- The Washington Times
Tuesday, March 15, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There’s been some changes down here since the last time I was at spring training in 2020.

First, there’s no more dog racing. It’s been banned in Florida, which is pretty remarkable, because there are a lot of things you can do down here that are questionable at best, illegal at worst. Not much is banned, though libraries may soon be on the hit list.

That’s why they have so many billboards for lawyers everywhere. There are more lawyer billboards than convenience stores in Florida. You want to make a law that means something, pass a “Don’t say lawyers” bill.

I used to love my trips to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a place once frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. I’ll never play center field for the New York Yankees, but I used to lose money at the same betting windows that DiMaggio did.

Speaking of Sinatra and DiMaggio, something else is different about spring training this year ­­— no Ryan Zimmerman in the Washington Nationals locker room.

Zimmerman, 37, announced his retirement last month after a 16-year career that coincides with the history of the return of Major League Baseball to Washington.

He has been a mainstay at every spring training since 2006, called up as a rookie in September of 2005 after being selected as the first draft pick after the team moved from Montreal to Washington.

Not this year. The power corner in their West Palm Beach clubhouse has different occupants now, but the absence of Zimmerman’s steady, dependable presence is palpable.

The player who was nicknamed “The Face of the Franchise” never did anything to discredit that title. 

The consistency of his demeanor through the dark days of Jim Bowden and the bright days of playoffs and a World Series championship was one of his biggest contributions. That, and of course his talent — which, if not for a career often plagued with injuries, could have made him a Hall of Fame candidate.

Zimmerman may have never been the loudest noise that came out of the clubhouse but his quiet nature sometimes spoke volumes. And now that quiet is gone.

Nobody will experience that more than the two Nationals employees who knew Zimmerman from the moment he arrived — Rob McDonald, vice president of clubhouse operations and team travel, and Mike Wallace, the team’s clubhouse and equipment manager.

Both made the move to Washington when the team came from Montreal in 2005 and have been there through Zimmerman’s entire career.

“Zim is the longest player I have dealt with in my career,” McDonald said. “He has been the one consistent since we moved to D.C in 2005. He was always easy to deal with, a very humble individual, always wanted to help out. I can’t remember a time when Zimmerman was upset, and sometimes things don’t go the way people want. But he has been the same consistent guy since I met him.

“There haven’t been many guys I’ve dealt with in the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this who have been as consistent as he has been about being a good person,” McDonald said.

Mike Wallace has been in baseball for 49 years and was there when Zimmerman got the September call up in 2005 to give him his uniform — at that time, number 25, not 11. At the start of spring training 2006, Zimmerman changed it to 11, his college number.

He was the same person then that he is now. Really consistently a good person,” Wallace said. “He was quiet, observed, spoke when spoken to, a throwback to the way the game used to be. He is probably near the top of the players I have dealt with in all my years of baseball. He is the longest I have ever dealt with one person.

“I’ve dealt with Hall of Famers, I’ve dealt with kids who became Hall of Famers, and he is up there near the top,” Wallace said. “He was from the old school, lead by example.”

Manager Dave Martinez sees connections between Zimmerman and his leadership style and the way their young superstar, Juan Soto, goes about his business.

“We had one guy here who had been here forever who decided to leave me this year, in Ryan Zimmerman,” Martinez said, talking about Soto’s role as leader in the clubhouse. He was that guy. He was a leader in his own way. He led by example. He went out there, played the game, never complained, was a great teammate and a great person. I look at Juan kind of being that guy.”

Let me make it clear — Zimmerman isn’t dead. In fact, he showed up here Tuesday afternoon and will be working with minor leaguers as part of the “personal services” portion of his contract.

There will be many who will be glad to see him. But he will no longer be the foundation that this team counts on in good times and bad.

“It hasn’t really hit us yet,” McDonald said. “It will be interesting to see how different it is midsummer.”

A summer without Zim. We haven’t had that feeling here since 2005.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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