The mastery and mystery of Zack Greinke

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On the afternoon of Aug. 6, Zack Greinke of the Dodgers flailed his arms in disgust and squatted in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. As he berated himself for throwing away an easy tapper by the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the first, he looked less like one of the best pitchers in the world and more like a long-haired Little Leaguer who was upset with himself for letting his team down.

Somewhat flustered, Greinke gave up a single, a walk, a single and then a three-run homer to Domonic Brown. His first-place Dodgers now trailed the hapless Phillies 5-3 with no outs, and the crowd of 27,839, as well as the occupants in both dugouts, looked on in shock as pitching coach Rick Honeycutt went out to the mound to find out what this impostor had done with the guy who had recently tied a major league record with six consecutive scoreless starts.

A veteran scout sitting behind home plate exchanged quizzical looks with his colleagues and said, "Watch, he'll get out of this."

The pitching coach in the other dugout, Bob McClure, had no doubt that he would. Five runs in, no outs, bottom of the first -- that's nothing compared to the spot McClure saw Donald Zackary Greinke try to get out of nine years before. That time, there was much more than a game on the line.

On this afternoon, Greinke took a deep breath and proceeded to retire the next three batters, the last two by strikeouts. He led off the top of the second with a single off David Buchanan and scored on a three-run homer by Adrian Gonzalez that put the Dodgers back in front, 6-5. With two outs in the top of the third, he lined the first pitch from Buchanan over the fence in left-center to give himself a 7-5 lead. Then, in the top of the sixth, he singled off a reliever to start a three-run rally.

On the mound, he settled down and kept the Phillies at bay with his extensive repertoire -- two-seamers, four-seamers, curves, sliders, changeups -- and intensive control. By the time he left the game after six innings, the Dodgers were ahead 10-6, and they went on to win 10-8. Greinke had given up seven hits, but he had gotten three.

Afterward, in one of his delightfully taciturn postgame news conferences, Greinke said, "I was mad after that first inning and motivated to get some hits. Normally, you just focus on your pitching, but we were down by some runs, so I needed to put good at-bats out there."

When asked about his high school aspirations of being a major league shortstop, he said he'd seen the old videos, and "My confidence then was good enough to make the majors, but my swing wasn't as good as I remembered."

While his eyes seemed to be searching for anything but another set of eyes, there was a hint of a smile on Greinke's face.

Over in the other clubhouse, McClure was not pleased that his team had just lost and that his pitchers had been hammered. But part of him was inwardly happy for Zack and the season he was having.

Once upon a time, you see, McClure was the pitching coach for the Kansas City Royals. He was there on the day that Greinke quit baseball.


When people get off the elevator at the press box in Citizens Bank Park, they are greeted on the left by a phalanx of magazine covers that trace the history of the Phillies. One of the covers is from the July 21, 1980, issue of Sports Illustrated, and it bears a photo of future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton with the words "Mastery and Mystery."

It's a cover billing that would fit Greinke just as well. Thirty-five years after Carlton won the third of his four Cy Young Awards, Greinke is on the short list for his second Cy Young with a 19-3 record, a 1.66 ERA and an astonishing WHIP of 0.84. The only other pitcher to have a winning percentage that high (.864) and an ERA that low was Greg Maddux of the Braves when he won the Cy Young in 1995 with a 19-2 record and a 1.63 ERA.

And Greinke's scoreless streak of 45? innings, which began on June 18 and ended on July 26, is the fourth longest in history.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who recently wrote "Catching Aces" for the Players' Tribune, says, "I think my favorite Zack moment this year came in a game in Washington in July [July 19] in the middle of the streak. Yasmani [Grandal] had to leave the game because he took a foul tip off the mask, so I had to go in cold. I walk out to the mound to talk to Zack and get my bearings. He tells me, 'Put down whatever you want. Everything right now is nasty.'

"And it was. That's Zack for you."

