Face of Fran­chise, Zim­mer­man Is One At­trac­tive Sell­ing Point

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Barry Svr­luga

Two springs ago, when the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als were pre­par­ing to re­turn base­ball to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal for the first time in a gen­er­a­tion, Ryan Zim­mer­man was a 20-year-old ju­nior at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. He had signed some au­to­graphs — “maybe a few, for the Vir­ginia base­ball pro­gram and that kind of thing” — but he was an un­known.

On Mon­day, Zim­mer­man will be the Na­tion­als’ start­ing third base- man as the club opens its third sea­son here. He has at­tended par­ties with Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Tom Cruise, gets paid merely for sign­ing a bat­ting glove, will pen a col­umn in a lo­cal pa­per and will, if he so de­sires, soon be able to pick up the phone and or­der a Ryan Zim­mer­man pizza.

His re­ac­tion to such an over­haul: “I could care less.”

With Open­ing Day at RFK Sta­dium co­in­cid­ing with the start of Zim-

mer­man’s sec­ond full sea­son in the ma­jors, the club has no greater sell­ing point than the clean-cut linedrive hit­ter from Vir­ginia Beach. The Na­tion­als come into the sea­son as the con­sen­sus pick to be the worst team in the ma­jors, and there­fore they are sell­ing a fu­ture that they say will be much brighter, one with a new ball­park open­ing in 2008, a de­vel­op­ing farm sys­tem and an en­er­getic new man­ager in Manny Acta.

But at the cen­ter of the trans­for­ma­tion is Zim­mer­man, the de facto face of the fran­chise and, if base­ball scouts and ex­ec­u­tives prove cor­rect, a star in the mak­ing. So as much as 2007 will be about how the Na­tion­als take steps to be­come con­tenders, it also will be about Zim­mer­man deal­ing with his po­si­tion as not only the club’s best player, but its most rec­og­niz­able char­ac­ter.

“I want him to be one of many faces for the fran­chise,” Na­tion­als Pres­i­dent Stan Kas­ten said. “I don’t want to put it all on his shoul­ders.”

They are, how­ever, shoul­ders that pro­duced the swings that drove in 110 runs as a rookie a year ago, shoul­ders upon which Acta has placed a sig­nif­i­cant role for lead­er­ship in the club­house, shrug­ging off the fact that he is all of 22. It is why the Na­tion­als — who could, po­ten­tially, trade nearly any­one on their ros­ter over the com­ing sea­son ex­cept their third base­man — have placed Zim­mer­man promi­nently in their ad­ver­tise­ments in the run-up to what could be a long sea­son.

“He’s ar­tic­u­late,” Kas­ten said. “He’s ath­let­i­cally gifted. He’s bright. He’s tele­genic. He’s a good per­son. Did I leave any­thing out?”

Well, per­haps one thing: Zim­mer­man is de­cid­edly low-key. And thus, he is just be­gin­ning the bal­ance that, dur­ing his days as a lightly re­cruited in­fielder at Kel­lam High School, was unimag­in­able.

“I don’t say I hope I can go out and have a year so that I can be on a bill­board in D.C. or get some en­dorse­ment deal,” Zim­mer­man said. “But as far as the team us­ing me, if that’s what the peo­ple in the city want, if that’s what gets them to come out and watch us play, that’s great.”

Zim­mer­man spoke last week, sit­ting in a cor­ner booth at a chain restau­rant less than a mile from the Na­tion­als’ spring train­ing fa­cil­ity in Viera, Fla. Not a sin­gle per­son rec­og­nized him. But over sweet tea and steak fa­ji­tas, he ac­knowl­edged his life is chang­ing. He has signed a variety of en­dorse­ment deals that, con­ser­va­tively, could bring him $200,000 this sea­son, half his on- field salary of $400,000. But he keeps com­ing back to one topic: “I just like to play the game.”

Thus, it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of those around him not only to gauge what a bur­geon­ing young star is com­fort­able with, but to po­si­tion him in a mar­ket­place that hasn’t had a true ma­jor league star since Frank Howard slugged homers for the old Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors in the 1960s — long be­fore ath­letes were mar­keted to the de­gree they are now.

“They have this amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity, be­cause the Red­skins are frus­trat­ing peo­ple,” said Bob Lef­fler, pres­i­dent of the Lef­fler Agency, a Bal­ti­more-based sports mar­ket­ing firm. “His op­por­tu­nity is prob­a­bly go­ing to be as good as the profile of the team. But once you start play­ing, the games are a ref­er­en­dum on you. If he has this amaz­ing year and they don’t, he might sep­a­rate him­self from the team.”

In part be­cause of that, Zim­mer­man’s agents have be­gun the process of mar­ket­ing their client in Wash­ing­ton. Be­fore he was se­lected with the fourth over­all pick in the 2005 draft, Zim­mer­man chose Ca- sey Close and Brodie Van Wa­ge­nen of prom­i­nent sports agency In­ter­na­tional Man­age­ment Group, or IMG, as his agents. The com­pany, though, be­gan a trans­for­ma­tion af­ter its founder, leg­endary sports mar­keter Mark McCor­mack, died in 2003. Even­tu­ally, Close, its pri­mary base­ball agent, and Tom Con­don, the pri­mary foot­ball agent, broke away and took their clients to Creative Artists Agency, an es­tab­lished firm that rep­re­sents Hol­ly­wood’s glit­terati.

