By John Philip Wyllie
Four short years ago, Joel Zumaya was the star pitcher for his high school team, the Bonita Vista Barons. He is a bit bigger now, standing 6’3” and weighing in at 210 pounds and he is still pitching, but now he brings the heat on behalf of the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers were in Anaheim last week to play a three-game series with the Los Angeles Angels. It was particularly special to Zumaya in that many of his friends and family were able to make the trek up the coast to see him live for the first time in a Tigers uniform. Zumaya, a fire balling reliever with a 100 mph fastball, had the pleasure of making his seventh appearance of the season April 25 in front of his own 30-person cheering section. Filling the role as a set-up man for the Tigers he has pitched a total of nine innings and recorded 12 strike outs. He has acquitted himself well so far in all but one game.
“This has been a great experience. It has been my dream to have Ivan Rodriguez catching for me. I have always looked up to him. I used to wish that one day he would be catching for me and he is catching me right now. Playing with guys like Placido Polanco and Magglio Ordonez and Dimitri Young is just amazing,” Zumaya said.
While Zumaya was not a lock to make the Tigers roster in training camp, an outstanding minor league season a year ago with Erie and then Toledo put him on the threshold of attaining his dream of Major League stardom.
“All four of my minor league seasons were about producing and growing into my body, knowing how to throw strikes and learning. My philosophy changed a lot and I have learned how to use that philosophy to my strength (throwing fastballs). But you need more than just a fastball here. You need a change-up or curve ball. If I know a guy is jumping on my fastball, I’ll throw him a curve.”
It is not uncommon for suddenly wealthy young players to go a little crazy on spending binges on a path toward material wealth, but Zumaya hasn’t fallen into that trap.
“I wear the same old Vans and shorts. On planes and when we need to dress up I have my dress clothes, but that is about it. My lifestyle hasn’t really changed at all. I’m still the same old kid and I like doing the same old stuff. I’ve always wanted a truck so I did by a new car (a Suburban SUV), but it is nothing fancy.”
Having accomplished his preseason goal of making the Tigers roster, Zumaya is now focusing on something else.
“One of these days I would like to become the closer. Right now we have Todd Jones and he has (at least) one more year here. He is a great guy and he pitches well, but one of these days I believe I can be a closer.”
With a 100 mph fast ball and a growing arsenal of pitches, that goal might also become a reality in the not to distant future.