end of a fabulous 2006 rookie campaign, he hit 20 Home Runs, knocked in 110 runs, batted .287. And flat out got screwed by The Baseball Writers in not winning The National League Rookie of the Year Award. Years from now, everyone is going to wonder, why he didn't win a deserved title?

With The Nationals just 9 days away from heading to Spring Training, and the team still in flux, it was time to chat with a player. And, not just anyone. Again, I reached out to Our Washington Nationals, asking about speaking with Ryan Zimmerman--the response was quick. Sure, no problem. But, we had to work around the Nats Winter Caravan Schedule. Since Zimmerman was not joining the road show until it traveled to Richmond and Tidwater, would I be interested in a phoner? No problem. The African Queen and I got a kick out of "Z" personally calling us at home Sunday night, January 28th, to make contact. Then, we finished off the chat, person to person, at The ESPN Zone, January 29th, before the Celebrity Cookoff (the last event on the Caravan Tour).

Time was limited, Zimmerman was in Great Demand, but Ryan gave over 20 minutes total. I love his youthful, unspoiled, exuberance, he showed during our time together. Hopefully, he will always stay that same person--not wrecked by the spotlight. Zimmerman is a very refreshing personality.

We talked about the large amount of Current Major League Baseball Players, from Virginia, many from Virginia Beach-Tidewater-Norfolk. David Wright (Mets) Justin (Diamondbacks) & BJ Upton (Devil Rays), Bill Bray (Reds-Former Nat), Michael Cuddyer (Twins) along with Tigers Brandon Inge & Justin Verlander (Richmond area players). What's with baseball in your neck of The Commonwealth?

“No one really knows. A lot of people have asked me that very question. The only thing I can really think of, is all the very good competitive baseball there is down there at a very young age. Ever since you are 9 or 10, you are playing very competitive baseball, and playing against kids at a very high level. I believe once you get involved in competitive baseball at such a young age, you relax. So once you get older, it doesn’t phase you as much anymore."

Yet, as a high school player, you were not a highly touted player?

"Its true. I don’t think I changed my game that much. I just grew up. I was younger than all those guys (Wright, BJ Upton).
I was 17, when I went to school (at UVA), so, I was not as physically mature, as everyone else around me. It held me back a little in High School (why many scouts did not consider him a top prospect). I was a good defender and very smart. But, I needed those smarts to stay ahead of everyone else to get that extra step, because I wasn’t there physically, as they were. But, once I went to college, I grew up, matured, got a lot stronger, and finally caught up physically. Fortunately, I already had the mental side."

Is it during your youth, where you learned to hit to the opposite field?

"Yes, Its something I learned early in my development. You can always pull the ball. If you can hit the other way, you can be consistently successful--probably the most important skill a hitter can develop.”

And there is no doubt, Ryan is thankful for playing, professionally, so close to home.

"Its fun. Of course my parents get to come see me a lot. (In fact, Z’s parents many times sit, directly in front of Section 320) And, of course I went to school (UVA), near here, as well. Everyone who has helped me get where I am today, can easily come see me play. Its a little bit of a payback (for them) and very rewarding, for me."

Once Ryan's physique filled out, he became a highly sought after prospect in Charlottesville, Virginia. After signing with The Nationals, Zimmerman had a metoric rise through the Nats Minor Leagues. From Rookie Ball, to AA Harrisburg, and on to The Big Club. How difficult was it to adjust from College pitching to Minor League Pitching, to the Majors?

"A lot of the guys who I faced in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) eventually got drafted and were playing Minor League ball, many in Triple AAA. So, the quality I was facing on the weekend—Friday or Saturday Night, in the ACC was fairly comparable to Double AA Ball. I was really lucky to have that opportunity. And, the biggest thing between AA and up here (The Majors) is—They (pitchers) don’t make as many mistakes. The Number 1 and Number 2 guys (in MLB) are really really good, tough to face and don’t make many mistakes. 3, 4 & 5 guys (Starters) all have the same stuff, but they make a lot more mistakes (pitches)."

From the very start of his Major League Career, Ryan stood out as a top player. I asked him whether he was surprised by his early success?

"Yeah—Offensively, I didn’t know what to expect, so I had no expectations. I had goals, but I didn’t know, if they would be realistic or underachieving. But, I really didn’t know. Once I started doing well, feeling comfortable, I knew I could put up some pretty good numbers."

But, at first, despite your success, you were struggling with the outside breaking pitch?

"Early on, I was lunging at those pitches, being over anxious. The coaches told me to stay back on the pitch, be more patient, keep my hands up. Once I started to relax, and taking those pitches (instead of swinging), I had better at-bats, and better success."

And the more he hit, the more his opponents adjusted to him. How did you find teams adjusting for you, defensively?

“Not so much defensively, many teams would change up what they would do to me at the plate. Some teams would throw me off speed (pitches) to start. But, that’s why we have the video to watch—to see what they (other teams) are trying to do, and you react back on them. Its kind of like a chess game. (Alfonso watches alot of video--SBF) “Yeah, he was always looking for a pitchers weakness. And, its true, you can pick up a lot of habits, by watching the video. Its an important tool and resource.”