That's Zack for you. It's a mantra people who know Greinke use to explain him to people who don't know him. He can seem off-putting and baffling, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a 31-year-old enigma who walks into a clubhouse with his blond hair tied up in a ninja knot, then lets it down to pad around like Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

But while the mysterious aura around Carlton was strictly enforced -- he never talked to the media in his heyday -- and sometimes downright hostile, Greinke has a much more playful and collegial vibe to him. Whether he's showing pictures of newborn Bode Nicholas Greinke, trading stock tips with Andre Ethier or getting ribbed for having Colin Kaepernick on his fantasy football team, he is just one of the guys, albeit a guy who could opt out of his contract at the end of this season and sign somewhere else for a ridiculous amount of money.

There's also a bit of mystery to his mastery. Greinke throws hard, but not as hard as either of his Cy Young competitors, the Cubs' Jake Arrieta and rotation-mate Clayton Kershaw. His edge is brainpower, which can't be measured on a radar gun. He instinctively knows what an opposing batter is expecting just by the way he sets up in the box. As Kershaw says, "When Zack goes out on the mound, he knows exactly what to do. The way he executes his pitches is probably the best I've ever seen. He can throw anything at any time to any spot."

According to Honeycutt, "Zack reminds me of Greg Maddux. Zack throws harder, but they're both ultra-competitive, really smart with great control and often the best athlete on the field. Yeah, Maddux is the closest I can think of to Zack."

The athleticism is as obvious as it was that day in Philadelphia. This season, Greinke outhit his opposition, .224 to .187. He is one of only three pitchers to win a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove and a Cy Young Award. The other two are Dodgers pitchers Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser.

Greinke comparisons aren't limited to other pitchers, or even other athletes. Scouts often bring up the names of Picasso and Einstein. "I would say he's more of a scientist than an artist," Ellis says. "A scientist who's incredibly talented, self-aware and honest."

And a scientist who's having the best season of an already stellar career. "Why now?" McClure says. "Knowing Zack, I'd say a lot has to do with having Kershaw in the rotation with him. They feed off each other's greatness. They keep raising the bar on one another." Honeycutt agrees: "It helps to have peers who push you internally, who improve your game just by watching them."

For now, Kershaw and Greinke are the Mets' problem in the NLDS. But when the season is over, the Dodgers will have to figure out whether they can afford to keep the reincarnation of Koufax and Drysdale together; the deeper they go in the postseason, the more the pressures and revenues will mount.

Dodger Blue hasn't been in a World Series since 1988. That was the year another right-hander, Hershiser, mixed in a record scoreless streak (59 innings), a newborn and a world championship.

That serendipity is what makes Zack Greinke one of the best stories in baseball in 2015. But if you go back nine years, you realize he's also one of the best stories about baseball, a story shared by a few people who were there for him when he seemed irretrievably lost. "I can't tell you how proud I am of Zack," says Buddy Bell, his former manager in Kansas City and now the assistant general manager of the Chicago White Sox. "I'm proud of him for the pitcher he's become, but also the husband and father. Look, we might have helped him a little. But this is really on him, and it's a beautiful thing to see."


For his first full season as the Royals' manager in 2006, Bell brought in McClure to be his pitching coach. The Royals were terrible at the time, losers of 106 games the season before. To make matters worse, their No. 1 draft pick from 2002 had just gone 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA. Pitcher name of Greinke.

So job one for McClure, a crafty left-hander who had bounced around the majors for 19 seasons, was to turn around this talented but disappointing right-hander. "I played golf with him in Florida that winter to establish a rapport," McClure says. "Helluva golfer, but not much of a talker. Still, I figured it was a start.

"We get to spring training in Surprise, Arizona, and Zack has his first bullpen session. [Before he] throws one pitch -- one pitch -- [he] walks over to me and says, 'I have to tell you three things. No. 1, I'm not going to throw a two-seam fastball. No. 2, I'm not going to throw a changeup. No. 3, I don't like listening to pitching coaches.'

"So I tell him, 'I actually don't have a problem with No. 3 -- I didn't get along with some of my pitching coaches, either. But I have to tell you: If you don't want to finish 5-17 again, you might want to think about changing your repertoire."

"He finishes the session throwing nothing but fastballs and walks away. Later that day, I get a call from Buddy Bell. 'Nice job with Zack today,' he tells me. 'He just quit. Our No. 1 starter just quit baseball.'"

