The Real Crash Davis
The Express' Alan Zinter works for one more chance at the Show
When asked if he ever thinks about quitting, Alan Zinter looks you straight in the eye, barely blinking, not a hint of a smile on his face. Never, he says. Never in the 17 years of slogging through the minor leagues, barely grasping the dream of playing big-league baseball, did he ever think about giving it up. "If it creeps into your mind," he said, "you just put it away."
He never let the bitterness take over, even in the years when he was stroking the ball, only to get passed over again and again for the promotion to the majors. "I was able to channel that to fuel me for the next year, to prove that next year is going to be the year," he said. And when next year turned into next year, he says, he never let the frustration eat away at him. "I would never, ever let that sway me to say, 'I'm done with this, screw this,'" he said, his eyes never wavering. "I can't do that. I love this game."
And now he's the old guy a buff 38-year-old, trying to stick as a pinch hitter for the triple-A Round Rock Express. He still prepares every day for that call from the Houston Astros, the chance to play in the big leagues for just a few more games. He knows his days as a starter are done. If he's lucky he'll get one at-bat a game, a few minutes to prove he's a professional hitter, valuable for a stretch run. Maybe he'll get a pitch, maybe he won't.
On one steamy summer night this season, the chance came in the seventh inning of a 0-0 game. He strode up to the plate hitting about .220. The night before, the stands had been packed to see big-league legend Roger Clemens pitch, but this was just another minor-league game against New Orleans. There were two outs. Bases loaded. Zinter bore down, took the count to 3-2; worked the pitcher. Be aggressive, he mumbled to himself. He fouled off a fastball. The next pitch was a hard sinker. Zinter slapped it to left to score two runs. The Express won 2-0 and the Austin American-Statesman's page 4 coverage the next morning included the subhead, "Zinter's RBI single lifts Round Rock to five-game sweep." For one more night the dream lived on Zinter's long chase of the little boy's fantasy was a bit closer to reality.
In many ways, Zinter is the real Crash Davis, the perennial minor leaguer portrayed by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham. Davis had the dubious honor of setting a minor-league record for home runs; Zinter, a switch-hitting first baseman, is among the leaders of the modern era, with 245 dingers. He has compiled more than 5,500 minor league at-bats, an achievement in itself.
There are always a few old guys toiling in the minors. But usually they are specialists, like catchers and left-handed pitchers, players the teams stash on rosters as insurance against injuries. Or they are veteran big leaguers looking to recapture the magic. But a position player with 17 years of experience in the minors is a novelty. Most simply give up. They move on with their lives. It's no longer worth it to put real life on hold.
Zinter's story "is very rare," said Alan Schwarz, senior writer for Baseball America. "It's a wonderful story that indicates the passion some young men have for the game." But there's a "dark side" to Zinter's story, Schwarz said. "For every Alan Zinter there are 20 guys who don't make it and they retire with three kids, a divorced wife, and no college degree."
Like Crash, Zinter has briefly been to "The Show." On June 18, 2002, after 14 years in the minors, he pinch-hit against the Milwaukee Brewers, grounding out to first base against Ben Sheets. "It was the coolest groundout I had ever had in my life," Zinter said. His long road to the majors became national news. USA Today wrote about him. Camera crews followed his progress. His first hit was a home run. Baseball is overmythologized and certainly over-Kevin Costnered, but it is a sport unique in its ability to create fables. And there was no mistaking the drama of Zinter's journey.
"When I stepped back and thought about it, I realized, 'Wow, this doesn't happen every day,'" Zinter recalled, still shaking his head at the memory as he relaxed before a game in one of the rocking chairs in the left field stands at Dell Diamond. Asked if getting to the big leagues met his expectations, he sounded wistful. "It was better than I thought."
But after the celebration subsided, cold reality returned. He ended up getting only 44 at-bats in 39 games with the Astros, posting a .136 average with two home runs. The next year he was back in triple-A. He spent two injury-plagued years with New Orleans, then the Astros' triple-A club. The call to return to the Astros never came. The next spring he decided to try to catch on with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It looked like a good move. The Diamondbacks called him up for 28 games, and when they sent him down, he was pounding the ball at triple-A Tucson, hitting .335 with seven home runs in 54 games the type of numbers that get noticed. But a year later he hurt his shoulder, a torn labrum that ended his season, and the D-backs were dreadful. By the end of the season the organization was in disarray and committed to a new youth movement. Zinter wasn't offered a new contract.
