(Mike Zunino dodges raindrops during an at-bat in Florida’s Super-Regional game against North Carolina State on Saturday. Photo by Associated Press).
Here is today’s Mariners minor-league report.
I started trying to reach Greg Zunino on Monday after the Mariners drafted his son, Mike, with the third pick in the MLB draft. As you can imagine, it was a pretty hectic time at the Zunino household, complicated by the fact that Zunino, a Cincinnati Reds scout, was also involved with his team’s draft.
I finally connected with Greg Zunino on Friday, but I didn’t have time to write it up until now, because I was finishing this story about growing up as a Dodger fan, and then covering Sunday’s Mariners game.
Full disclosure: Greg Zunino and I were at Cal together in the late 1970s (though I’m positive I remember him much more clearly than he remembers me). I covered the Cal baseball team for the Daily Californian, the school paper. Greg was one of the Bears’ stars, along with his brother, Gary. Both of them could rake the ball, but Greg was not a great glove man, to put it mildly. That explains why the Yankees, who drafted him in the 31st round in 1982, released him after two seasons despite a .304 average in the minor leagues.
“Ask anyone — I struggled with defense in my career,” Zunino said.
He points out that another player from the Yankees farm system couldn’t cut it, either — Willie McGee, traded to the Cardinals, where he won a couple of batting titles and an MVP award.
“He got traded and I got released,” he said.
Zunino wound up playing a few seasons it Italy, in Bologna, where he met his future wife, Paola, a member of Italy’s national softball team who liked to watch baseball games. Zunino became fairly conversant in Italian, probably enough to be able to chat with Alex Liddi.
“My mother-in-law made me speak to come over and eat,” he said. “If you knew how good a cook she is, you’d understand why I learned pretty quickly.”
As an aside, this Italian heritage makes Mike Zunino eligible to play for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, which resumes next spring.
“They’ve already asked if he wants to play on the national team,” Greg said. “I think he’s open to it.”
Mike Zunino’s college season rages on, meanwhile, after the Gators beat NC State in a thrilling Super Regional series to clinch a spot in the College World Series in Omaha. There’s a great anecdote in this story about how Zunino, in the aftermath of the victory, embraced the NC State coach — whom he had never met — to tell him what a great game his team had played. It speaks to the character of Mike, something that I keep hearing over and over again.
“That’s what you really like as a parent,” Greg said. “I don’t know how many people have come up from other teams and commented on how good a kid he is, how good he is around their fans. It’s real nice to hear that. Makes you think you did something right.”
Greg said that no negotiations have started with the Mariners, and won’t until Florida is done with the World Series. He said Mike doesn’t even have an advisor yet. But I sure get the impression that the Mariners will be able to get Zunino in the fold by the July 13 signing deadline. I asked Greg if his son, who has one more year of college eligibility, is of a mindset to sign.
“Yeah, I think he is,” he said. “It’s tough to improve when you go three. There’s not a lot of spaces to move up. I think it’s about time for him to go. I think the Florida staff thinks that way, too. I think everything will work out fine.”
OK, so what kind of player will the Mariners be getting, from a scout’s standpoint — a scout who also happens to be a father.
“He’s a very solid catcher, a good receiver with an above-average arm and above-average release,” Greg said. “He’s a leader. He can take control of a staff and control a game. Offensively, I’m more critical of him. I can see when he tries to do too much, and his swing gets a little long. He uses all fields, a doubles hitter who can be a real good RBI man. And he’d hate if I didn’t put in that he will steal an occasional base. He’s 30-for-32 at Florida. He averaged 10 (steals) a year.”
Ultimately, here’s what Greg Zunino sees for Mike: “He’ll be a solid defensive catcher who will be able to help stop the running game, and you can put him anywhere in the lineup and he’ll provide RBIs, hit for a .270, .280 average. I don’t think 15 homers are out of the question. I’m not sure how the ball flies out of the park up there.”
Don’t ask, Greg. When I filled him in briefly about the current debate over whether or not to move in the fences at Safeco Field, he said with a laugh, “Put me on the ballot as a yes.”
Zunino believes he’s been able to help Mike as much on the mental side of baseball as the physical. He says that coaches tell him all the time that if Zunino should happen to strike out in a big situation, he doesn’t take the frustration behind the plate with him. He’s able to separate the two, which is especially important for a catcher.”
Greg Zunino has been scouting ever since he left Italy in the mid-1980s to take a job with the Expos. In fact, he got to know Jack Zduriencik 23 years ago, when both were scouting Oklahoma and Texas, Zunino for the Expos, Zduriencik for the Mets.
Now Zunino covers the state of Florida for the Reds. He said he’s lucky enough to have a boss, Reds scouting director Chris Buckley, who has tried to accomodate the unique circumstances of having his son, a top prospect, playing in his region. This season, Buckley would invariably assign him to scout the prospects on Florida’s opponent.
“He was really great to me,” Zunino said. “I’d write reports, and I’d get to see my son. And we drafted a center fielder from Florida, so he said, ‘If they make the World Series, go out and cover it for us. We have to see if he’s healthy.’ ”
The Reds drafted 14th, so there was little likelihood Zunino would fall that far. The Mariners grabbed him first, and it doesn’t look like it will be long until he joins the organization officially.