Thursday, April 12, 2012

All-Time Bluefield Team - Gregg Zaun

The starting catcher on the All-Time Bluefield to the Bigs Team is Gregg Zaun, who turns 41 on Saturday. Born April 14, 1971, the switch-hitting catcher played 16 seasons in the major leagues while suiting up for nine different teams.

Zaun was the nephew of longtime Orioles backstop Rick Dempsey.*

* Dempsey was the 1983 World Series MVP and played 24 seasons in the majors. He was the fourth-youngest player in MLB when he broke in 1969 and the fourth oldest when he retired in 1992. Only ten players have played more seasons than Dempsey, who at 42 was the sixth-oldest player to catch a game.

While attending St. Francis High School in La CaƱada Flintridge, Calif., Zaun was the Los Angeles Times 1989 Glendale-area Player of the Year*

* Zaun is not the only St. Francis baseball alum. Other attendees include Mark Loretta, Jason Hirsh, Matt Young and, most notably, Mike Vitar, the actor who played Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez in the Sandlot.

He was selected by the Orioles in the 17th round pick in the 1989 draft, Brian Giles and Mark Grudzielanek went in the same round as well.

Two months later, he won a Gold Medal with the U.S. Junior National Team at the World Junior Championship. Two notable teammates were Albie Lopez and 2000 Heisman Trophy winner and former Blue Jays prospect Chris Weinke. Weinke actually played professional baseball for six seasons in the Toronto system from 1991-96, advancing as high as Triple-A. His manager at high-A Dunedin in 1993 was none other than the current manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays, Dennis Holmberg.

Five days after winning the Gold, Zaun signed with Baltimore, opting not to attend the University of Texas. His professional career began in 1990 with Bluefield, where he was an Appy League All-Star and finished 12th in the circuit in batting average at .299. In addition to his catching duties, he also saw action at shortstop and third base. He even pitched a scoreless inning in one game, working around a hit and a walk with a strikeout.

He moved up the minor league ranks and finally made it to the show on June 24, 1995. The O's trailed the Red Sox 3-2 at Camden Yards when Chris Hoiles led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a walk. Zaun was called in to pinch run and after he moved to second, then third on groundouts, Brady Anderson cracked a two-run homer off Tim Wakefield to put Baltimore in front. Boston came back to win the game 6-5.

In August 1996, the Orioles traded him to the Marlins for reliever Terry Mathews (who sadly died of a heart attack this February at just 47 years old). He backed up Charles Johnson and batted .301 with a .415 on base percentage in 58 games in 1997. The Marlins reached the World Series and Zaun got into two games in that Fall Classic against the Indians.

He pinch hit for Johnson in Game Two, bouncing out 4-3 against Jose Mesa to lead off the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss.

In Game Seven, with the Indians on the precipice of their first title since 1948, Moises Alou started a ninth-inning rally for the Fish with a leadoff single off Mesa. With one out, Johnson singled and sent Alou to third base before being removed for a pinch runner, Zaun.

Representing the World Series-winning run, Zaun watched from first base as Craig Counsell lifted a fly ball to deep right field that brought home Alou with the tying run. Zaun was stranded there when Jim Eisenreich grounded out to send the game to extra innings.

Zaun caught the tenth inning as Robb Nen struck out the side. Jay Powell posted another zero in the top of the 11th and Florida came to bat in the bottom half. Bobby Bonilla led off with a single and Zaun tried to bunt him over, but he popped it up and pitcher Charles Nagy snagged the unsuccessful sacrifice attempt. Counsell hit a grounder to second that was misplayed by Tony Fernandez, allowing Bonilla to reach third base. With the bases loaded and two out, Edgar Renteria smoked a line drive just over the outstretched glove of Nagy and into center field. Counsell scored the winning run and the Marlins won the championship.

Zaun had his ring, and after surviving the infamous fire sale that gutted the team*, he now had the starting catcher job. Unfortunately for Zaun, he batted .188 and the Marlins finished 54-108. They finished 38 games worse than they did the previous year and are the only defending champ to reach triple digits in losses.

* That '97 Florida club was dismantled faster than it was assembled. Many starters from the title team were shipped out: Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Gary Sheffield, Alou, Jeff Conine, Renteria, Bonilla, Nen, Johnson and Devon White. The rebuild went well though, they netted A.J. Burnett from the Mets in the Leiter trade and Derrek Lee from the Padres in the Brown deal. They secured the second pick in the 1999 draft after the brutal '98 season, which they used on Josh Beckett. The Fish won another World Series as a wild card in 2003. After four seasons, an expansion team wins two championships in seven years without a division title, while the Cubs haven't won since the Magna Carta was signed.

Zaun was traded to Texas after the '98 season and backed up Pudge Rodriguez in his 1999 MVP campaign*. After that season he was dealt again, this time to Detroit as part of the Juan Gonzalez trade. Zaun never played for the Tigers, as he was traded once more to Kansas City during spring training.

