St. Paul Saints Mike Zouzalik Making Unorthodox the Norm
Fans of the movie Crocodile Dundee will remember a great scene where Walt tells Mick that he will meet him on Wednesday. Mick then asks Walt what day it is, and Walt tells him it is Monday. Mick nods and walks away and Walt laughs as he says to himself out loud, “Doesn’t know; doesn’t care. Lucky B*****d.”
The statement is not to present Mick as some kind of ignorant, buffoon who is clueless about life. Instead, it is to point out that Mick Dundee is enjoying life the way it was meant to be enjoyed. The adventurer is not focused on time schedules and the day-to-day minutiae that so many of us get bogged down in. His focus is on enjoying life as it is, and seeing the grandeur in all the little things that make life truly enjoyable. Baseball has its own version of Crocodile Dundee and his name is Mike Zouzalik.
Zouzalik is a right-hand pitcher who has one of the more unusual stories that you will come across. In August of 2012, the righty went to an open tryout for the Texas Rangers and found himself with a contract to join the Rangers organization. He is a one in 5000 story that is the kind of storyline that a Hollywood classic is made from.
Mike first found himself wanting to play baseball when he was seven-years-old, while watching a game on television. He asked his father to sign him up to play, and a career was born. While his dad was supportive of his decision to play baseball, he credits his father for not being overbearing in his enthusiasm to see his son play. “The whole time from then to now he didn’t push me to play the game. He wanted me to want to play the game and not to feel like I had to,” he explains.
Mike played baseball at Vista Ridge High School in Cedar Park TX, where he and his twin brother Zach starred. Eventually the two moved on to the University of Texas-Pan American where they both played an integral part with the club. In his senior season, Mike was 4-1 with a 3.81 ERA in 13 appearances, eight of which were starts. He held opponents to an impressive .237 batting average and earned All-Great Western Conference Second Team honors. His victory on May 6, 2012 clinched the college’s first winning season in baseball in 12 seasons.
Following his senior season, Zouzalik noticed that the Texas Rangers were offering a tryout for anyone who wanted to attend, and in August of 2012 he decided to give it a shot. While coming in with big hopes, he also saw that his chances were not too good. “I didn’t have too high a hopes, 400 people there you know. I heard we got six pitches to throw off the mound, so it’s not a very good chance.”
Despite the odds, Texas liked what they saw. “I gave it everything I had, and they wanted to see more, so that was a positive. A week later they wanted to sign me. I was in “Twilight Zone” mode because I could not believe what was happening. I had just graduated from college and all that stuff started going on. It was a pretty crazy month.”
Mike was amazed at the sudden change of fate that had occurred, but it wasn’t like he believed it couldn’t be possible. “The whole time I was there I was trying to get signed. That is the whole reason one goes. When I saw how the thing goes and how it was structured, it was more of a community thing to get some people out on the field to have some fun. I was there for a reason, to get signed, and it worked out.”
The right-hander went to the Rangers’ Arizona Instructional League in September, and prepared to be attend spring training in February. It truly was a “Twilight Zone” experience.
In 2013 he was assigned to Low-A Spokane to begin the season, and he prospered well there. In 14 appearances, he was 2-0 with 4 saves and a miniscule 1.35 ERA. He allowed just 19 total base runners in 20 innings pitched and just 3 earned runs.
His success led to the organization moving him to High-A Myrtle Beach later that season. In the Carolina League his success was not as dominant, but he still performed well. In nine appearances he was 2-0 with a 3.95 ERA and a save. For the season he finished with an outstanding 2.41 ERA.
The next season he returned to the Rangers Spring Training, but did not have a good camp. That led the club to release Zouzalik, and he found himself looking for work. He was ready to sign with Sioux City, when his former teammate at the University of Texas-Pan-America, catcher Mike McCarthy, sold him on the idea of coming to Wichita.
“My catcher from PanAm, he called me after I got released from Texas. He asked me what was going on and I told him I had a contract to go to Sioux City and he told me to hold onto that for a minute. He told me he would talk to Hoop (Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper), and sure enough Hoop called me up and said I had to wait a few days for them to make a roster spot for me, then he called and invited me to spring training. They didn’t even really have a spot for me, but they made one and I made the team. I credit Mike McCarthy for making that happen.”
Mike had a great spring for the Wingnuts, and Hooper did find a place on the roster for the righty. He was a permanent member of the club’s bullpen group, but he struggled out of the gate. Through the first six weeks of the season he posted a 5.94 ERA and opponents were hitting .324 against the right-hander. Mike was having some serious doubts about whether he belonged in Wichita, however, all it took was a little encouragement from his manager to turn things around.
“I had a great spring, but once the season started I got into a little funk for whatever reason. Hoop called me into his office and told me that he knew I had good stuff and had a lot of confidence in me to just not sweat it. He told me that they believed in me from the first day. Just that little bit of faith in me from him really turned it around. I was in the zone after that. I wasn’t worried about where the ball was going to go. I started to really trust in my stuff after that little meeting, and things just took off from there.”
That boost of confidence got Zouzalik on the right pathway. Over his final 28 appearances of the season the right-hander allowed 22 hits in 30 innings pitched with just 8 walks and 21 strikeouts. Most impressive was that he allowed just five earned runs in that span, including a run of 11 straight appearances where he did not allow a run. That lowered his ERA more than two runs to 3.06.
That stretch has continued into this season as well. In the off-season Mike Zouzalik was dealt to the St. Paul Saints, and has quickly become an integral part of the Saints bullpen group. He has appeared in 14 games covering 18 innings, where he has allowed just 8 hits and 4 walks, while striking out 18. He has been scored upon in just three of those appearances.