He spent the off-season enduring an agonizing rehab for his shoulder. Every morning from 7:30 to 1pm he was in the gym. "There were days after surgery I thought I'd never move my arm again," he said. "I'd have good days, bad days ... bad weeks."
His career was at a crossroads. He didn't have a job. Nobody was interested in a 37-year-old coming off an injury. He had no gaudy numbers to show teams, no recent hot streak to demonstrate he was ready to do damage in the bigs. He called the Astros looking for a job. "It wasn't like teams were banging down my door," Zinter said. He told David Gottfried, the Astros' senior director of baseball operations, "You guys know me, and if there is an opportunity, please give me a call."
In its unforgiving way, the game was telling him it might be time to move on, but Zinter insists he never considered walking away. "It was not an option," he said. "I really needed to come back and play after the surgery." He wants to be a manager some day, but that wasn't on his mind. "I was in better shape than I'd ever been in my life," he said. "There is no reason I can't continue to play."
The call to work as a pinch hitter in Round Rock was a chance, and that's all he wanted. "I don't want age or numbers to tell me it's time for me to stop."
The Mental Game
When Alan Zinter was little more than a year old, his father put a plastic bat in his hands. By the time he was 2, Al Zinter was showing his little boy how to swing left-handed, so when he grew up he might develop into a switch-hitter. "This way he didn't know any better," said Al Zinter, recalling his infant son's development as a batter.
A former utility player for the University of Minnesota who never quite cracked the starting lineup, the elder Zinter vowed to pass on his knowledge and love of the game to his son. Growing up in El Paso, little Alan religiously wore a Minnesota Twins uniform. Each day when his dad came home from work at the natural gas company, Alan would grab him and pull him outside to play ball. "I didn't have to push him," Al Zinter said. "He always had the love of the game."
By the time he was a junior in high school, the scouts were watching young Alan, who could hit for average and power. He would have been a high draft pick out of high school, but instead he followed his parent's wishes and enrolled at the University of Arizona. But there was no doubt his future was in baseball. After his junior year, he was drafted in the first round by the New York Mets, signing for a $123,000 bonus. It was 1989. Ronald Reagan was president. Paula Abdul was queen of the pop charts. And Alan Zinter was on the fast track to the Show.
But he struggled from the very start. There were moments of beauty, when his swing would connect and he looked like a star. He was a legend in batting practice, slamming the ball around the field. But in games something happened. He tightened up. Every bad game would lead to re-evaluation and reassessment. The bad days ate at him.
"Failure was almost unacceptable to me," Zinter said. "I was trying to be perfect in a game that isn't perfect." He was losing the mental game. In 1993, after five seasons in the Mets organization, he was mired at double-A Binghamton, hitting a respectable but unspectacular .264 with 24 home runs.
In 1994 the Mets traded him to the Tigers for Rico Brogna, a first baseman with similar numbers who made it to the Mets the next year. Meanwhile, Zinter posted two mediocre seasons playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers' triple-A club. He hit bunches of home runs, but his batting average wallowed around .250. With little hope of moving up to the Tigers, in 1996, as a minor-league free agent, he decided to move to the Boston Red Sox.
In spring training with the Red Sox, it was the same story. When he struggled, he started tinkering with his swing, returning to the batting cage for more work after every strikeout, every groundout. "It was something I hated to do, but I did it all the time," he said.
But then it all started to turn around. Red Sox pitcher Jeff Suppan, now with the St. Louis Cardinals, gave him a book to read about the mental approach to the game. Over and over again he recognized himself in the "things not to do" section. "I took it upon myself to change the way I thought," he said. He had to force himself to be positive, to not get down on himself. "I had such bad habits mentally that it was very difficult in the beginning," he said. "It's easy to go back and be scared." He would write things down and force himself to concentrate. In the batter's box, he could be seen talking to himself, repeating positive thoughts: "be aggressive" ... "see the ball" ... "crush the ball." "I had to mumble them out loud, good thoughts," he said. "It's a repetitive thing ... so I don't think."
