Zach Reks’ journey to Dodgers camp full of stops, starts and one amazing jump
He nailed the dismount.
If outfield prospect Zach Reks can carve out a meaningful role with the Dodgers over the next few years, this could be the catch phrase that launched his major league career.
Reks, 26, is in his first big league camp, a remarkable achievement considering he quit playing baseball in college in 2014.
“I still can’t believe it,” Reks said as he scanned a spring training clubhouse teeming with stars such as Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. “It’s surreal.”
So is the story of how Reks got here.
A standout player at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., Reks enrolled at the Air Force Academy, where he hit .210 with no homers and eight RBIs in 37 games as a freshman in 2013. When Reks failed a qualifying exam to become a jet pilot and waffled about a required five-year commitment to the Air Force after graduation, he left the academy and transferred to Kentucky in 2014.
Reks failed to make the team at Kentucky as a walk-on that fall. He gave up baseball to concentrate on his pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree, at one point taking a $33-an-hour job as a production engineer for Toyota Manufacturing in Lexington.
One day in the summer of 2015, Reks was riding through campus on the back of a moped scooter driven by Bo Wilson, a friend and former teammate who also transferred to Kentucky from Air Force.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wasn’t concerned after Julio Urias, slotted for a rotation spot, struggled with his command in his first spring outing.
The pair whizzed past Kentucky assistant coach Rick Eckstein on their way to the baseball field, where Reks and Wilson, a pitcher, planned to play catch.
As the scooter came to a stop, “I jumped off and did like a 180-degree hop,” Reks said. “I was shirtless.”
Eckstein did a double-take. It was not because of Reks’ wardrobe choice.
“He was on the back, and the way he jumped off the scooter, I was like, ‘My God, that’s the most athletic thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” said Eckstein, now the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It was so athletic the way he moved. It sounds weird, but that’s what really caught my eye. So I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, have you ever played baseball?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah.’ ”
Eckstein, the brother of former Angels and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein, suggested that Reks, who bats left-handed and throws right-handed, try out for the Wildcats in the fall.
“I wasn’t planning on playing baseball at all,” Reks said. “I was working from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. I’d get home and work out and then hit Wiffle Balls with my roommates, hoping it would prepare me for tryouts. I’d have them stand 20 feet away and chuck it as hard as they could and I tried to hit it.”
Reks, now 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, had added about 20 pounds since he played at Air Force. He impressed then-Kentucky coach Gary Henderson — with an occasional nudge from a certain assistant — enough with his athleticism and bat-to-ball skills to make the team.
“Rick Eckstein really stuck his neck out for me a couple of times,” Reks said. “He always said to make the most of it each day. That’s why I play the game the way I do.”
The following spring, Reks came off the bench and had three hits in Kentucky’s second game of the season against George Mason. He started the next day and remained in the lineup for two years, batting .331 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 53 games in 2016 and .352 with three homers and 44 RBIs in 65 games in 2017.
“That’s incredible to take two or three years off, to get noticed and to make an impact at an SEC school,” Dodgers utility player Matt Beaty said. “It speaks to his athleticism and feel for the game.”
The Dodgers drafted Reks in the 10th round in 2017 and signed him for $5,000, a fraction of the $131,600 slot value for his pick. The Chicago White Sox had called earlier in the draft and asked if Reks would sign for $100,000.
“For some reason, I said no,” Reks said. “I don’t know why. I just had a bad feeling about it. And I had a feeling the Dodgers would be my best shot.”
This wasn’t the first leap of faith for Reks, who took a jump course at the Air Force Academy that required him to pack his own parachute and make five solo jumps out of an airplane.
“It was scary,” he said. “You don’t want to jump at first.”
Reks hesitated for a moment, the pensive look on his face yielding to a wide grin.
“It’s actually pretty awesome,” he said.
Reks quickly ascended from rookie league in 2017 to double-A in 2018. He had a breakout 2019, hitting 28 home runs, batting .291 with a .921 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and driving in 93 runs in 121 games for double-A Tulsa and triple-A Oklahoma City.
New Dodgers pitcher David Price has dealt with circulatory problems in his wrist and carpal tunnel syndrome for years. Surgery gave him back feeling.
“Some little swing changes allowed me to use my lower half a little bit more efficiently and get the ball in the air a little more often,” Reks said of his power surge. “I started figuring out how to get through the ball a little more and just trusted my bat-to-ball skills.”
His 2019 performance thrust Reks, who can play the corner outfield spots and first base in a pinch, onto the depth chart of a team that won 106 games last season and will enter this year as a heavy National League favorite.
With Bellinger, the 2019 NL most valuable player, entrenched in center field, Betts, the 2018 American League MVP in right field and Joc Pederson and AJ Pollock platooning in left, Reks is expected to open the season at triple-A Oklahoma City, where he’ll be an injury or two away from the big leagues.
“You know there are people in front of you and a lot of talent in the organization,” Reks said, “but you can only control what you can control.”
Reks has made a solid first impression this spring, hitting .417 (five for 12) with one homer and three doubles. He made a diving catch in left field to rob David Dahl of an extra-base hit Saturday against Colorado.
Three weeks into his first camp, Reks still marvels at his surroundings and how he went from the back of a scooter to the cusp of the big leagues. But he won’t allow himself to dwell on his improbable journey.
“I don’t even think about it,” Reks said, “because I’m not done writing the story.”
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