Ryan Zimmerman’s long road back to All-Star status

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI – Ryan Zimmerman is an All-Star again, for the first time in eight years, which he thinks is a pretty big deal because his family — wife Heather, two young daughters, mom and dad, brother — told him it is.

Ten different Washington Nationals have been All-Stars a total of 21 times since Zimmerman was the organization’s lone representative in 2009, when he was 24 and only getting started and they were terrible. None has since been Zimmerman, which fairly covers his prime, because he’s 32 now and has the ribbons and scars to prove it.

It’s Saturday night, starting to get late, and he’s driving home from Nationals Park. He talks as he drives and hits dead spots in his phone coverage and calls back and apologizes for those, but what are you going to do, sometimes stuff just happens.

It’s funny where some roads lead, even the ones that are supposed to be familiar, the ones so often traveled you can warn of trouble before it arrives. Behind him, along those roads, he was the next Mike Schmidt before he could be his own man, he was on a bad team in an old ballpark and on a good team in a new ballpark, he was an All-Star and then not, he was a Gold Glover and then definitely not, he played in three postseason series and lost them all, he’d reported to seven managers across 13 seasons, he had his health and then didn’t, he was presumed clean and recklessly accused otherwise, he had the perfect childhood and then his mom got sick, and now he’s in his driveway, stopped, idling, thinking about it and somewhere between amused and, frankly, a bit weary.

“I guess I’ve kind of been through all of it, you might say,” he says, “except for winning the World Series, the ultimate thing. Checked all the boxes.”

Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .330 with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs on the season.
Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .330 with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs on the season.

The latest is this, a half-season spent mostly on the barrel of his bat, hitting .330 with 19 home runs, 63 RBI and an OPS (.969) there with the best in the National League. He’s good again, productive again, he thinks, because he’s whole again, feeling strong after years of shoulder issues and after reorienting his daily routine. It’s not the years, it’s the miles, he might say, and Zimmerman only recently learned to tend first to the miles.

So, he is here, at 32, with more baseball behind him than ahead of him, with an All-Star appearance a bit of a surprise, and while carrying a soul that’s always seemed older than the rest of him. He was the adult in the room almost since the day he arrived, when he was the immediate hope for a wispy, developing franchise, when the losses chased other losses relentlessly, and then when those turned into organizational competence, and on the days he soared and the days he could not. Asked to put it all together, he paused, and you could imagine him staring into the night wondering himself.

“Honestly,” he says, “I don’t know if I knew what I thought it was going to look like. Some guys, they envision what their career will be. I never put up crazy numbers in college or did anything crazy as an amateur. To think I’d be a 15-time All-Star or something, it didn’t cross my mind. My motivation was always to keep working. And, then, once I got to the big leagues, to stay there.

“I could never envision my career going how it went. I say I wouldn’t change anything, except maybe I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. But these things happen.”

Besides, were Ryan Zimmerman given the ability to change the past, to make it better, to make it right, to make it fair, he wouldn’t offer so much as a thought on the baseball.

“My mom is, um, good,” he says. “We stay positive. No news is good news with Mom.”

Going on three decades ago, Cheryl Zimmerman, an elementary special education teacher with two little boys of her own, felt the first trickles of something in the tips of her fingers. ‘What is this?’ she wondered. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A cane became a walker, which became a wheelchair, and from a daily fight that could only be won in the stubborn spirit of those possessed, so too did the rest of the Zimmermans choose the stubborn spirit. They choose the course of optimism. They choose the wealth of today. They choose the smiles and laughs of the woman afflicted, their wife, their mother, their grandma, their friend. They’ll get to tomorrow when it comes.

Ryan created ziMS Foundation, which seeks a cure, of course. It also seeks kindness. And strength, in all those numbers. And perspective from the lives that maybe look a little different, that are a little harder, but are no less lives. Cheryl once called it, “Surviving in a world that has little time or patience for the handicapped,” and so ziMS Foundation seeks for those afflicted time and patience, too, a big job with Ryan’s name on it, and that reveals itself in Cheryl’s footprints.

“I get all the credit for it,” Ryan says. “Honestly, my mom and dad do all the work.”

She’ll watch Tuesday night’s All-Star Game as she watches most of Ryan’s games, on a television in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Ryan’s father, Keith, and brother, Shawn, arrived in Miami on Monday. Ryan will start at first base and bat seventh for the National League. More baseball then, for Ryan, and for Cheryl, and for anyone else who could use a healthy diversion. Keith reached the ballpark in time for the Home Run Derby and to get a look at Ryan taking batting practice in his All-Star jersey. Yes, it’d been a while, Keith said, but the injuries have been hard on his boy, and he never stopped working, and then one Monday night in July he’s in the middle of it all again.

“It’s nice to see him get rewarded,” Keith said. “I’m just proud of him for being a good person. He always thinks about his family first. I know you’re aware of the situation with his mother. Ryan’s just a good kid.”

He said he’ll take some photos, text them to Cheryl, so she can be a part of it, too.

“It’s hard for her,” he said. “She would love to be down here, taking part in all this.”

Ryan Zimmerman last made the All-Star team in 2009. (Getty Images)
Ryan Zimmerman last made the All-Star team in 2009. (Getty Images)

She is, of course, part of all this.

“Sometimes you wonder why,” Ryan says. “Why did this happen to us? Why our family? Why my mom? What did she ever do to deserve it?”

The answer is there is no answer, only time and patience.

“Thing is, if she stays positive, and she always has, then no one else can be negative,” he says. “Being negative doesn’t change anything. There’s no sense pouting or making excuses. Life is still going to be the same. So you make the day good instead of making the day bad. You also realize life is a lot bigger than baseball.

“She’s a great example of that. To me, she’s still the same person she always was. I just think of her as Mom.”

At the end of a long day, Ryan reaches home. His wife and girls wait inside. The Nationals lost big that day. There’ll be another game the following afternoon, followed by a flight south, to another game. He’s come to understand there are outcomes, and that there’s hardly any avoiding those, that there’s only living with them, happy or sad or simply fleeting. Yes, he’s an All-Star again for the first time, which his mother and father and wife and brother and children reminded him is a big deal again, which makes him happy.

“It’s humbling,” he says. “It’s different. I was 24 or 25 years old the last time I was there. Now I’m married with two kids. Life is a lot different now. I think they appreciate it more, and it forces me to realize how cool it is. They kind of put it out there for me. It’s nice.”

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