Imagine being one of the best Little Leaguers from your neighborhood, one of three kids from the same AAU youth baseball team to actually play in the big leagues.
And while your childhood friends experienced the intoxicating rush of playoff baseball — playing in 62 combined postseason games, winning division titles, nine total pennants and one World Series the past eight years — you experienced . . . zilch. In your world, “meaningful October” meant nothing.
Or what if your numbers, power and production in the clutch were so impressive since you entered the majors in 2005, you were being compared to the four best players at your position over the past decade. But those four had played in a combined 88 postseason games, won 16 total pennants and one of them won a World Series.
If you’re Zimmerman, you must feel cursed by the game’s gods, like you’re a modern-day Don Mattingly, a great player holding the franchise together during lean times, right?
“No, not at all,” Zim says, standing in the middle of the Nationals’ clubhouse, in the middle of all the good things that have happened this season. “Actually, I feel blessed — blessed that it all came together.”
The kids on that AAU team, B.J. Upton and David Wright, have been there and won, and you haven’t. Even other kids from Hampton Roads you grew up with — B.J.’s brother Justin, Michael Cuddyer, Mark Reynolds — have been there, all won and you haven’t. The all-star third basemen they compared you to the past decade — Wright, Alex Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen — have been there and won, and you haven’t.
Not a single hard feeling of being left out?
“None,” Zim says, explaining a while later.
“Sometimes you have to endure that kind of stuff before you get to these kind of points,” he says, days before Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. “And I think it makes us — all of those guys who had to go through that — it made us stronger. And we learned from that. And I don’t think we’d be in this position if we didn’t go through that first.”
We had it all wrong. Zimmerman knows what B.J. Upton and many of the others don’t get: Winning on the game’s highest level is that much sweeter when you’ve lost like Zimmerman’s teams have since 2005.
“I think they were very honest with us: They told us it was going to be a long process, and we understood that we weren’t going to get good overnight,” he says of Nationals ownership. “I mean, when you’re basically an expansion team and MLB owns you, those first couple years before we got owners we really didn’t have much say or the financial ability to really do much. So we had to just go with the flow, I guess.”
Going with the “flow” included playing positions other than third base. At various times since 2006, he was de facto marketing director, communications specialist, crisis-management counselor. Oh, yes, and Head of the Welcoming Committee for newly acquired teammates.