- The Washington Times
Saturday, January 23, 2021

What Ryan Zimmerman missed most during his one-season absence from playing wasn’t the home runs or the web gems, the standout moments from games that make the highlight reel.

Instead, he missed the mundane, the daily routine that can make a baseball season a slog for some players. He missed the day-to-day activities, hanging in the clubhouse with his teammates and preparing his body to take the field again on short rest.

“Things that don’t sound that fun,” Zimmerman said, “but when you don’t get to do them, you kind of miss them a little bit.”

Zimmerman chose not to play the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Looking back now, he doesn’t regret his decision, not with a newborn child and a mother with an underlying health condition. But being away for that year made Zimmerman and his family miss the mundane.

He never meant opting out to signal retirement. And when Zimmerman found time to watch the Nationals play, it only solidified his feeling that he wanted to return to Washington. Playing anywhere else, of course, “would really be weird.”

Zimmerman signed a one-year, $1 million deal to return to the Nationals. He will have a lesser role than the last time he took the field, but the first baseman is comfortable with both how MLB is handling the pandemic and how he fits in with the team he’s been with since 2005.

“Me and my family, everyone’s excited to have baseball back, to be a part of it again,” Zimmerman said Saturday. “It’s all we’ve ever known. We all missed it, not just me.”

Without baseball last year, Zimmerman said he got to enjoy “summer things” for the first time since baseball became his livelihood. He played golf and hung out with his kids. And while he didn’t play baseball during that time off, he stayed in shape, knowing he wanted to return at some point.

By September, the 36-year-old began ramping up his workouts. The last two months is when he started taking grounders and hitting balls again, preparing himself for next month’s spring training.

Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season before the second spring training session began. He didn’t know how the league would deal with the virus, but after observing for a year, Zimmerman feels better about the circumstances.

Following early season breakouts among the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, MLB finished the season and playoffs. That success makes Zimmerman feel better about playing.

“It comes down to being smart and it takes everyone working together,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve all kind of learned that, they learned that in the field and I’ve learned that in real life, just like we all have over the past year.”

Zimmerman‘s leverage for a contract negotiation never was strong. He joked Saturday that he had “five or six” other teams in the running, pushing up Zimmerman‘s contract to a whopping $1 million. But he actually left the ball in general manager Mike Rizzo’s court because he made it clear Washington is where he wanted to play.

Receiving a major league deal rather than a minor league one with a spring training invite from the Nationals showed the “respect that Riz and the team have for me,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”

Still, Zimmerman knows he won’t be an everyday player anymore. He was prepared for that in 2020 before opting out to play a reduced role, though, so he’s not bothered by that now.

Washington traded for Josh Bell last month, and he’ll take the bulk of the load at first base. Bell’s a career .261 hitter who clubbed 37 homers in 2019, the last full season he played. Still, Zimmerman said he’ll prepare as if he’ll play every day, and he’ll be ready to do so if needed.

“Let me be clear: That’s not the plan,” Zimmerman said. “That’s not going to happen, because if that happens, we’re in a bad spot. I’d rather play the games that I’m supposed to play and Josh hits 35 home runs and we win 95 games. I think that’s the better plan.”

Bell’s a switch-hitter with a better split against right-handed pitchers, likely leaving Zimmerman with pinch-hitting duties or opportunities against southpaws. He’ll pick manager Dave Martinez’s brain to learn more about late-game situational thinking.

“I’m kind of excited about that,” Zimmerman said, “learning some new things about the game that I don’t know.”

The last time Zimmerman suited up for a game of any consequence, the Nationals won the World Series. He played a big part in Washington‘s postseason run, blasting a three-run shot in Game 4 of the National League Division Series before he launched a solo homer in the first game of the Fall Classic.

Zimmerman won’t be as pivotal a piece this season, and he knows that. But Zimmerman still thinks there’s something left in his bat — something useful to the only organization he’s ever known.

“Me coming back this year was in no means for like a victory lap sort of thing,” Zimmerman said. “I appreciate this fan base and this city, much has been made about that, we’ve grown up together, all that kind of stuff. But this is about coming back because I still think I can play the game at a high level and I still think I can help the team win.”

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