By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
VIERA, Fla., March 12 — Ryan Zimmerman stood on third base Monday afternoon at Space Coast Stadium, his second double of the day behind him. David Wright, who already had a hit of his own, walked over. The pair fell into conversation, just as they had during batting practice, just as they do from time to time in the offseason, just as they did seven years ago when they played alongside each other as teenagers.
Zimmerman is the third baseman for the Washington Nationals, and he is 22. Wright is the third baseman for the New York Mets, and he is 24. And if each of their clubshas its way, scenes like that — Zimmerman and Wright, meeting at third and chatting — will play out a couple dozen times a year for the next decade or more. Need up-to-the-minute evidence? On Monday, Wright singled three times in three at-bats. Zimmerman one-upped him, just as if they were competing in the gym back home, hitting those two doubles and a towering home run in the Nationals’ 9-6 victory.
For those keeping score on a perfect spring day, that’s a combined 6 for 6.
“We never talked about it then,” Wright said before the game. “But it’s pretty amazing to think of now.”
There is, apparently, something in the Tidewater area of Virginia that allows elite athletes to grow like kudzu. The list is nearly endless, from Lawrence Taylor to Michael Vick in football, from Allen Iverson to Alonzo Mourning in basketball, from boxers such as Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker to, recently, a host of baseball players.
Zimmerman, who grew up in Virginia Beach, and Wright, who was raised in nearby Chesapeake, are part of a wave of players and prospects on their way to stardom now. It wasn’t enough that they played together on their travel team in the fall of 2000. B.J. Upton — who became the second overall pick in the 2002 draft — toggled between second and shortstop with Zimmerman.
“It’s scary to think,” Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.
The debate in the National League East now is who will be better this year, next year, five years from now, when their careers are over. Florida’s Miguel Cabrera is a more explosive offensive player than either Wright or Zimmerman, but there’s no telling how long he’ll play third, no guarantee how long the Marlins will be able to hold onto him. Zimmerman and Wright, it seems, could be linked in perpetuity.
“I think we both like where we’re at,” Zimmerman said, “and it’s kind of fun to think about facing each other so much.”
But think also about the Tidewater Orioles, the traveling team coached by Lee Banks back when Wright and Zimmerman were in high school. Then, Wright was the prospect, a year ahead of Zimmerman and more fully developed. The following spring, he was taken by the team he rooted for as a child, the Mets, in the first round.
Zimmerman wasn’t anywhere near that level of prospect at that time.
“He was small,” Wright said. “You could tell he had a good approach at the plate and good tools, but he just wasn’t the physical guy he is now.”
As the two stood and chatted at third base Monday, that seemed unlikely. Zimmerman has filled out, a robust 6 feet 3 and nearly 220 pounds. Wright is three inches shorter, at least 20 pounds lighter.
“There were a couple of years where we kind of lost contact, when I was in the minors and he was in college,” Wright said, “and then I saw him in his sophomore year at the University of Virginia, and it was unbelievable. He was a totally different kid. He matured.”
Now, they are trying to mature together. In offseasons past, they worked out at the same Chesapeake gym, often training with yet another major leaguer from the area, the Twins’ Michael Cuddyer, as well as both Upton and his younger brother, Justin, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. Last offseason, Zimmerman spent a good deal of his time training in Chesapeake, but Wright was in New York most of the time, where his six-year, $55 million contract — signed last August — allowed him to buy a place.
But when they do get together, it matters.
“We all want to try and outplay each other and one-up each other,” Wright said. “It’s fun, because I think it pushes us. He sees me lift a certain weight, and Zimm’s going to try to do that much more. I see him do something, I’m going to try to outdo it.”
Thus far, Wright has a slight edge. His first full year in the majors, following a 69-game debut in 2004, he hit .306 with 42 doubles, 27 homers and 102 RBI. He followed it up by hitting .311 with 40 doubles, 26 homers and 116 RBI last year.
“I think he’s progressed every year little by little,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the goal, to get a little better. He’s done it offensively and defensively. The numbers he’s had, I don’t think I’d be disappointed.”
Zimmerman hit .287 with 47 doubles, 20 homers and 110 RBI as a rookie last season. He has pledged to cut down on his 120 strikeouts and to draw more than 61 walks.
If he does, he just might catch up to Wright’s batting average and approach his career on-base percentage of .375.
Either way, when they’re not chit-chatting at third base — one arriving after a double, the other playing defense — they will pull for each other. Last season, when Zimmerman hit a game-winning homer against the New York Yankees, Wright shot Zimmerman a text message as soon as he saw the highlight.
“As cheesy as it sounds,” Wright said, “you’re proud of each other.”