Nats’ Zimmerman Finds Strength in His Mother’s Struggle

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH — Drive past the Home Depot and Hell’s Point Golf Club, where Ryan Zimmerman worked as a cart boy, cleaning up the balls from the range, and follow the beach grass to the edge of the ocean. Take a right at Sandbridge Market, and head toward the spot where the new condos are scheduled to go up, creating still more traffic on this windblown sliver of beach where Keith and Cheryl Zimmerman bought a fixer-upper on stilts more than a dozen years ago, where they raised their two boys, and where the long line of major league scouts who trekked this way would frequently ask, “Where do you play baseball around here, anyway?”

Never mind that Keith Zimmerman laughs a bit when he says, “This house is a work in progress.” It is home and it feels like it, as evidenced by the surfboard Ryan has stashed on the porch, by the black baseball bats he can pull from his room, by the stories he tells of climbing onto the roof and looking up and down the coast, a beach kid at home above the sand. It is where the living room is adorned with a few photos of Ryan and his younger brother, Shawn, and also with maritime artifacts, a model lighthouse and a portrait of a seagull taking flight.

“I love it,” Ryan said. “That’s where I’m comfortable.”

The truth is, Ryan Zimmerman looks comfortable just about anywhere. It might be in the kitchen of his boyhood home, a hot dog in his hand, his parents a few feet away in the living room. It might be on the green grass of a major league infield, where he made his debut for the Washington Nationals last September, where he will play as the team’s starting third baseman this season, just a year after he was selected with the fourth pick in the draft out of the University of Virginia. He can do this at age 21 because according to Brian O’Connor, his coach at Virginia, “The presence he carries himself with, the humility he has, that’s what really makes him.”

The humility withstood the constant questions that came last summer, questions about when he would be called up to the majors even though he was just 20, even though he spent less than two months in the minors, even though he began his stint with Class AA Harrisburg by embarking on the only prolonged slump of, well, of his life. The humility withstood the accolades Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden doled out after he was drafted, saying Zimmerman had defensive ability comparable to the all-time greats at third base, to Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen, 32 Gold Gloves among them.

“I don’t really stress about too much,” Zimmerman said last week, standing in his kitchen, that half-eaten hot dog on the counter in front of him. “I’ve never been a worrier or anything like that.”

The humility, it turns out, grew in the small rooms of the weathered gray house that is dubbed “Sandtucket,” a hybrid ode to the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach and the Massachusetts island Nantucket, where some of Cheryl’s family used to gather. It is where Ryan and Shawn Zimmerman learned to manage tasks other kids didn’t need to manage, learned to appreciate things others assume they’ll always have.

“I think a lot of his attitude comes from just, unfortunately, they have had a little bit more dose of reality than most junior high and high school kids have had,” Keith Zimmerman said. “He sees the whole picture of what goes on a little bit better than your typical kid had to see it. I don’t know if that was fair or right or wrong, but that’s the way it was.”

Cheryl Zimmerman agreed. She is in a wheelchair, and has been since 2000. In 1995, she discovered she had multiple sclerosis, a chronic, unpredictable disease that affects the central nervous system. She continued to work as an elementary special education teacher, and for a few years after the diagnosis, there were no noticeable problems. MS affects roughly 400,000 Americans, and it can impact the body in almost that many different ways. There’s no way to tell how the disease will take hold of a given person. “You could be blind the next day,” Keith said, “or you could go 25 years with absolutely no change.”

The change for Cheryl Zimmerman, and the change for her whole family, really came in 1998, when she was out on a personal watercraft just off the coast of Sandbridge. Ryan and Shawn, just 13 and 10 at the time, were motoring off ahead. Cheryl rode with a family friend. And before she knew it, the friend’s husband had slammed into them from behind.

“I looked back, and seeing them stopped, I figured something was wrong,” Ryan said. “I went back, and it was scary.”

Cheryl, though, didn’t act worried. “I think it’s because me and my brother were there,” Ryan said. But there was reason for concern. She broke the L2 vertebra in her back. For someone with MS, such a blow can be devastating. “Anytime you throw in a major operation or a major injury like a Jet Ski accident,” Keith said, “that speeds up the whole process as far as the disease goes.”