It worked. He loosened up. Baseball became fun again. "I just played," he said. "If I failed I went and played the next day, rather than spending all my energy and passion in the batting cage trying to fix things."
In 1996, he pounded the ball for Pawtucket, the Red Sox's triple-A club, hitting .269 with 26 home runs. But he was stuck behind Mo Vaughn, the Red Sox first baseman, one of the game's premier hitters. So the next year, he signed with the Seattle Mariners (and the next season Vaughn blew out his knee). With Tacoma, the Mariner's triple-A club, Zinter continued to hit with power, but the Mariners had all-star Tino Martinez entrenched at first base. So a year later, Zinter moved to the Cubs.
In 1998, Zinter produced his best year as a professional, batting .310 with 23 home runs for Iowa, the Cubs' triple-A club. The next spring, it looked like he would make the big-league club but he was sent down to the minors before opening day, one of the last guys cut. "That's an eye-opening experience," he said. He was back in Iowa. It was snowing. He had never made more than $60,000 a year playing baseball. And then his agent called with a $400,000 offer to play in Japan. He didn't want to leave. But he couldn't pass it up. "I hadn't made any money at that point and there were no guarantees [with the Cubs]," he said.
Zinter terms Japan "a great experience." "I was treated as a superstar; that was kind of weird," he said. But after a year with the Seibu Lions, he wasn't offered a new contract. He returned to the United States and started bouncing around the minors from the Cubs, to the Diamondbacks, to the Astros. He continued to hit; but he wasn't posting the big-bopper numbers. And suddenly he started to notice a subtle but distinct change. In baseball's evaluation process, he was no longer "the prospect." Now he was just a guy in his 30s who had never made it to the big leagues.
To steal a line from legendary sportswriter Frank Deford, playing in triple-A is like being the world's tallest midget. You are the best of the guys who haven't quite made it. Many can't handle the frustration of believing they can play at the next level, only to be passed over by management. Others realize that they are never going to compete with the stars and accept it, and decide to give it up and return to the real world.
"For these guys who have true love and passion for the game, the game comes first," said former UT star Danny Peoples. Like Zinter, he was a bonus-baby draft pick, an outfielder projected for great things. He spent five years in the minors before getting a shot to play 31 days with the Indians. Then he was traded to the Mets, part of a deal involving fading all-star Roberto Alomar. When he didn't make the team and was sent back to the minors, he decided to walk away from the game. "I wasn't going to make baseball my number-one priority in life," he said.
Peoples went through a thought process faced by most ballplayers, the ones that don't develop into stars. He realized that he wasn't going to be that big-time player with a no-trade clause. He didn't want to become a journeyman, his fate left to the whims of general managers. "It takes a tremendous amount of courage to continue to play the game," Peoples said, "when people are saying you can't do it."
Nobody gets rich in the minor leagues young players get flashy bonuses when they first sign with a team, but they don't see any steady money until they make the big leagues. First-year players in triple-A often average about $3,000 a month during the season, plus a $20 per diem for road games. Although it is difficult to quantify there is no players' association for the minors the typical triple-A player makes about $50,000 a year. And if they hope to maintain their skills and get noticed, they can't simply sell used cars in the offseason. Most play winter ball in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to stay sharp and to help pay the bills. But triple-A ball is no longer the dank, dreary experience of past years. Many of the stadiums, like Round Rock's Dell Diamond, are beautiful places to play, modern facilities with pools and grassy lawns for the fans.
In many ways Zinter is lucky. He hasn't been alone on his minor-league odyssey. In 1992 he married Yvonne, whom he first met when they were in middle school in El Paso. From Pawtucket to Tacoma to Japan, "She's gone everywhere with me," he said. They have two children, Michael, 5, and Franklin, 3. They own a house outside Tucson, and during the season are living in a rented apartment in Round Rock.