Although the Royals had sensed that Greinke was unhappy, they hadn't seen that he was at his breaking point. He was quiet, after all. Intensifying their shock was their personal investment in him. Ever since scout Cliff Pastornicky filed his first reports on this sophomore at Apopka (Fla.) High School, the Royals had been smitten with Greinke. "The easiest guy ever to scout," says Pastornicky, a former Royals third baseman who works at the IMG Baseball Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "He could have been a shortstop, a third baseman, a catcher, a pitcher. What I really liked about him, though, was his integrity. I tried to take him to lunch when he was a senior and Clemson was recruiting him, and he refused because he thought it might be against NCAA rules."

In his senior year at Apopka, Greinke went 9-2 with an 0.55 ERA, 118 strikeouts and 8 walks, and the Royals made him the sixth pick in the 2002 draft. But he still hadn't decided whether he would be a shortstop or a pitcher when he reported to their Gulf Coast rookie league team in Davenport, Florida.

"Zack and I worked out together at shortstop," says Andres Blanco, now a Phillies infielder but then a Royals prospect. "I was fresh from Venezuela, didn't know much English, and one day this really nice teammate just gives me his glove. He said he didn't need it anymore because he was going to be a pitcher. You know what? I still have that glove."

When Greinke reported to his first full spring training the next year, he was already the talk of the Royals. General manager Allard Baird showed up one day to watch this 19-year-old kid throw in the bullpen, and when someone asked him why he was there, Baird said out loud, "I heard that there was supposed to be some hotshot young pitcher out here."

As Baird recalls, Greinke responded without looking up, "And you're gonna be impressed."

He was so talented, confident and mature that the Royals put him on a fast track that would enable them to bring their future into the increasingly desperate present. By 2003 he had come to the attention of Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski, who would become the world's leading Zack-ologist. He saw Greinke pitch in the Futures Game at the All-Star Game festivities at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. As he described it: "He looked to be all of 12 years old. His cap looked too big for his head; the bill stretched out too far, like he was Charlie Brown. ... He pitched one perfect inning with two strikeouts.

"When it ended, I asked his catcher, a young Joe Mauer, what he thought. He said: 'Wherever I put the glove, he hit it. He was definitely different."

Posnanski discovered just how different after that season, when the Royals' best prospects were given a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. He noticed that Greinke was especially moved by the stories of players who couldn't play in the major leagues because of the color of their skin. When a television reporter walked over and asked whether she could interview Greinke, he looked up at the ceiling and said, "No, this is not a good time. I don't really feel like it."

Ten minutes later, he gathered himself and gave her the interview.

Externally, Greinke was just what the Royals had been hoping for. He blew through their minor league system, pitching just six games in Triple-A Omaha in 2004 before he was called up to the big club, where he acquitted himself with an 8-11 record and a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts.

But internally, he was struggling, with the time between starts, the pressure he put on himself, the anxiety of dealing with strangers. "I really had no idea," Pastornicky says. "We just thought he was a shy kid."

A shy kid with a tendency to speak what was on his mind. Posnanski tells another story, this one about the time teammate Jeremy Affeldt came back to the bench after giving up a homer, claiming he had made a good pitch. Everybody kept their distance as he fumed. Everybody but Greinke.

"Actually, that was a pretty bad pitch," Zack said.

"Thanks, Zack," Affeldt said in a sarcastic tone.

"No, really. I went back to the clubhouse and looked at the pitch on video. It was a really bad pitch. Right over the middle of the plate, and you got it up ... I could have hit it out."

"Thanks, Zack."

"Yeah."

Sensing that Greinke might need some work on his social skills, the Royals literally went old school, suggesting that effervescent Hall of Famer George Brett invite Greinke to live at his house. Which he did. He'd sleep late, go fishing, hang by the pool, play video games at night with Brett's kids. As Brett later said, "On the outside, he didn't have a worry in the world. But then, who knows what anybody's really like?"

