Zaun leaves mark on majors over time

Glendale News Press

"All the world's indeed a stage/ And we are merely players/ Performers and portrayers/" — Lyrics to Rush's 'Limelight' Gregg Zaun's at-bat music Unfortunately, I had just one occasion to meet Gregg Zaun.

But the first impression made by the Glendale native was certainly a lasting one.

Throughout a 16-year career, he's had to make first impressions with nine teams.

One would likely color Zaun a journeyman, and they'd likely be correct. But journeyman seems to come with a negative connotation and therefore does not suit the career of the St. Francis High graduate.

And after being able to sustain a career in Major League Baseball for 16 seasons, it doesn't matter how many teams you played for, you had one heckuva career.

Regrettably, a May 20th game at Pittsburgh might very well have been the affable Zaun's last game in the big leagues. He left the contest with a strained right shoulder that led to a trip to the disabled list and eventually season-ending and career-threatening surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

"I don't need to play. I don't need to play Major League Baseball to validate myself as a person," Zaun, who had surgery in Cincinnati, where he resides along with having a home in Florida, told the Associated Press last week. "Do I want to play? That's a different story. It's too uncertain to tell. I'm really upset about having surgery and my season being over."

He added that he will weigh his future in the game based on how his arm feels and if he's healthy enough in his body and heart to trot out on the diamond for another season.

After 16 seasons, it's likely that finances are not an issue and he's already dabbled in a possible career after baseball in the broadcasting booth.

But if the franchise-trotting catcher truly hangs it up, it's likely it will come with little more fanfare than a story such as this in his hometown paper and a few other mentions here and there.

Frankly, it will be fitting, because that's how Zaun played the game.

He wasn't flashy, he was a catcher's catcher. He was a solid hitter with some pop — obviously, you don't stick around in the majors for the better part of two decades if you can't hit the ball a little bit. But more than anything, he made a career of being a catcher, excelling at the nuances that there are no statistics for, such as the ability to be a leader no matter how new he was to a team, the ability to handle a pitching staff, whether Roy Halladay was the No. 1 or Joe Blow was. He was a straight shooter that was good to have on a ballclub.

And, like any catcher, he played with a toughness that some are simply fortunate to have been born with.

He had plenty of ups and downs with losing clubs, with losing his spot when the next "can't-miss" rookie came up from the farm and with his name being a part of the infamous Mitchell Report, alleging he purchased steroids — an accusation he vehemently denied.

But Zaun has always come back, whether it was in Toronto or Baltimore or Tampa Bay or Milwaukee or anywhere else that he played and made another first impression.

Indeed, finding one baseball team that will take a chance on employing you is a dream come true for most.

Zaun found nine. That's an exceptional career for anybody.

On a summer afternoon in Anaheim in which Trevor Bell was making his Major League Baseball debut, Gregg Zaun was on his fifth day as a Tampa Bay Ray.

His shirt tucked in tightly to a pair of Levis wrapped around cowboy boots, he greeted me with a firm handshake. He welcomed an easy conversation despite the fact that his new team was mired in a losing streak and he was obviously just about to leave the ballpark.

I asked him whether somebody could ever get used to journeying from team to team so often, as Tampa was the third team he had played for in less than two seasons.

"It's happened to me so many times," he said. "I make friends pretty quick."

That's how he got used to it, I guess, people got used to him. It was hard not to.

During the interview, Tampa pitcher Matt Garza lingered behind me, amusingly smiling at Zaun as he flashed a hefty, silver belt buckle that could have easily been a first-place trophy at a rodeo.

Zaun's grin stretched from ear to ear and Garza chuckled.

In one moment, it was clear how quickly a clubhouse could gravitate to a man whose personality was clearly not veiled by a catcher's mask.

If this is the end for Zaun, he will leave behind parts of 16 seasons, with the majority of his starts coming from the age of 33 to 39. He owns a .265 career average and a .987 fielding percentage through 1,232 games, having scored 437 runs and driven in 446.

Chances are he won't be remembered for those numbers, though.

And over those 16 seasons, he had cups of coffee with Rangers, Rockies, Rays, Astros and Brewers.

He had a couple of stints in Baltimore, a couple seasons in Kansas City, brought home a World Series ring in Florida and saw his glory days play out in Toronto.

Who knows if he'll be remembered for all those years in all those places?

No, those that remember Gregg Zaun will likely remember him because they had the fortune of getting to shake his hand.

He was the clubhouse guy, the media guy. He was the guy who left a lasting impression in a lot of places, with a lot of teammates, with a lot of coaches and with a lot of writers.

"I love Gregg Zaun," St. Francis principal Tom Moran, Zaun's high school coach, told me the day the Mitchell Report surfaced. "He's a hardworking guy, he's somebody who gives back to his community, he's good to the fans."

One of his very first first impressions came as a Golden Knight and at St. Francis, where he is enshrined in the school's athletic hall of fame, he is certainly remembered.

Just as his overall worth as a major league player was seldom judged by statistics, it's clear that Gregg Zaun is not the type of player or the kind of man one remembers by statistics.

No, he'll be remembered for the impressions he's made and left on those who've been fortunate enough to come across him.

Whether or not his playing days are done remains to be seen. But whether they are or not, he certainly won't need baseball to continue to leave a lasting impression.

That's just the way I see it, playing second string.

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