A Cold Shoulder : Cast Off by Angels, Geoff Zahn Lost the Strength for Pitching but Not for Teaching

Times Staff Writer

Geoff Zahn was never called overpowering. He was called boring. Sportswriters never tagged him with one of those nicknames that carry with it the possibility of Madison Avenue millions. Those were reserved for the throwers, the guys who could bring heat. No one named him Dr. Z.

Dr. Zzzzz, maybe. He was the kind of pitcher sportscasters called crafty. Always around the plate, he moved pitches in and out and kept hitters off balance. A mere tactician.

Recently, Zahn stood on the mound at Anaheim Stadium during an old-timers game looking for all the world like he was trying to shatter the national shotput record, not pitch a ballgame. He couldn’t retire a bunch of retired batters.


Former Yankee Tom Tresh had plugged Zahn’s floating changeup into left field for a double, scoring Randy Hundley, who had also doubled. That gave a team of assorted old-timers a 1-0 lead over a team of former Angels. Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, 55, followed with another double, scoring Tresh.

With each pitch, Zahn’s left shoulder sloshed around like a sloppy gearbox. If he could get the ball to the catcher, preferably in the air, it was cause for celebration. By comparison, Warren Spahn, now 65, had better control. Bob Gibson, 50, had more velocity. In just one inning, it became clear that Zahn, a pup at 40, had the oldest arm.

The exhibition was called in the sixth inning because the old men had run out of breath and time. The modern-day Angels had to play the Cleveland Indians.

While Zahn and the other seniors hobbled off the field, two pitchers from the Pleistocene Epoch, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, hobbled on.

Ironically, the 41-year-old Sutton had been added to the Angels roster last season after Zahn had spent most of the year on the disabled list. After 18 years in professional baseball--12 in the majors, six in the minors--Zahn announced his retirement this year before spring training. An injury to his left shoulder--and subsequent surgery--left him unable to wash his car, let alone throw a slider.

During the off season, the Angels released Zahn. They invited him to Palm Springs for a tryout during spring training but, realistically, they might as well have invited back Bo Belinsky or Dean Chance. They, at least, could have washed team owner Gene Autry’s limo.


Dr. Lewis Yocum performed arthroscopic surgery on Zahn’s shoulder which revealed a torn rotator cuff. Even worse, the cartilage in the shoulder was badly damaged. Said Zahn: “The cartilage is destroyed. They cleaned out the joint, but that made it less stable. It’s bone on bone.”

Yocum, sounding more like a mechanic than a doctor, said, “There’s only so much mileage issued to a shoulder. And he wore his out. He had gotten his 30,000 miles.”

With plenty of pit stops along the way. The shoulder surgery was the eighth operation of Zahn’s career. Eight, finally, Meanwhile, Zahn has taken a job at Master’s College, a small Christian school in Newhall, as an assistant to longtime friend John MacArthur, the school’s president. Besides overseeing the athletic program, he has joined the baseball staff as a recruiter and pitching coach.

The idea is that Zahn, who had a 111-109 lifetime record in the majors, will attract better talent to an NAIA baseball program that isn’t exactly brimming with future major leaguers.

“A pitcher has to ask himself what he wants out of a program,” Zahn said. “I tell them, I’m gonna teach you everything I know. I can teach them how to pitch. The mechanics. I have to consider myself very knowledgeable.”

Even with Zahn, Master’s will be hard pressed to land top prospects. Pitchers with 90-m.p.h. fastballs usually don’t end up in Newhall.


“Maybe one or two of our pitchers have the chance to be prospects,” he said. “And I think they’re excited to learn from me. You can teach the breaking ball, but you can’t add the fastball.”

But then, if anyone can help slow-throwing hurlers, it’s probably Zahn. He made a living throwing junk.

That he ever pitched in the majors was surprising to some. It wasn’t that he didn’t show potential. He was drafted by the Phillies when he graduated from high school, but he headed instead for Ann Arbor, Mich., to play for the Wolverines. He was then drafted each of his four years in college--by the White Sox, Red Sox, Tigers and Dodgers. He signed with the Dodgers midway through his senior year. But after the Dodgers shipped Zahn off to their farm system, he floated around like a letter lost in the Bolivian mail. He all but disappeared from 1968 to 1973.

He bounced from Daytona Beach to Albuquerque to Spokane back to Albuquerque to El Paso back to Albuquerque. Zahn’s dream of playing in the major leagues had been pretty well dusted. Even his 19-3 record for El Paso and Albuquerque in 1972 wasn’t enough. The Dodgers never called.

The problem, according to Zahn, was that he didn’t throw hard. The Dodgers were looking for a strong left-hander to replace Sandy Koufax. Zahn had the drooping fastball of Johnny Podres.

The Dodgers told Zahn he needed a trick pitch. They brought Roger Craig, who was then the minor league pitching instructor, to help. Craig taught Zahn to throw a forkball, the forerunner of the split-fingered fastball.


“He was the first one I ever taught that thing to,” said Craig, who is now the manager of the San Francisco Giants. “He didn’t have a fastball, but he had above-average poise and control. And everything he threw broke down. I knew any pitcher who could do that would be successful.

“The first time I saw him, I thought, ‘This guy can pitch in the major leagues.’ ”

The Dodgers weren’t so sure.

Finally, at the insistence of Craig, Zahn was called up in 1974. He played sparingly, finishing with a 3-5 record. The Dodgers were so impressed, they traded him to the Chicago Cubs after the season. In return, they got Burt Hooton.