The problem ran deeper than the Royals knew. When Greinke was only 8 years old, he was a tennis prodigy, but he came to hate the game, quit and took up the team sport of baseball. Now he apparently was feeling the same way about pitching. He missed his high school sweetheart, Emily Kuchar, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. He phoned home to his parents to ask them whether he should go to college and just start over. Then came the disastrous 2005 5-17 season, exemplified by a June 10 game in which he gave up 11 runs. The Royals were hoping against hope that he would turn it around. Enter McClure as the new pitching coach. Exit Greinke, who told Baird and Bell that he was quitting. Greinke later described his state of mind at the time: "I used to get so nervous and upset at stuff ... I'd always be angry." He would channel that anger into intense workouts ... and that fateful bullpen session. What McClure told him must have hit home because Greinke then told Baird and Bell that he couldn't do it anymore.


Nobody blamed McClure. "This was beyond baseball," says Baird, now a senior vice president with the Boston Red Sox. "This was about a young man in pain, and we had to figure out what was best for him, not for us."

"My father was a major leaguer; I was a major leaguer; and my sons were major leaguers," Bell says. "But while this game is in my blood, I realized what was at stake here: the life of a really good kid who deep down loved the game as much as I did."

The Royals told Greinke to take some time off and come back when he was ready. He went home to Florida and saw a psychologist, who diagnosed him with social anxiety disorder, a deep-seated fear of social situations often associated with clinical depression. He was prescribed Zoloft, a commonly used anti-depressant.

The distractions faded, and the worries became manageable. "The medicine was the greatest thing ever," Greinke would later say. "I may have gotten lucky and found the right one. The only problem I have with it is that it makes me a little tired, but not real tired."

After a few weeks away from the game, he returned to the Royals in extended spring training, then joined the Double-A Wichita Wranglers, pitching every few days for Royals legend Frank White and helping the Wranglers get into the Texas League playoffs. He even found a new, higher gear for his fastball. At one point that season, Posnanski went down to see him and reported, "I had never seen him look that happy." After the Wranglers' playoffs, Greinke was called up to Kansas City for three brief appearances.

Unfortunately for Baird, he was fired by the Royals before he could see Zack return to the majors. But he kept in touch with Greinke and with his successor in the team's GM office, Dayton Moore, who subscribed to the same plan of patience. When Kansas City native Mike Swanson became communications director in 2007 after nine seasons with the Diamondbacks, he created a comfortable environment for Greinke that would also satisfy the needs of the media. "Basically, we addressed the social anxiety issue in a spring training press conference," he says. "After that, Zack just talked after the games."

By revealing his problem, Greinke helped the public understand that social anxiety is not a stigma, that you could be an elite athlete with a disorder shared by millions. And that it was nothing new, even if the nomenclature was. Once upon a time, the New York Yankees had a talented first baseman who was labeled a shy "mama's boy" because he sometimes cried after failing at the plate. Player name of Gehrig.

As for his pitching, Greinke started listening to McClure. "He was headstrong, but I like that in a pitcher," McClure says. "It means that he's committed, and while it makes him harder to convince, once you do, he's just as committed."

McClure also credits a journeyman pitcher, David Riske, with reaching out to Greinke and helping him become a better pitcher. When he joined the Royals in 2007, Riske was in the eighth year and on the fourth stop of his major league career. "Growing up outside of Seattle, I had a friend, a really good baseball player, who reminded me of Zack," says Riske, now retired from baseball and living in Las Vegas. "So I enjoyed bringing him out of his shell, like a big brother who challenges his little brother. And he's so competitive that he rises to every challenge, whether it's shooting 3-pointers, playing golf or pitching.

"One time, after I left the Royals, I saw something in his mechanics in a spring training game that I didn't like and texted him: 'What are you doing? That's not you.' And he texted back and admitted I was right."

The Royals' patience began to pay off in August 2007, when Greinke was eased back into a starting role: three shutout innings, followed by four shutout innings, followed by five shutout innings. He made 14 starts in all, but the Royals still lost 93 games, and Bell was fired. Under Trey Hillman the next year, Greinke went 13-10 in 32 starts, and the Royals had themselves the ace they had been hoping for all along.

"I'm not sure a lot of organizations would have had the patience or understanding that the Royals showed Zack," says Posnanski, now the national columnist for NBC Sports. "Yes, they were pretty terrible in the mid-2000s, but they were building toward something and they didn't trade him or release him like some teams might have. Allard Baird is one of the best people in the game, and Buddy Bell is one of the best people in the game, and it's a shame they weren't around to reap the benefits."

