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An Opening Day for the ages

Jeff Dahn

Published: Monday, March 10, 2014

PEORIA, Ariz. – Former University of Florida and Perfect Game All-American catcher Mike Zunino is about two weeks short of celebrating his 23rd birthday. That is not a milestone birthday in most people’s minds, but it is certainly worth noting when the conversation turns to Zunino’s meteoric baseball career.

Ever since Zunino made his Perfect Game debut at the 2007 PG WWBA Underclass Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., as a 14-year-old catcher and third baseman, he has seemingly been on the fast-track to stardom. And just 6 ½ years after that PG debut he looks to have earned himself a spot in the Seattle Mariners’ 2014 Opening Day lineup.

“You always have to work. Nothing is guaranteed in this game; that’s the biggest thing,” Zunino said during a conversation with PG Monday afternoon from a relaxed Mariners’ Cactus League clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex.

“For me, I’m just going in there, trying to get better, trying to learn the pitching staff and prepare myself for a healthy, long season,” he said. “However I can help the team and contribute is what I want to do, but the biggest thing for me with this (spring training) camp is to try to get better and get ready for the season.”

The 2014 Major League Baseball season will prove to be a challenging one for both the Mariners and for Zunino, although both have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The M’s made the biggest move of the offseason when they lured second baseman Robinson Cano away from the mighty New York Yankees with a free agent contract worth $240 million over 10 years.

Other pieces were added as well, and Seattle expects to be competitive in the ultra-competitive American League West, as do the two-time defending division champion Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers.

 The atmosphere was definitely relaxed in the Mariners’ clubhouse Monday morning and into the early afternoon, with music playing at a conversational level and several players working their phones and laptops.

Only about half the big-league roster was in attendance Monday morning with the M’s preparing for an afternoon split-squad game against the Kansas City Royals and the other half sleeping in before a nighttime split-squad against the Arizona Diamondbacks over in Scottsdale. Zunino was scheduled to start in the nightcap.

“It’s been a really good camp,” he said after arriving at the Peoria Sports Complex early in the afternoon. “We’ve got a lot of great players in here; we made some good additions from last year that are keeping a winning mentality and keeping everything going in the right direction in the clubhouse.”

The arrival of Cano, a five-time All-Star in nine seasons playing in the Bronx, has provided a big dose of confidence, although Zunino insists Cano tries to keep as low-profile of an appearance as possible.

“With him, he’s just looking to help everybody out, too, and his ultimate goal is to win ballgames and be successful,” Zunino said. “He’s bringing that sort of mentality and work ethic to everybody so it’s been a good transition and a positive to a lot of the young players.”

AFTER GRADUATING FROM MARINER HIGH SCHOOL IN CAPE CORAL, FLA., in 2009, Zunino was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 29th round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft. Not satisfied with that spot in the pecking order, he decided to honor his commitment to head coach Kevin O’Sullivan at the University of Florida, and headed to Gainesville.

“Not one time,” Zunino said when asked if he ever second-guessed his decision to not sign with the A’s out of high school. “It was one of those things where the opportunity came but it was better for me to go to school.

“Looking back, it was the best option I could have gone with, just to be able to mature as a player and a person, physically and mentally,” he continued. “It was one of those things that as a player I needed, and I definitely chose the right program (to sign with) to help me develop as a ballplayer.”

Zunino enjoyed a terrific three-year college career at Florida, hitting .327 with 47 home runs and 175 RBI in 193 games while leading the Gators to three straight appearances in the College World Series (2010-12). He was named a Perfect Game First Team All-American in both 2011 and 2012.

“It’s something that when you go back and look at it now, you’re kind of in awe about how (well) everything went,” he said about his three years in Gainesville. “We had a great group of guys there, and we pushed each other and we got the best out of each other. It was definitely a very fun three years of my baseball career.”

Seattle’s scouting department certainly took note of what Zunino accomplished in three seasons as a Florida Gator and snapped him up with the third pick of the first round in the 2012 June amateur draft.

