Thank You, Mr. National

As the Nationals retire Ryan Zimmerman’s number, his legacy is forever synonymous with Washington baseball

Nick Wass | AP

Mr. Cub retired in 1971.

Mr. Tiger retired in 1974.

Mr. Oriole retired in 1977.

But Mr. National retired in 2021. And just had his number retired by the Washington Nationals.

We attended the Ryan Zimmerman № 11 Retirement Ceremony on Saturday and it was a thrill. Sure, a handful of teams retire some numbers every year. But, with the rich history of baseball, so rarely do you see it happen now with a true face of the franchise. With someone who defined what the franchise was.

But because the Nationals have only been around since 2005 (after leaving Montreal and starting anew in the nation’s capital), their history is Of Mice and Men compared to a team like the Dodgers’ War and Peace.

Zimmerman was the first draft pick in franchise history. After flying through the minors, he made his debut in September of that year.

He played his last game on October 3rd, 2021.¹

That means that aside from 2020 when he opted out of the fake season (to protect his family as his wife, Heather, just had a baby in May), he played in every season in Nationals history until his retirement.

He played more games than anyone else in franchise history, including Expos players.

So while the Bryce Harpers and Anthony Rendons might have been a little flashier, he outlived them all. He was there for the highest of highs (like the 2019 World Series) and the lowest of lows (multiple 100-loss seasons.)

And that’s what I really think about when I think of Ryan Zimmerman.

Being there day in and day out.

At his № 11 retirement ceremony, the same stories kept coming up: his ’06 Father’s Day walk-off, walking off the first Opening Day at Nats Park in 2008 — then cut to the 2019 World Series win.

Sure, those are some of the most fun highlights of his career. But the things that truly made him Mr. National were not the amazing moments that made him Mr. Walk-Off (his walk-off HR total sits at a nifty — you guessed it — 11) or the things that made him an All-Star, Silver Slugger, or Gold Glove winner.

It’s the fact that he showed up to work at the same place every day for 16 years.

Sure, that seems like nothing compared to someone like my grandfather who worked at his working class union job every day for over 30 years.

But in baseball, that’s rare. Only five players played more seasons with their only team in primarily the 21st century: Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, Todd Helton, and Jorge Posada. And aside from Helton, these are franchises that are synonymous with players like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

Not only is it a rare feat, it’s even rarer to become Mr. Team Name. To become the literal face of the franchise.

And to do it without being the flashiest player. Jayson Werth was the team’s first $100 million player. Stephen Strasburg’s minor league games aired on ESPN before his highly-awaited call-up. When I went to my first Nats game, I was there to see Bryce Harper.

He did what he was supposed to do every day. Put his head down. Got the big hits. Did what he needed to do to help the team win.

Maybe that was changing positions. Hitting 7th in their World Series win. Coming off the bench and platooning in his final seasons.

Playing for 8 managers in 16 seasons.

Give a hometown discount.

You can’t ask for a player like Ryan Zimmerman because they only come around so often. A quiet leader, plays the game right, represents the team and the city.

“Someone who cared more about the name on the front of the jersey than the name on the back,” as former manager Davey Martinez said on Saturday.

Richard Nixon was the President when the Washington Senators left for Arlington to become the Texas Rangers. There was no baseball in the nation’s capital for 33 years. When a new team came to D.C.’s Navy Yard, they needed an identity that wasn’t Montreal, RFK Stadium, or anything associated with their past.

They needed a new face. A literal face of the franchise.

Baby-faced (as his mother put it) Zimmerman came along at the perfect time. Mr. National fell in his lap and he pulled it off like no one else could.

So thank you, Mr. National.

For the walk-offs, for the 2019 World Series, sure.

But really for being you. For the familiar face during hard times. For being the player that players want to be.

Enjoy your retirement. You might not be on the field anymore, but your № 11 will forever hang above it.

The least they could do for you after all you did for them.

¹I was lucky enough to be at this final game, a happy accident. It was Game 162 of the season and the Red Sox were in town. For the Sox, it was do or die. Win and go to the playoffs, lose and potentially go home. As DMV locals but Red Sox fans, we had to be there. Skipper Davey Martinez pulled him in the 8th so he could get a special curtain call. And it truly was special.

Want to chat Red Sox and Yankees? Check out Bleacher Brawls.

Want to chat baseball? Email me: theboywholovedjoekelly@gmail.com

Want to keep updated with the column? Find it on Instagram @theboywholovedjoekelly and Twitter @boywholovedmlb

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