"In reality, I have a great life," said Zinter, as he sat on a stool in the Express' well-adorned locker room, 21/2 hours before game time. "I haven't grown up. I don't have to go into the real world to get a job." A TV was on and several players were gathered around a table playing cribbage. "Are you ready?" Zinter called to a young pitcher watching the game. Batting practice ended 15 minutes ago, but Zinter wanted to hit a few more balls in the batting cage. He bounced up and headed down the hallway, bats in hand.
"You'll never see him sitting around idle," said Round Rock manager Jackie Moore. "He's always doing something. Stretching. Swinging a bat. Or the weight room. And there's a reason guys like that stick around as long as they do."
Zinter is 6 feet 2 inches, 195 pounds, and there's no fat on his frame. He often hits the weights before or after games, just for the work. While he doesn't look old, most of his teammates are in their early 20s, really just kids. He's known as a quiet guy, not a rah-rah cheerleader type. But he often finds himself talking to the young players, trying to help them with the aspects of the game that their talent can't control.
"He always tells me, even if you're struggling, you want to feel like you're the best hitter out there," said outfielder Mike Rodriguez, who was 9 years old when Zinter was drafted by the Mets. "His attitude is upbeat. He always comes to the park happy. I look up to a guy like that."
Zinter doesn't like to talk about his aspirations to manage he sees it as a goal for down the road at that undefined time when he's done playing but it's no secret. "I think baseball needs these kinds of individuals to move into a different role," said Express manager Moore. "You don't have to be around Alan long to realize what he brings to the table his love of baseball, dedication, what he can pass along in the clubhouse to these young players."
Zinter has no illusions about his role with the Express. Minor-league teams exist to develop a few star youngsters, the bonus babies earmarked as future big-league starters. No matter how well he plays, Zinter is not going to battle the youngsters for playing time. His job is to be a pinch hitter, one of the sports world's more peculiar jobs. Most athletes perform at their peak when their heart is racing and the adrenalin is pumping. A pinch hitter is called on to perform in the most pressure-packed situations after hours spent waiting, not knowing if he'll even get a chance to bat.
During games Zinter can be seen pacing the dugout, stretching on the steps and swinging a bat in a corner, working on his stance. He studies the pitchers, carefully, watching how they're working hitters. "That's my role, coming off the bench, so I want to be the best bench player," Zinter said. "So if I do get the call, I've been doing it down here and doing it well."
Getting the call is all about making himself valuable. Every night he carries around his catcher's gear, even though he hasn't played catcher in a game in months. It's just a reminder that he can still fill in as a backup catcher, in case of emergency. It's one more way he can help the team, one more way to show the team he's not simply one of those old guys hanging on past his prime.
"There's a few out there," Moore said. "This has been their life. At this level they can make a living at it, and I know if you ask any of them out there, their dream is to get a break and go back to the Show. And who is to say it's not going to happen?"
If Zinter has a hero right now, it's Julio Franco. At something like 47, Franco is a valuable role player for the contending Mets, helping the team as a pinch hitter. If Franco can do it, why not me? Zinter asks.
He can still jack the ball. In June, in a rare start against Oklahoma, he hit two home runs one from each side of the plate. But that was followed by a long stretch of games without getting a single at-bat. Or he was called on to pinch-hit, only to strike out and fail. That's baseball. At the end of July, he was hitting .248 with nine home runs.
"He has certainly shown this year that he can be that bat off the bench," said Gottfried, the Astros' senior director of baseball operations. In September, big-league rosters are expanded and additional players are called up, but there are no guarantees. "It's just day-to-day," Gottfried said. Injuries, trades, slumps the situation can change quickly. "Right now his chances are as good as anyone else's," Gottfried said.
If he can make it back to the majors, even if it's only for a few more games, to play in the big stadiums with the perfectly manicured fields and face the Hall of Fame pitchers for a few more at-bats, it will be worth it, Zinter said. "I know I can still play," he said. "I just have to be patient." If anything, his journey is evidence that there is little assurance of success. "It may not happen again, it might happen tomorrow," he said. "You just don't know and that keeps you going."
One person who still believes is his father, who taught him to switch-hit all those years ago. "They say you need a little boy in you," Al Zinter said, "and he still has a whole bunch of the little boy in him."