Saturday, March 07, 2009

Jeff Zimmerman Interview Part 1

Evan Grant got a job as the Rangers beat writer for D Magazine. He started his new blog (which he’ll be doing with Mike Hindman) at http://insidecorner.dmagazine.com/. It’s really good and you should go check it out. It’s now linked to my blog (on the left).

This week I am posting Part 1 of my interview with former Rangers pitcher Jeff Zimmerman and you’ll see that he gave the greatest answers. He is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known and I would like to thank him for spending so much time on this interview. These two questions are only part one. The interview will continue sometime soon.

Question 1: Can you describe the experience of playing for the Canadian National Baseball Team? What is the toughest thing about playing baseball in Canada and why? What is the best thing about playing baseball in Canada and why?

Answer: At the time, playing for the Canadian National Baseball team was the pinnacle of my baseball career. I never wanted to “make” a team as badly in my entire life. It is difficult to describe the enormous pride you feel when representing your country. Hearing your national anthem played while wearing your country’s uniform gives you chills up and down your spine. It is the same sensation that you feel on opening day in Texas when the fighter jet flies over the Ballpark after the Star Spangled Banner.

Playing for your country is more emotional than anything I experienced collegiately or professionally. The games take on more gravity as you are not just playing for your team but your entire country. Each inning and even each at bat seem to have more of a sense of urgency. As all the games mean something, the atmosphere is similar to playoff baseball.

The most difficult thing about playing in Canada is the weather. Growing up I was lucky to play 40 games a year. This translated into a lack of exposure to quality instruction, coaching and scouts (pro and college). As a result many Canadian players aren’t as seasoned as the players who come out of the United States and Latin America. However, things have vastly improved in all areas over the last 15 years to the point that there are almost 1000 Canadians playing college ball in the USA and well over 100 playing professionally.

The best thing about playing baseball in Canada is that it is still played for fun. The focus is more on teamwork than individually honing your skills to get to the next level. I was reminded of this a few years back when I attended a camp for a traveling team in the Metroplex. Kids ranging from age 9 to 17 were going through a variety of workouts to make a team in this “organization”. Coaches had the 9 and 10 year olds throwing in front of radar guns and one of the coaches told me that if a kid isn’t throwing XX mph by the time he’s 10, he can’t pitch on the team. I found this pretty astounding (and absolutely ridiculous) considering I never even knew what a radar gun looked like until I was 16.

Question 2: Can you describe how you made the journey from the independent leagues to the major leagues? How did you end up signing with the Rangers? How did you find out that you had been called up to the majors and what was your first MLB game experience like?

Answer: Ironically, my journey from the independent leagues to the major leagues went so much smoother than I expected. I began playing independent ball in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1997 never having faced a wood bat before. It was there I gained supreme confidence in my slider as the weight distribution in the wood bat made it much more difficult for hitters to check their swings as opposed to the metal bats.

My manager in Winnipeg was Hal Lanier who played and managed in the big leagues and led the Astros to the playoffs in ’86. He was the first ever professional baseball person to show any confidence in me, let alone interest. This was the turning point in my career. Here was someone who managed Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott telling me that I had what it took to play professional baseball. It’s hard to describe, but this vote of confidence confirmed my belief that it was possible and then opened up pitching abilities that I never knew I had. I rode this momentum all through the season and ended up one of the top pitchers in the league.

At the end of the season many of my teammates told me to wait by the phone as typically the top 5-10 players from the Northern League get picked up by organizations. The phone call never came. I tried to find an agent but at age 25 I was too old and too Canadian (US work Visas were limited to 30 per organization then). So I became my own agent and put together a “baseball resume” and faxed to all 30 clubs. When Reid Nichols, the Rangers’ farm director, called the next day I was so blown away that I thought it was my brother playing a joke on me. Up to that point in my life nothing had ever come easily for me and surely the man in charge of the entire Ranger minor league system had better things to do than wake me up with a phone call early in the morning.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a dream, and I was given an invite to the Rangers’ minor league spring training in Port Charlotte, FL. Upon arrival I took one look at the army of pitchers who were younger, bigger and threw harder and felt my heart sink. To further the insecurity, I was the only player of almost 200 who had black spikes. Actually there were a couple others who had the wrong shoes and we were all told that we had 3 days to find red spikes or find our own way home. My roommate let me use his as he had just learned he needed knee surgery. They were a size too big but nothing that 2 pairs of socks couldn’t cure in the Florida heat.

After the shoe drama had passed I got to pitch in some of the A ball games. It was a huge relief to find that the momentum that I had built up the previous season in Winnipeg returned and I threw well enough to make the high A club in Port Charlotte in the Florida State League.