Cheryl used to run, but those days were over. A lacrosse player in college, she came from an athletic family in her home town of Collegeville, Pa., where she grew up with Keith. She served as an assistant coach on Ryan’s youth basketball teams and was part of the two-person operation that toted the Zimmerman boys to and from practices and games and, in Shawn’s case, golf matches.

If the diagnosis of MS started to change all that, then the accident blew it up. Cheryl fought to continue teaching, returning in January 1999 and working through the next school year. “Finally I said: ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough,’ ” she said. Her room at school was a long way from the parking lot. Just getting there had become a challenge. And the disease was progressing. She went to the wheelchair full time. Now she has use of her arms, and her hands a little bit. She can talk and eat without any problem. “But I’m basically dead weight from my armpits down,” she said.

So the reality of day-to-day life at Sandtucket changed. Cheryl could no longer make dinner, so Ryan and Shawn were expected to chip in. They learned to do their own laundry. The family installed a ramp at one end of the house so Cheryl could wheel down to the driveway, where a lift would raise her into the family van. Now she envisions power doors, because maneuvering around the little house is cumbersome in her chair.

“We kind of got eased into it,” Ryan said. “When it first happened, it wasn’t that bad for a while. But as things progressed, it showed that you can’t really take anything for granted. In a way, that’s helped us out a lot. It made us grow up quicker, a lot more than other kids, kids who had their mom there doing dinner all the time or driving them places or whatever. It made us mature a lot faster.”

Truth be told, Ryan Zimmerman may have turned out exactly as he is had his mother been running, been cooking, been working like she always did. “He’s never been a flashy kid,” Keith said. But those who know him believe there is a calm in Ryan that comes out more easily because of his mother’s illness.

Take those times in college when the Cavaliers would fall down by three or four runs early in a crucial ACC game.

“Kids would come in the dugout, and they’d be uptight,” O’Connor said. “Ryan always had this presence about him to where he never panicked. Time upon time, you’d hear him say stuff to the entire team to where it’s calming: ‘Relax. Just play the game. It’s the third inning.’ It really rubbed off on his teammates.”

Meantime, he was doing things his teammates couldn’t do, making plays others couldn’t make. In the summer of 2003, he played in a local college wood-bat league. Greg Lovelady, a former star catcher at the University of Miami, served as the coach, and he watched Zimmerman snare a one-hop smash to his backhand side, jump in the air and “with ease,” Lovelady said, “flick the ball across the diamond.” Lovelady turned to his team. “You see that on ‘SportsCenter,’ ” he said. “You’re talking about Scott Rolen as the only guy in the majors who can make that play, and he makes it in front of your eyes when he’s 18.”

These comparisons would seem to be exaggerations. Scott Rolen? Brooks Robinson? Last week, O’Connor was preparing for an upcoming Virginia baseball banquet, an event at which Robinson will serve as the keynote speaker. The Hall of Famer sent a videotape of highlights that will run as he is introduced.

“I thought I was watching Ryan Zimmerman,” O’Connor said. “The ball you come in on, the one Brooks made look so easy? That’s what Ryan does.”

Bounce these comparisons off Zimmerman, and he allows that it’s “neat.” But the fact that he doesn’t treat it as a big deal is one of the reasons his teammates and others in the Nationals organization are predicting a smooth transition to a full-time job in the majors. He hit .397 with 10 doubles in just 58 at-bats at the tail end of last season and made enough of an impression that the Nationals traded veteran Vinny Castilla to make room for him. “Poised,” is how first baseman Nick Johnson described Zimmerman after he had been in the majors a few weeks.

“Honestly,” said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, “he’s the kind of kid you want to take care of because you know how good he can be.”

How good he can be is the result of natural ability, no doubt. But no one who knows Zimmerman debates that his circumstances play into his attitude. He is low-key about his success in part because his mother is low-key about her disease. “You either go with it,” Cheryl said, before Keith jumped in. “You just don’t let it consume you,” he said.

Last week, as the sun set across the beach and the low light shined through the windows of the house, Ryan Zimmerman moved easily through his living room, joking with his parents about old moments in high school, or how his widespread family might embarrass him when they showed up at various games, sometimes sticking their heads in the dugout to see if they could catch a word with Ryan. Cheryl, sitting in stocking feet in her wheelchair, smiled at each retelling, rolling her eyes and laughing.

“She doesn’t let that bring her down,” Ryan said. “She doesn’t want anyone to act any different when she’s there. How can that not have an effect on you?”

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