Zahn got worse.

Midway through the ’75 season, he injured his elbow and underwent surgery. From that point, the Cubs’ interest in Zahn nosedived. He managed to make their roster in 1976, but after a week and a half, he was sent to Wichita.

“They said they’d call me,” Zahn said. “But when I got to Wichita, Doc Edwards, the manager, didn’t even know how he was supposed to use me. He didn’t even know I was coming.”

Edwards hardly needed Zahn. He already had Bruce Sutter, Mike Krukow, Dennis Lamp, Milt Wilcox and Dave Geisel.

Said Edwards: “He just didn’t throw well. I was told to be patient, but he wasn’t effective. He knew what he was doing, but he just couldn’t pop the ball.”


During his first sojourn through the minors, Zahn had found the patience to endure bus rides. He’d found a trick pitch. He’d even become a Christian and found God. And he found the thought of going back again unbearable.

“In 1977, I asked the Cubs for my release,” he said. “If I wasn’t going to big league camp, why should I beat around the the minor leagues?”

Zahn searched for a team that needed a gimpy left-hander. Of course, no club did. He waxed theological about the situation.

“I regarded the absence of a major league offer as the Lord’s way of telling me it was time to move on.”

Apparently, the Lord changed his mind.

Gene Mauch, who was then the manager of the Minnesota Twins, called Zahn to ask if he’d do some throwing for Don McMahon, the Twins’ pitching coach. McMahon met Zahn at Cal State Northridge and later gave Mauch a favorable report. Zahn was invited to the Twins’ training camp as a free agent without a contract.

During the next four seasons, Zahn blossomed--if not like a rose, at least a dandelion. He used changeups, sinkers and curveballs to win no fewer than 12 games a season for Minnesota. But he lost a lot, too, including 18 in 1980. “I pitched about the same as the team went,” Zahn said, which wasn’t spectacular. But he carried the pitching load for the club, averaging 213 innings a year.


When Zahn became a free agent after the ’80 season, Philadelphia, Texas, Cleveland, the Yankees and the Angels showed interest.

On the recommendation of Mauch, who had joined the Angels’ front office, Gene Autry was the one willing to unload the cash Zahn wanted.

The pitcher signed a three-year contract with the Angels for $1.2 million. “They were the ones who came to me,” Zahn said, almost apologetically. “Gene Autry was emptying his saddlebags to get the players he needed. It wasn’t like I was robbing a bank.”

Four years earlier, Zahn said, he just wanted to see if he could make a major league club. Now, he had it made.

Never mind that the soft-throwing lefty was once told by Al Campanis, Dodgers vice president, that he would never have enough stuff to pitch in the big leagues. Never mind that the Cubs gave up on him. Never mind that it took divine intervention to get Zahn back into baseball. He was making a million bucks.

“When they say I can’t do something, I like to prove people wrong,” he said.

Outwardly, Geoff Zahn looks as menacing as Pee Wee Herman. He has the demeanor of Meek Hyrum Fly. But when the words, “I like to prove people wrong,” come out of his mouth, his face twists and his eyes stare the way Clint Eastwood’s did when he said, “Go ahead, make my day.”


“In his own quiet way,” Mauch said, “Geoff is a fierce competitor. He’s a highly motivated individual. He’s got a heart that didn’t figure to fit in that skinny body of his. The intensity with which he approaches everything is conducive to overcoming numerous physical problems.”

Which is exactly what Zahn faced after joining the Angels. First he injured his knee, which required surgery. Then he hurt his knee again. More surgery. An inflamed shoulder here, a groin pull there. In 1984, Zahn had another knee operation, this time for bone chips on his left knee. The twisting from his pitching motion was shearing off pieces of cartilage.

“And somewhere along the line,” he said, “I think I had a lobotomy.”

Said Yocum: “He was in a significant amount of pain. To undergo surgery that often and for him to keep coming back was a credit to his makeup. His knee was arthritic. The knee operations alone would’ve ended a lot of careers.”

Instead, they built the doctor’s condominium in Palm Springs.

Surprisingly, between stops on the disabled list, Zahn pitched the best baseball of his career in Anaheim. On the strength of his changeup, Zahn led the Angels to the Western Division championship in 1982, when he finished 18-8. In ‘84, he started with a 9-4 record and just missed being named to the All-Star team.

He holds the major league record for most consecutive innings pitched (292) without allowing a stolen base. Omar Moreno was the last to successfully steal with Zahn on the mound--in August of ’83.

Then, last year came the shoulder injury that ended his career. Once again, Zahn said it was God’s way of telling him to move on.


This time He meant business.

So now Zahn is teaching small-college pitchers the art of confusing hitters. The changeup, the curve, the sinker, the cut fastball.

John Zeller, Master’s baseball coach, said it’s no coincidence that the school is putting in new dugouts, new sprinkler systems and new fences around its field. That’s what happens, Zeller said, when a former major league pitcher manages the athletic department’s budget.

Recently, while sitting in an office in the school’s administration building, Zahn went on about how fulfilling his new job would be. Certainly more satisfying than pitching a ballgame in front of 40,000 fans. After all, he could reach out and touch students’ lives and all that.

When he finished, though, he paused for a second and then said, “If I thought I had a chance, the slightest chance, to come back and play--I’d be in Edmonton right now.”