Just before he left for Sports Illustrated in 2009, Posnanski wrote a long piece on Greinke's comeback for The Kansas City Star. After it was published, the subject approached the writer and told him a story about the story. "He said he asked his girlfriend, Emily, to read it to him while he was driving," Posnanski says. "He told me it took all 45 minutes of his drive for her to finish. Then he said, 'It was like a book.' I asked him if he liked it. He smiled, looked up at the ceiling, and he repeated, 'It was like a book.'"

And there was a heroine in the book. If Lou Gehrig had Eleanor Twitchell, an effervescent flapper, to stand beside him, Zack Greinke had Emily. They started dating in high school, when she was a library assistant and he kept stopping by for help with his homework. A model even as a child, she was named Miss Daytona Beach and became a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader as Zack was pursuing his baseball career. "One of the sweetest women in the world," Swanson says. "Outgoing, the polar opposite of Zack in that regard. But he also has a heart of gold, and Emily's the proof."

In the spring of 2009, they made plans to marry -- her first choice was Oct. 10, something of a faux pas for a major league player, even if he is a Royal. So they changed the date to Nov. 21.

Well, the Royals won only 65 games that season. But Greinke won 16 of them, losing only eight, struck out 242 batters in 229? innings and led the majors in ERA (2.16). His wins above replacement number was an otherworldly 10.4, and he easily won the AL Cy Young Award, finishing ahead of the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez when the votes were announced in early November.

But that presented a problem for Swanson and the BBWAA. The winners of the Cy Young Award usually hold a news conference in their home cities, but with the wedding approaching, there was no way Greinke would fly back to Kansas City from Florida. So Swanson went into stealth mode, booking a ballroom and TV interview space at a hotel near the Orlando Airport, not far from where Greinke lived. When Swanson called to congratulate him on the award, Zack apologized for not being able to go back to Kansas City. Says Swanson, "That's when I told him, "Oh, no, we're right here in Orlando.' He was trapped."

And because McClure lived in Florida, he was able to attend.

Two months later, Swanson and Emily persuaded Zack to go the annual BBWAA dinner in New York, put on a tux and accept the award. "What an awesome picture that was," Swanson says. "The two Cy Young winners, Zack and Tim Lincecum, looking like high school kids at a prom. I believe he gave the shortest acceptance in history. But that's Zack for you."


To catch you up on what's happened since then, these are also Zack for you: He gave the 2009 Cy Young Award to his parents but kept the samurai sword that Mizuno presented him in recognition of that season. "It's the coolest thing ever," he said. He later admitted to being rude on the way out the door in Kansas City in 2010 when he finished 10-14 and demanded a trade, prompting Brett, his former landlord, to comment, "Time to grow up." Still, McClure will never forget the gift Zack gave him that season. "We both loved surfing, so he gave me a signed surfboard," McClure says. "It was un-Zack-like, which made it mean even more to me."

The offseason trade to the Brewers not only helped them -- he went 16-6 and got Milwaukee into the 2011 postseason -- but also provided the foundation for the Royals' revival (Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi, who became part of the deal with the Rays that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City). If anybody knows this, it's Zack, a baseball geek who understands FIP (fielding independent pitching), implements the data from fielding charts and scouts amateur games during spring training.

Greinke asked then-GM of the Brewers Doug Melvin whether he could go to the 2012 MLB draft to observe. "He knew who all the prospects were," Melvin says. "At one point, we asked him who he would take with the first pick. And he said, 'Corey Seager.' Unfortunately, the Dodgers took him before us, and now look, they're going into the postseason together." Back in 2002, USA Today asked the members of its All-USA high school baseball team what their favorite subject was. Zack Greinke chose economics because "it makes you feel like you know what you're doing with your financial future." Fast-forward 10 years and the Angels acquire impending free agent Greinke from the Brewers with the hope of (1) making the playoffs and (2) enticing him to stay. They fell short on No. 1, then general manager Jerry Dipoto discovered just how serious he was about money. Said Greinke at the time, "We loved it there. But there's a point where every team has to have a stopping point ... They have to run a business." And the Dodgers were willing to give him more money.