Six weeks into the season we were playing in Daytona Beach and my roommate and I heard a knock on our hotel room door at 11pm. Figuring it was a curfew check we opened the door to see our pitching coach Lee Tunnel. He pointed to each of us and said, “I need to talk to you and I need to talk to you”. Coincidentally, my roommate, Rodney Pedraza (a good ol’ Texan from Cuero) had just signed with the Rangers from Winnipeg where we played together last season. Upon getting the “point” from Lee we both looked at each other thinking the same thing – “great, back to Winnipeg we go”. Lee did have a plane ticket, but it was to Tulsa! I was going up to AA.

Tulsa was an amazing experience. We had a great club with an awesome manager (Bobby Jones) and pitching coach (Brad Arnsberg). Everyone on the team got along great. I thought that once you reached AA (within sniffing distance of the big leagues) things would have been more cut throat and players more selfishly motivated. I couldn’t have been more wrong. You couldn’t tell the prospects and bonus babies from the journeymen and roster fillers. We all were just having a blast playing the game we loved. Nobody was immune from being poked fun at. With this chemistry we won the AA championship. It was the first ever championship team I had been a part of and wow was it fun.

Things didn’t stop there. Shortly before the end of the Tulsa season I was chosen by the organization to play in the Arizona Fall League. It was at this point that I finally realized that I might actually have a shot at playing in the big leagues as the AFL rosters are comprised of 6 of the top prospects from each organization. What was equally as cool was that our pitching coach in the AFL was Lee Tunnel. To top that, my younger brother Jordan, a Seattle LHP prospect, was on the team. So this time when I arrived for the AFL I wasn’t intimidated by all the big name prospects that I had followed in Baseball America. I actually felt like I belonged. The adrenaline and buzz from the Tulsa experience carried on through the AFL. I was quite sad when it ended. It had been such an amazing, whirlwind season that I thought if it ended I would wake up from the best dream ever to find myself back throwing in a parking garage in Vancouver.

Luckily, the dream didn’t end. Upon returning home to Vancouver the Rangers had even more great news to make me really think that it was even too good to be a dream:

I had been named the “Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year”. An award for me named after and presented by my child, teenage, and adulthood hero.

I was one of 3 Ranger prospects selected to attend the MLB Rookie Career Development Program in Washington DC. Yet another awesome experience, I got to meet George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr. and President Clinton.

I didn’t think it was possible, but it got even better as I was invited to attend the Rangers’ MAJOR LEAGUE spring training as a non-roster invitee.

Big league camp was as intimidating as minor league camp at first but at least I had the right color shoes. Walking into the clubhouse on the first day and seeing Juan, Pudge, and Raffy was quite a surreal experience. But seeing John Wetteland in his roller blades wearing a hockey helmet and gloves shooting pucks into his locker made the Canadian kid in me feel somewhat at home. The atmosphere was super laid back. Doubly so for me since I knew there was no way I would be making the club as a non-roster guy who hadn’t even sniffed AAA. With this in mind I relaxed and soaked up the experience.

Then the games began and I was astounded that Johnny Oates kept putting me into them…and early too…while the big league starters were still playing. I was looking forward to watching some games, maybe get an inning or two when the big leaguers left after the 5th inning and hopefully hoarding another week’s worth of meal money before being sent back to minor league camp. Instead, I’m getting to face Knoblauch, Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill in front of 7,000 fans in Tampa as Roger Clemens makes his first start for the Yankees. I stayed with the club all the way through to their final exhibition game at the Ballpark in Arlington before I was sent to AAA in Oklahoma City.

My bags were already packed (I couldn’t believe they actually have people who do that for you) when I saw a note on my suitcase. It was from Mike Morgan, the ultimate veteran who played the game with the enthusiasm of a ten year old.

“Zimdog, Great camp. It was fun watching you pitch. One pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one day at a time. Keep doing this and you’ll look back on this moment with 20 years in the bigs under your belt. See you soon.
Mo Man”

I wish the “Mo Man” was right about the 20 year part, but he did see me soon as I was called up to the Rangers after only a week in Oklahoma City. We were in Albuquerque and before the game the manager, Greg Biagini, told me that there was a chance that I would be called up to the Rangers after the game tonight. I wasn’t going to pitch in the game, so just relax and try to enjoy it, but don’t tell anyone what we had just talked about. That was probably the most un-relaxed I had ever been on a baseball field. I couldn’t pitch, I couldn’t say anything about my potential call-up – I thought my head was going to explode. Needless to say that 2 and half hour game was the longest game in the history of baseball to me. I could not sit still, I could not shut my brain off. Thoughts popped in and out of my head like a ping pong game.

