Forever the Face of the Franchise

Forever the Face of the Franchise
February 27, 2012, 5:44 am
Share This Post

VIERA, Fla. -- There have been 33 nine-figure contracts handed out in baseball history, and far more of them proved disasters than raging successes. Yes, there's the occasional Derek Jeter deal. But there are way more Alfonso Sorianos and Johan Santanas and Barry Zitos.

Sign a 100 million contract and the whole baseball world is going to watching every move you make, ready to declare your deal a failure at the first sign of trouble. For some, the pressure is simply too much to bear.

And then there's Ryan Zimmerman. We won't know for many years whether his 100 million extension -- a deal that could eventually be worth 150 million over nine years -- was the right move for the Nationals.

But we do know right now the 27-year-old third baseman isn't worried in the least about handling the pressure that comes with such a hefty paycheck.

"I love pressure, you know that," he said after signing his new deal Sunday. "I don't think people get these kind of contracts that don't want to be in pressure situations. Ever since I've been here, I've wanted to be the guy that is up last in the ninth inning. I've wanted to be the guy that everyone looks to. I wanted to be the so-called leader, whatever. I've said it the whole time and I'll say it the rest of my career: If you don't want to be that guy, then you're in the wrong line of work. I relish being that guy. I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Seriously, how can any Nationals fan not swoon over this guy?

Say what you want about Zimmerman's long-term extension and whether or not he's worth so much money when the back of his baseball card suggests he hasn't accomplished all that much to this point in his career. He's been to one All-Star Game. He's won one Gold Glove award. He's cracked the 30-homer mark just once and the 100-RBI barrier just twice. His .834 career OPS ranks 49th among all active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances.

Those who haven't had the pleasure of watching Zimmerman play every day for the last six seasons have no idea what they've been missing. Those who have had the pleasure realize just how valuable he is to the Nationals.

"He's the face of the franchise," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "He's been the face of the franchise since Day 1. If anybody deserves it, he deserves it."

Talk about loving -- and thriving in -- pressure situations. Nobody else in baseball has produced as many walk-off homers since 2006 as Ryan Zimmerman. He's the guy you want at the plate with everything on the line, and he's the guy who wants to be at the plate with everything on the line.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman hasn't been afforded that many opportunities to shine on baseball's brightest stage during the first six years of his career. He's yet to play for a club with a winning record. He hasn't played a meaningful September game since he was called up from Class AA Harrisburg at the end of the 2005 season and given a chance to help the foundering Nationals hang on in the NL wild-card race.

There haven't been many meaningful games for Zimmerman or the Nationals since. They won 71 games in 2006, 73 games in 2007, then bottomed out with 59 wins in 2008 in their new ballpark.

It was after that wretched 2008 season that Zimmerman and the Nationals negotiated his first long-term contract: the five-year, 45 million deal that's still active and will continue to be through 2013. He didn't have to commit to the organization at that point. He could easily have gone through the arbitration process, still made very good money and hit the open market this winter as a free agent ... and practically name his price.

Instead, Zimmerman re-upped with the franchise that made him its first draft pick in 2005. He believed in the Nationals' long-term plan, and he wanted to be part of it.

"I knewhoped it couldn't be like that my whole career here," he said of those dark days when 100 losses were inevitable. "Obviously, they've done a great job with drafting, making trades. Us being bad for those years brought us some of the best drafts ever assembled. So maybe it was meant to be like that."

Indeed, there is some honor in having survived the lowest of the lows, sticking with it and eventually being there for the turnaround. Zimmerman has always wanted to be part of the Nationals' first playoff club, its first World Series participant, its first championship roster.

And now he has the chance to do it, because he's assured of wearing the curly W cap for at least eight more seasons. Add his previous six full seasons in D.C., and Zimmerman now is all but guaranteed to spend at least 14 seasons as a National.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Fourteen seasons with the same franchise. How often does that happen in today's world?

Hardly ever. It was already uncommon a generation ago when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn bucked the trend and spent their entire careers playing for their hometown teams. It's become even less common now.

Ah, but Zimmerman is a different animal. He grew up in Virginia Beach rooting not for any specific team but for one specific player: Ripken. Is it any wonder he chose such a perfect example to model himself after?

"It's not always greener on the other side," Zimmerman said. "A lot of this deal, and a lot of the terms and the money, I was accepted to it because I want to be comfortable. I've always been comfortable here. I think going to a new place would be weird for me. I know the person who lets me into the parking lot. I know the people who watch the family room. The cooks. Everyone. It's not just about baseball. It's about everyone that I've met here, everyone that's helped to get to where I am today."

How many professional athletes do you know who, upon signing a 100 million contract extension, go out of their way to mention the parking lot attendant and the guards who monitor the family room at the ballpark?

Family has always come first for Zimmerman, both his baseball family and his biological family. His mother, Cheryl, has been afflicted with MS since he was 11. Ryan has never wanted to stray far from home. He wants his mom and dad, Keith, to be able to see him play in person as much as possible. And he wants to be able to use his stature as a big-league star and multimillionaire athlete to help bring awareness to this disease. Hence the creation in 2005 of the ziMS Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure for MS.

Zimmerman's current contract includes a clause that gives him access to Nationals Park to host an annual charity event supporting his foundation. His new contract surely will allow him to continue the tradition for years to come.

Here is a player who has always understood his responsibilities extend far beyond the baseball field. He's an ambassador for the Nationals in the community. He's a clubhouse spokesman and rarely, if ever, turns down an interview request. He lives in Arlington and has made Washington his home.

"I've been there since I was 20 years old," he said. "That's a very influential part of your upbringing, 20-25 when you're first learning how to kind of be on your own and kind of be your own man. I kind of grew up and learned about myself in that city, and it's just got a special place in my heart."

Just as Zimmerman has got a special place in the hearts of his teammates and fans alike. He was anointed as something special from the moment he was drafted, and though he originally was reluctant to accept that responsibility at such a young age, he's since embraced the idea and has represented the Nationals with the kind of dignity and class not often seen in this sport.

How much does Zimmerman mean to the Nationals? Enough that this new deal includes a personal services contract that will keep him as a team employee for five years after he retires. How many franchises and players even consider such things when negotiating a deal while he's only 27?

That's what Zimmerman means to the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper may do great things in this uniform, but they'll never overtake Zimmerman's place within the organization.

He is, and will always be, the Face of the Franchise.

"I wouldn't have done this with any other team," he said.

Funny, the Nationals wouldn't have done this with any other player.