You batted third in the lineup over most of the latter part of the 2006 season, and you were very effective. Would you like to remain in that spot in the batting order?

"I would love to stay in the 3rd position. But, I feel comfortable anywhere, really. So, whichever way it works out for everyone around me. Whatever gives us the best chance to win. But, I enjoyed hitting 3rd last year, like you said, I felt very good there, no doubt." (But [SBF here], do you feel more pressure to perform, especially with Soriano gone?) "Not really, everyone tries to do their best every year, whether they are hitting 8th or hitting 3rd. But, you know, it kind of fun to have expectations (from others). It makes you work a little bit harder. It makes you work to get that much better in the off season and come back and have an even better year. You can then prove to everyone you were not just a one year thing (fluke). You are going to be good for a long time. So, that’s what has me thinking during the off season, about how you got to prove these people wrong that you are the real deal."

It would satisfy you to shut up those critics?: "Yes, really looking forward to getting the season started," Ryan responded.

And, I found out that Number 11 constantly challenges himself to improve, never one to settle for anything less than his best effort. Baseball fans looking out onto the field, see Zimmerman as a terrific fielder. But, Ryan believes, he has a long way to go to improve.

“A few of my errors last season, I did not move my feet when I was throwing the ball, that’s the biggest thing I must work on this spring training—trying to get my footwork better, so I can be the best I can be (as a fielder). A lot of my throwing errors (in 2006) were because of my footwork. One of my biggest goals is to get rid of, what I call, the silly errors, that I know I can cut down on, and try to stay in single digits this year (on errors). You always have to keep you feet moving toward your target. You just can’t catch the ball, stand straight up and throw it. You catch the ball, take a couple of shuffles, or if you have a backhand, you don’t just catch it and throw it. You have to always keep everything going toward first base (or whichever base you are throwing to). A couple times last season, I got a little lazy, trying to flick it over there, instead of just making a strong accurate throw."

Defensively at third base, does it bother you or make you alter your positioning, by now playing with three different shortstops in your brief MLB career. Cristian Guzman, Royce Clayton & Felipe Lopez all bring different talents to the field--have they affected your play?

"No, not really. Both Felipe (Lopez) and Guzzie (Cristian Guzman) have really good range at short. Royce (Clayton) jokes with me, because when he started his career, (Royce had similar range) he shaded toward the hole (between 2nd & 3rd base). Now he plays with Troy Glaus (Current Blue Jays 3rd Baseman, who has good mobility)-- he's (Clayton) not as rangy as he use to be, but he loves it now, because he can play a little bit more toward second (up the middle). Playing with Royce was good, as he was a little bit older, he’s been in the league for some time, taught me a lot of things. To have this season, Felipe and Guzzie with all the range, they both have—I know I can go for whatever I can get, (their range is so good-"Z" believes), I know I can play a little more toward the line.”

But, you will go for everything into the hole you can reach?

"That’s a lot easier play for me, making the play to my left. If I can cut if off, its easier for me to make the play, moving forward, instead of them (Lopez or Guzman) having to backhand the ball and make that really long throw across the diamond, across their chests. I will go after everything I can get to." (No doubt--SBF here--you are one of the best I have ever seen at charging in on a slow roller and tossing to first, in one motion) "Its a practiced skill, that I have worked hard on."

Ryan Zimmerman's late inning heroics in 2006 will be remembered for many years to come in Washington, DC. I asked him if any of those Homers against the Yankees or Marlins, or, for that matter, any other single moment last season, reinforced to him, said to him--'Yeah, I am a Major League Player and belong here?' I was surprised by his answer.

"It had nothing to do with playing the game, its more about talking with guys (on other teams) that I grew up watching on TV. Guys like Chipper Jones (Z’s favorite player growing up), watching him and idolizing him. Now, I am taking BP (Batting Practice), and he (Chipper Jones) stops by to chat for 5 minutes. That’s the part when I said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s sort of crazy!’ Really, its more that type of stuff, being accepted as a Major League Player by your rivals, more than anything, that has happened on the field.” (What was Chipper Jones like,--SBF HERE--that first time? " It was fun!! Because, he was a childhood hero."

Whether its Nomar Garciaparra constantly readjusting his batting gloves at the plate, a pitcher jumping over the base line while going to and from the dugout--superstition exists in baseball. When I played the game (SBF HERE), I always had to bang my fist into my fielding glove before every pitch. And, being one to attend each and every Nationals home game, I noticed that every single time you (asking Ryan now) come off the field at the end of the inning, you MUST TOUCH 3rd Base. What's with that habit?

“I don’t really know. its something I have always done. I always do it, even when I am going on the field, too. I don’t recall how it started, or why I started it. But, ever since I can remember, I have always done it. I really don’t remember where I started it. I have always, just done it (and will continue to do so)."

From this point, it was time to talk about the 2007 season. Alot of changes in store for Our Washington Nationals. First came the dismissal of Manager Frank Robinson: "I liked playing for him," said Ryan. "He put me out there, and let me grow and learn. He didn’t say much to me, unless he wanted to make a point. I appreciated that, and learned a lot because of it."

