MILWAUKEE — Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the pride of Auburndale, Wis. and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who made a pair of All-Star teams with the Nationals, twice garnered National League Cy Young Award votes and once led the NL in wins before struggling to shoulder the expectations of a $100 million contract with Detroit, decided to retire from professional baseball this week.
It might have been the shortest retirement in history.
“I think I was retired for about two hours,” Zimmermann said.
In a turnaround straight out of a movie script, Zimmermann is continuing his professional career with the team he cheered for as a boy. He told the story of this dramatic turn of events on Friday, a day after the Brewers called Zimmermann to the big leagues and put him on the cusp of becoming the 11th Wisconsin native to wear the uniform in a regular-season game.
Zimmermann signed a Minor League deal with Milwaukee in February to compete for the starting rotation, but the Brewers didn’t have a spot for him, so they released him in late March to avoid paying a bonus due to veteran non-roster invitees. Zimmermann opted to sign back as a free agent two days later, and when the team’s alternate training site opened in the second week of April, he drove to the Brewers’ High-A home in Appleton, Wis., on the days he was to pitch, hoping for an opportunity with the big league club before an April 30 “out” built into his contract.
Zimmermann threw his most recent bullpen session on Tuesday. Wednesday was an off-day at the site.
That’s when he decided to call it quits.
“I was kind of sick of driving to Appleton, an hour-and-a-half one way,” he said. “I called my agent and basically said, ‘I think I’m ready to hang them up.’ I’ve done enough going to Appleton. He said, ‘OK, I’ll let them know,’ and he let them know Thursday morning.”
Zimmermann, 34, drove north to Eagle River, Wis., to a place he owns on the water. He told teammates he did some spring fishing on Wednesday night and began contemplating what comes next.
In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Brewers suddenly needed pitching. They have a remarkable 14 players on the injured list, including six pitchers — four of whom are starters or multi-inning types. The most recent is Corbin Burnes, who was unexpectedly added to it for undisclosed reasons on Thursday, when the Brewers said they were following Major League Baseball’s health and safety protocols.
Up in Eagle River, Zimmermann’s phone rang.
“I wasn’t going to say no. I wanted to be here the whole time,” he said.
So Zimmermann drove six hours to American Family Field, underwent the required test for COVID-19, and got to the clubhouse after 6 p.m. CT for a game set to start at 6:40 p.m. CT. As Eric Lauer pitched against the Dodgers, Zimmermann did some throwing in the bullpen. His wife, Mandy, son, Riley, and daughter, Ava, were in the stands.
Zimmermann didn’t get into the game, but another UW-Stevens Pointer did. J.P. Feyereisen has evolved into one of the Brewers’ key late-inning relievers, and he helped hold the lead in a 2-1 win. If Feyereisen and Zimmermann happen to appear in the same game, they would be the first Wisconsin-born duo to do so for the Brewers since La Crosse’s Damian Miller and Racine’s Vinny Rottino on Sept. 30, 2007, against the Padres. The last time two Wisconsin-born pitchers appeared in the same game for the Brewers was Green Bay’s Bob Wickman and Milwaukee’s Paul Wagner on June 9, 1998.
“I think everyone on our team loved having ‘Zimm’ around, and I’m really happy he’s here,” Feyereisen said. “It’s fun playing with him, and obviously I look up to him as a ‘Pointer.’ It’s pretty cool.”
How does one get their head right to pitch in the Major Leagues so soon after deciding to retire?
“I had six hours to think about it in the car, so I had plenty of time to get ready,” Zimmermann said.
He added, “It’s crazy. I’ve always wanted to play for the Brewers, so this is kind of a dream come true. If you asked me Tuesday or Wednesday if this would ever happen, I probably would have told you no. Crazy things happen in this game.”