Although Greinke was represented by respected agent Casey Close, he basically did his own negotiations with the Dodgers. "It was three hours, and it was the most interesting meeting I've ever had with a player," says Stan Kasten, team president. "We talked about everything." The Dodgers signed him for six years and $147 million -- with Greinke holding an opt-out after the 2015 season. (That should make for another interesting session or two between Kasten and Greinke this winter as Greinke weighs the recent contracts given to other star pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Jon Lester against the $71 million the Dodgers will owe him if he fulfills the last three years of his current deal.) The team's Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully remembers his first FanFest with Greinke before the 2013 season. "He asked me where I lived, and when I told him where, I said, 'There are good golf courses out there,' knowing he was a very good golfer.' Then he said, 'Yes, but are there a lot of people?'"

Greinke's Dodgers career got off to an inauspicious start when, in a game against the Padres on April 11, Carlos Quentin charged him after being hit with a 3-2 pitch. In the ensuing melee, Greinke's collarbone was broken, and he was lost to the Dodgers for a month. Quentin later called Greinke to apologize for his actions. "That's cool, man," the pitcher told him. "But just so you know, if you stand on the plate, I'll hit you again." Once he recovered, Greinke gave the Dodgers their money's worth, finishing at 15-4. According to Molly Knight's revealing book about the Dodgers, "The Best Team Money Can Buy," he also called out his teammates during a meeting meant to spur them through the closing weeks. "I've been noticing something," Greinke told them as the room got quiet. "Some of you guys have been doing the No. 2 and not washing your hands ... So if you guys could just be better about it, that would be great."

Because it was so random, the observation loosened up the team. Funny how these things work. When Greinke first signed with the Dodgers, there were concerns that the pressures of a large market might work against him. But he's been treated with respect by the media and with something close to affection by his teammates -- kind of like the way Gehrig was embraced by the Yankees.

There's certainly no denying the results -- outstanding seasons in 2013 and 2014, two division titles, teaming with Kershaw for one of the best one-two punches in baseball history.

Melvin caught up with Greinke this spring, when he and Zack and their wives had dinner together in Arizona. "I've never seen him happier," Melvin says. "But in one way, he's the same old Zack. We were talking about the cars we're driving, and I said we had a Lexus. And he said, 'But that's for old people.' My wife and I laughed all the way home. We are old people."

On July 23, 2015, Emily Greinke gave birth to 6-pound, 5-ounce Bode Nicholas in Los Angeles with Zack in attendance, and in the middle of his scoreless streak. The next day, he flew to New York to pitch in a Sunday game against the Mets. The streak ended in the third inning, but he still pitched well, giving up just two runs in seven innings.

Afterward, he said this: "Surprisingly, it wasn't as distracting as you would think. Flying back and forth cross-country wasn't too bad. I felt strong today. I started off really well and got worse. You would think if there was an effect on me, I would've started off bad and gotten better."


It doesn't get much better than this.

Zack and Emily are holding Bode in the middle of the field at AT&T Park, beaming as the rest of his teammates celebrate winning the National League West.

They're standing there because Kershaw threw a one-hit shutout against the Giants to clinch a third straight NL West title, but they're also standing there because of Greinke's brilliant pitching. "He's been amazing to watch," Giants pitcher and old teammate Jeremy Affeldt was saying before the game. "Every kind of pitch he throws is better-than-average, thrown to a precise location on either side of the plate, all coming from the same slot. I'm proud of him."

But they're also standing there because a few good people saw the good in Greinke before they saw the greatness. "Wouldn't it be something," Swanson says, "if the Royals met the Dodgers in the World Series? It'd be great to see Zack pitch against us. It'd be great just to see him."

"Oh, I'll be watching Zack," McClure says. "I'll also be watching our 4-year-old twins. That's because my wife is going to Kansas City for the first round."

This past Sunday, on the last day of the regular season, Zack Greinke received the Roy Campanella Award, given annually to the Dodger who best exemplifies the spirit and leadership of the late Hall of Fame catcher. The award is voted on by the team's players and coaches.

That's Zack for you.

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