By Craig Heist
When Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was growing up in Virginia Beach and playing baseball as a youngster, he was a fan of the Orioles and an even bigger fan of Cal Ripken Jr.
“They were the only team I could really go see,” said Zimmerman. “I mean, not that I went and watched them a lot, but obviously Cal Ripken was one of the biggest stars in the game when I was growing up and he was one of my guys that I would watch all the time.”
When Zimmerman was drafted by the Nationals in 2005 with the fourth overall pick out of the University of Virginia, general manager Jim Bowden compared his young star to the likes of Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen and Brooks Robinson.
If you are out at Camden Yards this week for the “Battle of the Beltway” part II, or watching at home on TV, watch Zimmerman very closely and be honest with yourself about what you see.
Many people around the game -- players, coaches, scouts and broadcasters -- say that when they watch Zimmerman, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Ripken, baseball’s Hall of Fame Iron Man.
The first thing that comes to mind is that both players had outstanding rookie seasons.
While Ripken won American League Rookie of the Year in 1982, hitting .264 with 28 home runs, 32 doubles and 93 RBIs, Zimmerman was edged out for the award in the National League by the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez. In fact, he lost by four votes, the closest vote since the NL’s current voting system was adapted in 1980.
Zimmerman hit .287 with 20 homers, 47 doubles and 110 RBIs.
There is no doubt that Zimmerman, now in his second full season, shows all the signs of heading for a superstar career, and the Ripken comparisons are there to be made.
“I went up to Harrisburg to watch him before he made his debut in Washington,” said Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reporter Todd Jacobson. “I was watching him take infield and BP and I sat down with Nationals scout Alex Smith, and he actually brought it up to me. He noticed how similar the mannerisms were and how the approach to the game was like that of Cal. Since then, I have watched it and paid attention to it and it is true. He does do a lot of things similar to Cal. He deals with the media in a similar way. He’s very savvy like that. I see it happening. He still has 20 more years to put together to really be like Cal, but you can really see it growing.”
Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro said the maturity level of the 22-year-old Zimmerman, is very similar to that of Ripken.
“When he was a rookie, I remember talking to Nick Johnson and Johnson was so impressed with his poise and the way that he handled himself,” Loverro said. “It was so professional, it was uncanny. He knew when to act like a rookie and he knew when to act like a veteran and that was just like Cal. It was just like the guy who had grown up in baseball all his life.”
Radio talk show host Phil Wood said if there is one difference between the two players, it may be more of a sign of the times in baseball than anything else.
“Cal did a longer apprenticeship in the minor leagues and Ryan basically had a few weeks in the minor leagues,” he said. “But they are very similar players -- power hitting, big guys on the left side of the infield. If they wanted to move Ryan to shortstop, I am sure he would make the transition rather easily, although I don’t anticipate that happening. In terms of skills, in terms of being prepared to play major league baseball, they are very, very similar.”
Jeff Manto played with Ripken during his record-breaking season of 1995 and is now the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Manto spent three days last week at RFK Stadium watching Zimmerman play against his Pirates and he can understand why people see similarities.
“What I think most stands out is his desire,” said Manto. “They seem to have the same desire and the same passion for playing.
“One of the examples was [June 6] when there was first and third and one out and he hits a slow roller. It looked like it could be a sure double-play ball, and he runs hard, beats it out and just like that, a run is home and they are up 1-0. That’s one of the attributes Cal had.
“On defense, [Zimmerman] makes plays at third. One of the fastest guys that we have hit a ball down the line at third and he came in, picked it clean and threw across the diamond like it was nothing. Just to see him do that, the athleticism for such a tall guy as Cal was, it’s just off the charts.”
“You know, I just liked the way he played,” said Zimmerman of Ripken. “He wasn’t flashy, he played every day obviously, and he just played the game the right way, and I just took a liking to that style. Just watching him play, he always got things done. No one ever really praised him for it. He wouldn’t make those crazy, unbelievable plays, but he wouldn’t make errors.”
Ripken’s work ethic was also something that stood out in Zimmerman’s mind. Coming to the ballpark every day and being in the lineup, day in and day out. When it comes to Ripken’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games, Zimmerman thinks it’s the most amazing record in sports.
“To play a whole season without missing a game is probably one of the hardest things to do,” he said. “Every day something hurts. I mean, I’m 22 years old and I show up to the park every day and you got a bang or a bruise or something hurts. To play that long and to be that good for that long and go through all the bumps and bruises for that long, it takes a toll on your body and to do what he did was just unbelievable.”
Nationals’ radio play-by-play man Charlie Slowes saw a good bit of Ripken’s career firsthand, not only as a broadcaster of Orioles games in 1989 and ’90, but also as the voice of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for seven seasons. In fact, Slowes called Ripken’s 400th home run against the Devil Rays at Camden Yards.
“The physical attributes of Zimmerman and the way he goes about his game are obvious comparisons to Cal,” Slowes said. “He goes about it the right way in every phase, on and off the field. Maybe Zimmerman will establish what will be known from now on as the 'Nationals’ Way,' though he spent just two months in the minor league system.”
Zimmerman gets a little embarrassed by the comparisons to Ripken, but he also understands that like Ripken, he is the face of his organization and he accepts that responsibility.
“That’s just the way I am,” he said. “I lead more by example than anything else. I’m getting a little better at being a little more vocal. I’m learning what it takes to be a leader, and it’s not easy. People like [Derek] Jeter do things and make things go, and it’s not an easy task. People just think and say, ‘He’s the captain and the leader of the team,’ but there is a certain responsibility that goes along with that that you have to learn.”
His demeanor is very much like Ripken’s, but he insists whatever comparisons there are, they are purely coincidental.
“It’s from watching him, it’s not like I said, I want to do everything just like him,'” Zimmerman said. "Maybe there’s some effect from growing up and watching him. That’s just the way I played. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was on purpose. It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence as that guy, and I am going to keep doing what I have been doing and hopefully that will keep me here for awhile.”
If that happens, Washington fans will have in Zimmerman what Baltimore fans had in Ripken for 20 years. And for a baseball fan, that’s pretty good.
Issue 2.24: Jun e14, 2007