While reporting this week’s column on the big-name pro D.C. sports stars filling the Bryce Harper void, I wanted to chat with a local athlete who is a D.C. sports fan and has seen the sports landscape evolve over the years.
The Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman checks both boxes. The 34-year-old grew up in Virginia Beach, arrived in D.C. as a draft pick when baseball returned in 2005, and attends various sporting events around town, including cheering on the Stanley Cup-winning Capitals last season. His wife, Heather, grew up in Annandale.
In an interview with City Paper, Zimmerman discussed being a D.C. sports fan, what he thinks of the city as a sports town, and whether or not he could ever see himself wearing another jersey.
The interview below has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
WCP: Which teams did you grow up rooting for?
Ryan Zimmerman: We didn’t really have any teams. I think the Orioles were close, and honestly, me and my brothers, we didn’t watch much TV. The Orioles were on, and the Braves were always on TBS or whatever, and sometimes the Cubs, so there really were only like three teams you’d ever watch. As far as football and all that stuff, the [‘Skins] were there obviously, they have a big following in Virginia Beach, but me and my brothers were more outside. We paid attention, but didn’t really have, like, a team.
WCP: I’m sure you saw Alex Rodriguez’s comments on D.C. as a sports town, saying that people here think more about politics. What’s your response to that? What do you think of D.C. as a sports town?
RZ: I think there’s definitely, you know, that’s what makes this city unique and like no other, is that there [are] tons of others things to do. It’s one of the coolest cities in the world, as far as the monuments we have, the museums, the things we can do here. You can do things here that you literally can’t do anywhere else in the world.
That being said, sports aren’t the only thing to do, which I think is OK. Is it a die-hard, crazy, sports town where every game is sold out? You know, I think the fans, playoffs, weekend series when school is out, it’s a town where there are a lot of things to do, and honestly, a lot of important people live here that have things going on a lot of times where they can’t come to every single game. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s so hard to compare sports towns. People love to get into that argument.
I love the fans here. I think being an athlete here, it’s not as intense as some of the other sports towns. You can go out to dinner, people will come up and say hi. It’s not like you don’t get noticed, but people are polite because a lot of people here are also important people themselves and probably go through that same stuff. You know, it’s different than any other city I think.
WCP: What did you think of the fans’ response to Harper’s first at-bat?
RZ: I get it. You go to Philly, you go to a division rival, fans aren’t going to be happy. But I said, at least for one at-bat, for a video or something, you should cheer. That guy did a lot for our organization, for the community, for the city. But fans are emotional. They pay for their tickets, they can do whatever they want. I think a lot of it was an emotional response. I think they do appreciate and respect what he did, so it was an interesting atmosphere.
WCP: Bryce has that kind of star power. What other pro athletes in this city do you think elevate to that level? And you can put yourself in that conversation as well.
RZ: [Laughs] Baseball is such a different type of sport, because I’m going to get four, five at-bats max. Then who knows? You might not do anything on the field. You could come to a game to watch one baseball player and you get to see four at-bats and that’s pretty much it … If you go watch Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] and Caps, you’re going to see him a lot. He’s going to be on the ice for 20-something, 30-something minutes, whatever they play. The action’s going to be a lot more there. NBA is the same way. I think you go see [Bradley] Beal or John Wall, or whenever another team comes to town, and you see LeBron [James]. Baseball is just such a unique sport.
I think what cures all of that, and what people want to see is just a winning team. If you win, it doesn’t matter who’s on your team, people are going to come watch. I think that’s the goal, and obviously having someone like Harp is an attraction like you said. If you win, and if we go to playoffs this year, I bet you we’re going to have the same crowd we had last year, so it’s one of those things if you win, people are going to come watch you play.
WCP: I’m sure you haven’t had to pay for sporting events for quite some time now. Who would you pay to see? Which athletes would you drop money to see?
RZ: Hockey is my favorite thing to go watch. Me and my wife go a few times a year. I grew up with a couple of those guys here, Ovi and Backy [Nicklas Backstrom], and got to know some of those guys. I just think the product, the speed, the excitement in the arena, they do a good job over there. It’s a fun game to go see. I haven’t gone to a soccer game yet at the new field over there, so I would love to go see one of those games. They have a pretty good team, and obviously [Wayne] Rooney, guys like that, so that’s kind of next on the list, but hockey is for sure my favorite.
WCP: You, Ovi, and Mike Green, you all started in 2005. How have D.C. sports changed since then? Do you feel like people are more engaged?
RZ: I think for the most part it used to be just kind of … an NFL town. The Caps really gained a following, Ovi brought a lot of that here with him being drafted, and people like to go watch guys score goals, and that’s what he does. He’s kind of transformed that. I think the arena down there has been huge. But, I mean, I think for the most part, D.C. teams over the last six, seven years have been really good, too. You always hear, “Oh, they don’t win championships.” Well, it’s hard to win championships. It’s really hard. But to have a majority of your teams either go to the playoffs or be in playoff contention every year is good. There’s a lot of cities that don’t have it. I think we’ve been pretty good over the last six, seven years.
WCP: Who are the top three most popular athletes in D.C. right now? Some people have mentioned you because of your longevity.
RZ: I think Ovi, we’re talking about maybe one of the greatest hockey players of all time, who’s been here for his whole career, has that kind of polarizing stature, where everywhere he goes, you recognize him. After that you have, I’m trying to think of the football guys, there’s so much turnover in the NFL. John Wall, Bradley Beal, those kind of guys. I’m sure there’s a couple soccer guys. Some of the guys like myself that have been here so long just don’t really dabble in that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t think of myself as relevant with those guys ’cause I do the same kind of stuff. But pretty much anytime I go anywhere I talk to people because they recognize me, but like I said, a lot of it has to do with me being here so long. It’s fun conversations. I enjoy it, actually. It’s kind of cool. I think Ovi for sure that’s the biggest. That’s an easy answer.
Q: Can you imagine playing in another city?
RZ: I’ve talked to some guys who have played the majority or all of their careers and then have gone somewhere else. They’ve said, “Don’t say that you will never do it.” For me, I’m just at the point where this is my 15th year … I’m lucky ’cause I’m home. This morning I dropped my girls off at school. Nobody gets to do that. So to be able to be present and be around, I’m lucky to be able to do that.
At this point in my career, going somewhere for a year or two, you have to weigh the options of is it really worth it. Money’s not a deal anymore. I’m not going to break any home run records or do anything crazy like that. Then it comes down to, do you just want to keep playing? Would you rather be around your family more? And honestly just playing in one city to me is kind of special. I think to kind of go somewhere for a year or two maybe and then have that at the end of your career, I would never say never. I would obviously weigh my options, but I think the goal is to play one or two more years here and see where we’re at.
I feel great, I feel better the last two or three years than I felt the three or four years before that. I just got to keep producing.
Photo by Lorie Shaull on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.