When the game finally ended, the torture continued in the clubhouse. I was too wound up to eat the post game spread, my stomach was in knots. I tried to be nonchalant but couldn’t keep from staring at the manager’s office like a stalker. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and forced myself to get something to eat from the spread. Of course, as soon as I took a huge bite out of my oozing barbeque beef sandwich, the manager motioned me into his office. When I got into the office he nodded his head and on cue I spit my mouthful of sandwich all over my uniform. I wanted to hug him, but settled for a handshake due to the bbq sauce mess on my jersey.

I arrived in Seattle the next morning after getting a grand total of zero hours of sleep. After pinching myself before walking into the clubhouse I had a flashback to my first minor league spring training and how I wondered if I had made the right decision or should be getting on with my life in the real world. Except this time everyone knew who I was and welcomed me as if I was one of them. I was baptized by fire into the bullpen core. John Wetteland had devised a very unique set of “rules” and code of etiquette for the relievers to follow in order to keep from going stir crazy during the early innings of the game. Unfortunately, I had to learn them through trial and error (mainly error) much to the delight of the veterans. I was fined (given head slaps) for being late for the season. When I poured myself a cup of water from the jug in the pen without asking if anyone else wanted a cup I was quickly reminded of my greenness as everyone in the pen got to throw water in my face.

In the meantime, Pudge was in the process of going 3 for the 3 with a grand slam, 3 run homer and 2 run double as we were up 15-0 after 5 innings. The next thing you know the phone in the pen rings and I’m motioned to get up. My heart jumps into my throat and my entire body starts to shake. My jaw starts to chatter like it’s 20 below zero in the Kingdome. I can’t feel my arm or the ball in my hand as my first warm-up throw sails 5 feet over the catcher’s head and all the way down behind home plate in the game.

I can’t recall anything else until I’m on the mound in the game and Raul Ibanez steps into the batters box. Finally, I stop shaking and get the sign. All of a sudden everything gets really quiet. The crowd noise stops almost as if I’m a tennis player getting ready to serve. The only thing I can hear is my heart beating. Thank goodness my body decides to take over because if it was left up to my brain I’d still be standing there right now wondering how in the world did this all just happen. Automatically, my leg kicks up and the ball jumps out of my hand as if I’m watching it on a video game. I don’t remember if my first pitch was a strike or not, but as soon as it left my hand the game turned back into what it always was…a game that I had played with love since I was 8 years old.

I threw 1 2/3 innings and all I really remember is the last pitch that I threw, a high and away fastball to Edgar Martinez that he swung through for the final out of the inning. After the game, Rusty Greer came up to me and said, “Do you know what you just did? You just made Edgar Martinez, the best right-handed hitter in the league look silly on a pitch that he normally drives into the right field bleachers. Welcome to the big leagues.” Maybe these guys are human after all.

Results from last week’s poll:
Who do you think will be the utility infielder for the Rangers this year?
Omar Vizquel – 50%
Joaquin Arias – 25%
German Duran – 12%
Jose Vallejo – 6%
Other – 6%

Come back next week for an analysis of the catchers in Rangers Spring Training.

5 comments:

Lynn Leaming said...

Such a cute picture of you and Jeff when you were five :) Wow! He really gave long answers to your questions, didn't he. So sometime you'll have to tell me how you remember all the words at your interviews. I guess you must tape them?? Look forward to reading more of this one in the future.

D.A. Riser said...

Grant, that's one of the best interviews ever. Great work!

dschiller222 said...

Great interview Grant!! Jeff should write his own book. He has such great detail and humor and emotion in his writing. I can't wait to see the rest of his answers. Great picture, too. You used to be so cute. What happened? Just kidding

Rebecca said...

What a vivid recollection of a past that is often very muddled for big leaguers. I agree with dschiller, he should consider a short book of some sort. I'd read it :)

grantlovesbaseball said...

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for the comment. He probably would write a very good book, I'd read it, too.

Hi Uncle David,

Yeah, it's too bad I'm not cute anymore, isn't it?

Hi D.A. Riser,

Thanks for the nice comment. Really, it was Jeff that did all the work, it's a pretty easy blog for me when you get those sort of responses.

Hi Ms. Lynn,

Thanks. He did give long answers, it took 5 pages on Word for just two questions. This interview was by e-mail (he lives in Canada), but I tape the ones I do in person.

Thanks again.