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DON'T JUDGE ZIMMERMAN HARSHLY JUST YET

[March 27th] -- Ryan Zimmerman is his own worst enemy. Because he's made the jump from Vinegar Hill* to Viera less than a year, because he hit .397 in 58 September at-bats last season, and because he continues make defensive plays that are favorably compared to Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson, managers, fans and sports writers are expecting perfection from the kid every time he takes the field.

He's just 21 for crying out loud.

After making two errors Saturday against the Tigers, manager Frank Robinson said he was "concerned" about his third baseman. Zimmerman, in a refreshing bit of honesty, said that he was finding it hard to concentrate during his first spring training. The word he used to describe his time in Viera was "monotonous," which in and of itself required a quick explanation from Frank as to what is and isn't proper to say during spring training. "That's just not something a player should say" mused one of the team's coaches Sunday.

See, and that's the point. Ryan Zimmerman the baseball player is a guy who most of the time looks every bit as polished and poised as Scott Rolen of the Cardinals. But Ryan Zimmerman the individual is just a kid, who just completed his junior year in college and should be on one of the back fields at the Carl Barger minor league complex, where making two errors in a game isn't even noticed, and is far away from the cameras that capture player's "mis-speaks."

Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden have publicly placed the bar so low for Zimmerman that it'll be impossible for him not to have a successful first season. In just spring 66 at bats, he's hit about half the number of home runs that Bowden said he'd be satisfied with over the entire 2006 campaign. But privately, there is no question that Frank and Jim are expecting big things from Zimmerman, and they are likely to get piqued when he makes mistakes that 21 year-olds will always make. Zimmerman's errors this spring haven't been mechanical, they've been mental. Some days, the kid looks a little overwhelmed by his surroundings. He gets overwhelmed because Bowden traded Vinny Castilla last October and told him that he was now the team's staring third baseman. He's never even seen a 'AAA' stadium yet. These mistakes that he's making now were also made by Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt and the other players he's been compared to. The difference is that Rolen made his mistakes at class 'AA' Reading at this age, and Schmidt made his miscues while playing college ball for Ohio University. They came to the majors later in their careers, and therefore were less apt to lose focus during spring training.

Ryan Zimmerman is going to be the cornerstone of this franchise. At the age of 20, he's already caught the eye of the Elias Sports Bureau, who notes that Zimmerman holds the record for most doubles (10) in a season with 60 at bats or fewer. This spring, in about the same number of at-bats, he has 5 doubles and 5 home runs, showing that as he continues to gain experience, he continues to hit the ball harder and farther. Where's his top end? I can't say, but it sure isn't the .300-20-100 that many sports writers (and me) suggested over the winter. He might have Albert Puljols power, maybe just a tad less. But six spring errors aside, he'll win his share of gold gloves before he finishes his career. I don't think Zimmerman's errors or his finding spring training boring are even worth reporting. He's using spring for what it was intended: to make mistakes and learn from them.

No matter how much more damage Jim Bowden will do to the Nationals before new ownership fires him, we have him to thank for drafting Ryan Zimmerman last June. Zimmerman is so special to Washington fans because he is the "first" National, the first guy drafted by a team that didn't have that silly tri-color "M" logo on their hats. He just may be to this generation what Frank Howard was to mine: a friendly, humble player who never took his press clippings too seriously.

Go ahead, Zim. Boot a few more this week. I won't change a thing.


* Vinegar Hill is near the UVa campus where, legend has it, a truck lost a huge barrel of vinegar at the crest of the hill. It rolled down the hill and burst open, covering the entire area with vinegar. Some say you can still smell it today. It's part of the beginning of a drinking song that my brother used to sing during his days in Charlottesville in the early 1960's, "From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill, we're going to get drunk tonight ...."
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