* Pedro Martinez was absolutely robbed of the 1999 MVP. Pudge had a great season, hitting .332 with 35 homers and 113 RBIs. However, Pedro was sublime, going 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA (the league average was 4.86). He also struck out 313 batters to take home the pitching Triple Crown and put up a miniscule 0.923 WHIP. Martinez received the most first-place votes but lost 239-226 because two writers, ignoring the voting rules, left him completely off the ballot because they didn't think pitchers should be considered for MVP. If they both voted him fourth or higher, Pedro would have won. Incredibly, Pedro was better in 2000, putting up a 1.74 ERA (the league average was 4.91). His 0.7373 WHIP set the single-season record during one of the highest-offense periods of all time. He came in fifth in the 2000 AL MVP vote.

Over the 2000 and 2001 seasons in KC, Zaun posted a .290/.386/.454 slash line and 112 OPS+ in 122 games.

He signed with the Astros as a free agent and spent a year and a half in Houston. Upon being released in August 2003, he caught on five days later with the Rockies and was reunited with Charles Johnson. He finished the season in Denver and signed with the Expos in the offseason. He never played for Montreal in their final season though, as he was released in spring training.

He did play north of the border after signing on with Toronto at the start of the regular season. He found a home with the Blue Jays and finally got regular playing time at 33 years old. In 2004, he got more than 300 at bats for the first time in his career. From 2004-2008, Zaun averaged 107 games per season with a 97 OPS+. With 535 games played for Toronto, only Ernie Whitt, Pat Borders and Darrin Fletcher have caught more games for the Jays. In 2005, even though he didn't play every day, he finished 11th in the American League with 73 walks.

Zaun moved on from Toronto, splitting the 2009 season between two other AL East teams, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

He signed with yet another team for 2010, joining the Milwaukee Brewers. On May 20 in Pittsburgh, Zaun's second-inning groundout off Paul Maholm plated Corey Hart. It was his last plate appearance in the major leagues as a torn labrum in his shoulder required surgery and ended his season.

He signed with the Padres for spring training last year, but he called it a career on March 7, 2011.

While he wasn't known for his power (88 career HR), he has not one, but TWO walk-off grand slams. In both instances, his team was trailing with two outs and his at bat was the last hope.

On June 27, 2002, his Astros were down 4-3 to Arizona when the Killer B's rallied against Byung-Hyun Kim. Craig Biggio worked a one-out walk, Lance Berkman was hit by a pitch and Jeff Bagwell singled to load the bases. Daryle Ward struck out to put it all on Zaun. He fell behind 0-2 before clubbing a grand slam to win the game.

History repeated itself six years later, this time in Toronto. The Jays trailed the Rays 4-3 with one out in the ninth when Vernon Wells and Brad Wilkerson singled off of Troy Percival. Lyle Overbay grounded out and Scott Rolen followed with a walk to set the stage for Zaun once again:

It is one of only two walk-off slams in Blue Jays history (George Bell off Mitch Williams in 1988 is the other). Over two dozen players have hit multiple game-ending homers with two outs and their team trailing (Frank Robinson even had three), but Zaun is the only player in major league history to have multiple grand slams in that situation.

Everyone knows about Babe Ruth's famous "Called Shot" in the 1932 World Series. While we don't know whether he definitely called his shot or not, we do know that Gregg Zaun did at the 1999 Hall of Fame exhibition game in Cooperstown!

Zaun caught all 16 innings for the Orioles in this 1996 game in Kansas City. He outdid himself by one inning in 1998 by catching all 17 frames for the Marlins in this game. He topped it again in 2005 as he was behind the plate for all 18 innings of this game for Toronto.

Gregg Zaun enjoyed a fine career. He had a knack for drawing walks (note the difference between his .252 career batting average and .344 on base percentage). Between the Orioles, Marlins, Rangers, Royals, Astros, Rockies, Blue Jays, Rays and Brewers, he played for nine different teams. Only 35 players have played for more. That's not counting his spring-training stints with the Tigers, Expos and Padres. With 1,067 games behind the dish, only 94 backstops in MLB history have caught more games than Zaun.

He is currently working as a studio analyst on Blue Jays television broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet.

Zaun also has his own website, which says on its home page, "What started as ZAUNBIE NATION has morphed into the ZAUNTOURAGE. Are you part of the hottest club in the world? HATERS WELCOME TOO!"

Never a superstar, Gregg Zaun had a solid career. He earned nearly $18 million and won a World Series ring. You gotta' hand it to a guy who can catch in the major leagues for 16 years considering the beating they take. The Bluefield-to-the-Bigs team has brought its Z-Game with starting catcher Gregg Zaun!

All-Time Bluefield Roster
SP 1 Dean Chance
Setup TBA
Setup TBA
Closer TBA

C Gregg Zaun

SS Cal Ripken

LF Don Baylor

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