Thus, Zim­mer­man was able to bring team­mate Brian Sch­nei­der to CAA’s Su­per Bowl party, which he de­scribed as “ridicu­lous.” Jo­hans­son, Cruise, Katie Holmes, Billy Bob Thorn­ton, Alec Bald­win, Nick Lachey, on and on. The event, for one night, rep­re­sented the new world into which Zim­mer­man could move. But on a larger scale, his in­volve­ment with CAA — which also rep­re­sents such megas­tars as Pey­ton Man­ning, LeBron James and Ryan Howard — could pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties to dab­ble in ar­eas that have noth­ing to do with base­ball, should he so de­sire, a fur­ther in­di­ca­tion that the worlds of sports and en­ter­tain­ment are merg­ing.

“The whole agency lit­er­ally is be­hind each and ev­ery client, whether they’re ath­letes or ac­tors,” Close said. “We have re­sources and re­la­tion­ships at the very high­est lev­els in so many ar­eas — mo­tion pic­tures, TV, broad­cast­ing, phi­lan­thropy, mar­ket­ing, li­cens­ing. If he wants to do that kind of thing, we would be able to pro­vide him with some very unique op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

In part be­cause Zim­mer­man is still es­tab­lish­ing him­self and in part be­cause of his per­son­al­ity, his deals are fairly mod­est — for now. He will ap­pear weekly on “Wash­ing­ton Post Live,” a new show on the Com­cast Sport­sNet cable net­work that fea­tures Post re­porters. He will write a col­umn for the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner. He has a deal with an In­finiti deal­er­ship, signs balls and gloves and other equip­ment for Locker Room Mem­o­ra­bilia. Be­gin­ning in May, Papa John’s will pro­duce the Zim­mer­man pizza.

“He’s not Derek Jeter,” Van Wa­ge­nen said. “He’s not Ryan Howard. We’re not try­ing to make him into some­thing be­yond what he is, what he’s com­fort­able with. But we want him to be po­si­tioned to do things that are im­por­tant to him in his life as his star con­tin­ues to rise.”

To that end, nearly all of Zim­mer­man’s en­dorse­ment deals pro­vide a tie-in with his new char­ity, the ziMS Foun­da­tion. Zim­mer­man’s mother, Ch­eryl, has mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis and is con­fined to a wheel­chair. Last year, Zim­mer­man started the foun­da­tion with his own money. This week­end, the Web site — www. ziMS­foun­da­tion.org — will go live. And now, each deal he ne­go­ti­ates will pro­vide some money for Zim­mer­man him­self, but a per­cent­age will go to the foun­da­tion. For in­stance, for ev­ery Zim­mer­man pizza Papa John’s sells, the foun­da­tion will re­ceive a cut, with the com­pany guar­an­tee­ing a do­na­tion of $25,000. Ex­pec­ta­tions, though, are to gen­er­ate per­haps $10,000 a month over the five months of the pro­mo­tion.

“Given the sit­u­a­tion I was in, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Zim­mer­man said. “I’m pretty lucky to have the abil­ity to do this. It’s pretty cool that it’s a di­rect cor­re­la­tion to what I do for a liv­ing. I’m just lucky to be where I’m at and do what I do and be able to use what I do to make money for peo­ple that need it.”

There is, of course, the po­ten­tial for an adjustment to how Zim­mer­man lives his life. Now, he said, “I like go­ing out in D.C., just hang­ing out.” But he has seen his friend, New York Mets third base­man David Wright, get overex­tended by the de­mands of fame. When the pair walk into a restau­rant in Man­hat­tan, Zim­mer­man trails be­hind, watch­ing the forks drop, the heads turn, the whis­pers be­gin.

“I’m kind of like, holy cow! This is un­be­liev­able, ” Zim­mer­man said. “It’s kind of like I’m learn­ing about it now. It’s dif­fer­ent for me, but I’m get­ting more com­fort­able with the idea. I kind of like it.”

The steak fa­ji­tas were gone. An or­di­nary meal at an or­di­nary chain restau­rant was over. A po­ten­tially ex­tra­or­di­nary stage in Ryan Zim­mer­man’s life was just be­gin­ning.

“I guess you just got to have fun with it,” he said, “be­cause there’s not too many peo­ple that get to do th­ese things.” When you were grow­ing up, you never thought that you’d be mak­ing money do­ing . . . com­mer­cials.”


Start­ing his sec­ond full sea­son, Ryan Zim­mer­man is the Nats’ best, and most rec­og­niz­able, player.


“I’m kind of like, holy cow! This is un­be­liev­able. It’s kind of like I’m learn­ing about it now,” Ryan Zim­mer­man said of be­ing rec­og­nized in pub­lic.

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