And now, Manny Acta is in charge on the field: "I’ve talked with him quite a bit. He’s very excited. He’s young, he’s energetic, he looks like he’s ready to get to work, help us win a game, and that makes me excited, also." (But,--SBF HERE--has he told you what he is expecting of you?) "No, we haven’t really had that type of conversation. I think he just wants me to do, what I did last year, and keep playing the game--like I have always been playing the game. He seems to like the way I play, when he was with New York (as The Mets 3rd Base Coach), he watched me close up-- so play hard, try to perform."

By most all accounts, our Washington Nationals are not going to be any good this year, to many holes to fill, and not enough starting pitching. Call it youthful jubilance, whatever you want--Ryan Zimmerman sees the glass half full, instead of half empty:

"Everyone keeps saying, and going under the impression, that we are going to be SO HORRIBLE! But, if you look, realistically, at our lineup—of course, we lost Sori (Alfonso Soriano), but we gained Guzzie back. If you can put Felipe and Guzman up top (of the batting order), then have Nook (Logan) in there, too. There are three guys, right there, that are going to steal a lot of bases, be able to score from first on a hit. Those guys are going to score a lot of runs. We have a pretty good middle of the lineup with me, Austin (Kearns), Brian’s (Schneider) going to hit a lot better this year. When Nick (Johnson) gets healthy, that will help. People don’t realize, how good of a player each of those guys really are. So, the only thing we really need (to be competitive) is for a couple of starting pitchers to step up, log some innings in some games. We can score runs. And, if we can get to the end of the game, our bullpen is going to be really strong."

But, you are really going to miss Soriano?

"He’s a great talent. Of course, we would love to have him on the team. He was great teammate. But, he’s not. So, we have to move on."

Speaking of talent, who have you seen, in the Minor Leagues for Washington, players, that you feel, are ready for breakout years?

"Now, since Nick (Johnson) is hurt, we have (Robert) Fick and Travis Lee to play at first, but (Larry) Broadway has been around in the Minor Leagues for awhile, and I feel he can really hit, with power. So, I think he will come to camp ready to fight for a spot. Kory Casto has been doing well in the Minor Leagues. I got the chance to play with him for a little bit (in the Minors) and he can hit really good too. We really do have some good young players, that are going to be useful in the near future. Lets see what they can do in the spring this year. (Chuckling a little now)—Anybody that can pitch is going to get a chance this year. Its going to be their chance. Its exciting to see the young guys get a shot like that. I am really excited (about the season)."

Time was running out, as the ESPN Zone Celebrity Cook Off was to shortly begin, and Zimmerman was a star contestant, so we ended this conversation with his impression of playing at RFK Stadium? The ballpark I always call "The Greatest No Thrills Park In Sports!!

The ATMOSPHERE IS REALLY GOOD, ITS LOUD, especially when the crowd is going. Its got a homey feel to it. And, it is a little bit older. No question, the new amenities, at the new stadium, will be nicer. But, the atmosphere at RFK IS TERRIFIC!! Its (RFK) a little out of date, but, its our home field. We all enjoy playing there." [Zimmerman did tell me that he hears alot of the chants & cheers from Section 320. So, MsZimmy & The African Queen can keep up their "COME ON ZIMMYYYY!!" Cheer. Cheer on!! He hears you!!]

What I really like about Ryan Zimmerman is how he presents himself, away from the field. He's genuine, nice, not a speck of arrogance about him (Do I ever hope that never changes!). "Z" was actively involved in our chat, thoroughly enjoying our conversation. Apologized for not having enough time for me, but was gracious enough to ask me back, at a later date, to talk some more. As I was packing up my things, he told me, how much he enjoys the fan support here in Washington, DC. That every player that comes to town, whether to play for The Nationals or visiting on another team, talks about the atmosphere of playing here. Even when the team is down and out, the fans are standing behind the team. Ryan says he can't get enough of it.

Hopefully, Fans will never get enough of Ryan Zimmerman, too. And that, he plays out a long, successful---an entire Major League career, here in The Nation's Capital--retiring as A Washington National!!

"I can't wait to get down to Spring Training." Zimmerman concluded, "I am ready to play ball."

You could clearly see the excitement, and relief, on his face--at the same time. Ryan Zimmerman IS A PLAYER!!


Anonymous said...

SBF, thanks for the great post on Zimmy. i am so jealous that he called you at home. how can i get him to call me at home? just kidding. :)

i've been enjoying all of your interviews, but i have to say that this one is my favorite!

keep up the awesome work.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope success never changes Ryan Zimmerman. He can be our Cal Ripken forever. (Nice interview, SBF.)

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing your time again - good interview - enjoyed reading it - nice to see your name in the Post this morning - see you at spring training?

david cordell said...

I can't agree more with oyur assessment. I was at the caravan with my 14 year old daughter who loves "Z" and he patiently signed autographs and chatted with fans. Also, on the last weekend of last season, my daughter and a couple of other kids hung out in the tunnel near the RFK parking lot, wiating for him to dirve by. He not only stopped, but took the time to sign all the kids autograph pages. Hope he never changes.