Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nationals' 3B has excelled on field but is far from household name in nation's capital

Ryan Zimmerman walks into an Arlington, Va., restaurant on a cold December afternoon. Dressed in jeans, a checkered button-down shirt and brown loafers, the 6-foot-3 North Carolina native looks like one of the many young professionals who populate the Washington suburb.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" the host asks after greeting him, pondering Zimmerman's face for several seconds. "You look so familiar. College, maybe?"

"No, I don't think so," Zimmerman says, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders.

"OK. I'll think of it," the host says as he leads the Nationals' All-Star third baseman to his table.

Brian Schneider/US PresswireRyan Zimmerman was in the top 10 in the National League in home runs (33) in 2009.

A few minutes later, he returns with menus. "I think I've got it," the host says. "You know Whitlow's [a nearby bar and restaurant]? Do you go there? I bet that's it -- I used to work there."

Zimmerman pauses for a moment. He could tell the host the truth -- that this past year he won the Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Fielding Bible and "Baseball Tonight" Web Gem awards and held major league baseball's longest hitting streak (30 games) while being voted to his first-ever All-Star Game. Or, that since his arrival in Washington in September 2005, the 25-year-old third baseman has become one of the best players in baseball and the face of the franchise for the Nationals.

Chances are a New York City host wouldn't confuse Alex Rodriguez or David Wright with a college classmate. But this is Washington, D.C., and Zimmerman is the reserved, easygoing star of 2009's worst team in baseball.

"People in D.C. have a lot of other things going on," Zimmerman said in explaining why the Nats' fan base is sometimes criticized as less devoted than those of other major cities. "And when you win in this city, it's different."

The Nationals haven't had a winning season since his arrival. Yet Zimmerman showed his commitment to Washington last spring when he signed a five-year, $45 million deal through 2013.

"Few players stay in the same place their whole career," Zimmerman said. "It'd be a really cool accomplishment to have been here at our worst and see us through to our best. Hopefully, I can be that guy who's been here from the beginning and helped turn it all around."

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