Dating back to June 28 of last season, Zouzalik has pitched 48 innings in that span, allowing 29 hits and 12 walks, while striking out 39. He has an unbelievable ERA of 1.88 during that one-year period. Mike has played a big role in the Saints incredibly fast start.
Admittedly, when he was dealt to the St. Paul Saints he was a little apprehensive. He was leaving the American Association champion Wichita Wingnuts, and a group of guys that he had come to respect and call friends.
“Great group of guys. Great atmosphere. Funnest baseball season I have ever had. I have never had a championship season at any level, and that really made me appreciate the game a lot more.”
St. Paul was a new challenge for the 6-3, 195 pound right-hander. Not only in learning to fit into the new club, but learning what the organization was like and how he fit into their plans. “I didn’t know much about the manager or how the organization ran. I knew they had a great fan base, and I knew they put together great teams.”
Putting together a great team is exactly what manager George Tsamis has done, and Zouzalik has been a key to the success so far. In his 14 appearances, the St. Paul Saints have won every one of those games, and his June 23rd victory over the Sioux City Explorers makes him 9-0 in his career. A stat that makes him laugh to think about.
“I don’t know if I’ll remain undefeated for my whole career. Maybe I should retire right now so I can keep that record.”
While his time in Wichita was quite special, Zouzalik is greatly enjoying his time in a Saints uniform. He credits his teammates as one of the two primary reasons why he has performed so well this season.
“This club house is really strong. These guys got pretty close pretty quickly. Guys like (Willie) Argo, (Vinny) DiFazio, and (Mike) Kvasnicka, guys that have been around for a while are great clubhouse guys, and are a big reason why we are doing well right now. It is guys like that who really make the club a great place to be. Really, all these guys on this team are really solid. Everybody gets along with each other and can play together. We can play as a unit out there.”
Playing before nearly 8000 fans each night is having an equally positive effect on the right-hander. “Having a packed house every night really gets you going more. These fans are amazing and I get to come to this beautiful ballpark every day. It is pretty easy to get motivated around here.”
This is where Zouzalik really separates himself from many who play the game, because it is the simple things that drive the right-hander. The great atmosphere his teammates create and pitching before a packed house at CHS Field gives him all the incentive he needs to perform and to do it well. Simple appreciation of what he has spurs him on to success. Lucky B*****d!
There is another aspect of Mike’s game that is quite different than the average ballplayer. In an age where players are looking for as much information as they can get on every hitter and are relying on all kinds of visualization drills and programs to see success before it happens, Zouzalik is choosing to just let his pitches speak for themselves. He is not going to overthink a situation. He is simply going to defeat you by throwing his best stuff, and letting the hitters stress about if they can hit him or not.
“I kind of have a blank mind. I am not thinking about anything. Just keep my mind free and trust myself and trust my stuff.”
It is a strategy that has been well supported by his catcher, Vinny DiFazio. “Hey, it’s that hitter that has to hit him. If the pitcher throws his best stuff it’s that hitter’s job to try to figure out how to hit it. I just want my pitchers to throw their stuff and let that hitter stress on trying to figure out how a hit.”
In Crocodile Dundee, Mick takes the beautiful New York reporter on the journey he took to survive after being bitten by a crocodile. While the story is about his survival in the Bush of Australia, it is really the antics of his life that are the interesting part of the story. That is true of Zouzalik as well.
Most players have tales of big outs or huge, game winning home runs that are the highlights of their careers. Not the St. Paul Saints reliever. His biggest moment came from a practical joke that included his twin brother while Mike was pitching in Myrtle Beach.
“My most memorable moment was not even on the mound. My twin brother came to meet me in Myrtle Beach in 2013, and the bullpen convinced him to put on my uniform and go sit on the bench in the dugout. My brother put on my uniform and went and sat in the dugout and no one knew the entire game, until he came into the clubhouse. It was a great moment.”
Zouzalik tells the story with great amusement and it is clear that he has found that time with his brother as important as any strikeout, win or save.
The one area where the Saints reliever does take what he does personally is how he performs for his dad. Zouzalik explains that his father follows him everywhere he goes, supporting his son and cheering him on with every appearance, every inning, every pitch. “Big supporter. He could have been a professional baseball player himself, so I am glad he can see me living a dream of his as well. He gets to learn through me,” Zouzalik explains with a laugh.
In the movie, Mick Dundee eventually leaves to go a walkabout, an Australian tradition where a young man goes on a spiritual journey, taking a six month walk wandering about to find a new awareness of himself and his life. That journey is intended to take a man to a higher level of life and make him a man that is viewed by others as a kind of heroic figure.
Mike Zouzalik will probably not have epic poems written about him, and he may never be a guy saving 30 games in a Major League uniform, but there is one thing that is likely to occur. If he keeps pitching the way he is the St. Paul Saints reliever is likely to find himself headed back to affiliate baseball. He is likely going to reach the dream of playing Major League baseball one day, and giving his dad the ultimate thrill along the way. Lucky B*****d!
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA
September 26, 2015 @ 9:36 am
Congratulations to Mike on being signed by the Baltimore Orioles. It is good to see that some organization had some sense.
July 12, 2015 @ 9:15 pm
you need to see 28 throw left-handed as well as right handed he’s a phenom
July 12, 2015 @ 10:02 pm
You can count on me asking him to do so now.
Mike Kvasnicka Continues Torrid Run, Leads St. Paul Saints to 12-8 Victory
July 2, 2015 @ 12:38 am
[…] Coe left after 6 innings with a four-run lead. The right-hander had pitched a beauty, allowing 5 hits, 2 walks and 2 earned runs, while striking out 4. Mike Zouzalik pitched two solid innings of relief to keep the score 6-4, setting up a dramatic ninth inning (Read Feature on Mike Zouzalik). […]