 The Mariners rewarded Zunino with a $4 million signing bonus and sent him to Everett of the low-A Northwest League. He was soon at Double-A Jackson in the Southern League and started the 2013 season at Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League.

It didn’t take long for the M’s to realize what they had in Zunino, and he made his Major League Baseball debut on June 12, 2013, at the age of 22 after playing only 96 games in the minor leagues. The transition wasn’t seamless but he managed to hit .214 (37-for-173) with five home runs, five doubles and 14 RBI in 52 games with the big club.

“I felt like I had the trust of the team,” Zunino said of his June call-up. “They were obviously giving me that opportunity and I felt ready; I felt prepared. I started off the year well last year and then I hit some bumps in Triple-A and I sort of knew what I had to do to work through those. To get that call, it was everything that I wanted it to be, and at that point I was ready to contribute to the team any way I could.

“I was able to learn a lot, spending almost a third of the year (in the big leagues),” he continued. “I was able to pick guys’ brains and learn as much as I could and I think it was is one of those things where the more experience you get and the more games you play at that level is where you’re really going to win.”

CATCHER JOHN BUCK, A VETERAN OF 10 MAJOR LEAGUE SEASONS WITH SIX TEAMS, including the first six years of his career with the Kansas City Royals, was signed by the Mariners this offseason and is serving as a sort of mentor to Zunino.

In an interview with writer Chris Gabel published in a special report on in late February, Buck said he hopes to share with Zunino some of the “tricks of the trade” needed to enjoy a long big league career.

“I’ll be a soundboard for Mikey to bounce things off of and be an aide to him as he goes through the ups and downs of learning how to catch at the major league level,” Buck told Gabel in the report. “It can be overwhelming, and I’ll be there to tell him that’s exactly what you should be feeling. It’s the little things that may seem small, minute, but make a huge difference in a 162-game season. … Those were the things that really helped me when I was coming up.”

Zunino has long been an eager student and willing learner. With Buck’s locker right next to his in the Mariner’s Cactus League clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex, Zunino can’t help but share a conversation or two with the veteran as spring training reaches its late March conclusion.

“He’s been doing for it 10 years now, and it says a lot about what he does, how he works and what’s he’s been able to do in this game to play and play at a high level,” Zunino said. “It’s one of those things where anything that I can gather and anything that I can learn (from Buck) is a positive. He’s one of those guys that enjoy sharing what he knows, which is a big plus.”

In his first 12 Cactus League at-bats this spring, Zunino had four hits (.333) including three doubles and had driven in a pair of runs.

GROWING UP IN CAPE CORAL ACROSS THE RIVER FROM FORT MYERS in Southwest Florida, Zunino’s opportunities to participate in Perfect Game events were seemingly limitless – Fort Myers hosts dozens of PG events on its dozens of regulation-sized fields every year – primarily with SWFL Baseball in tournament play while also attending six PG showcases, all between late 2005 and early 2009.

“That was when you starting opening up (your experiences) playing different competition, you start opening up playing against some of the top guys in the state and then it opens up to the top guys in the country,” he said. “That’s when you first start to gauge where you’re at in your playing career at a young age, and that’s definitely what it did for me.”

His biggest showcase events included the 2007 PG National Underclass, 2007 PG-Aflac Underclass, the 2008 PG World, 2008 PG National and 2008 PG All-American Classic.

Seven prospects from that PG All-American Classic have made their major league debuts and, coincidentally perhaps, three of those players made their debuts within two weeks of Zunino last June: Ryan “Scooter” Gennett with the Brewers on June 3; Ian Krol with the Nationals on June 5; Zack Wheeler with the Mets on June 18.

“There are guys that I really met for the first time (at the Classic) and you see them now in spring training games, and I saw them in college and at other different times,” Zunino said. “It’s one of those things where it really opens up your baseball family in that sense.”

Wil Myers is one of 11 alumni of the 2008 Perfect Game National Showcase who has made his MLB debut. His came on June 18 of last year with the Tampa Bay Rays – in that same two-week period as Zunino, Gennett, Krol and Wheeler – and Myers went on to be named the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year.

ZUNINO’S FATHER, GREG, IS ENTERING HIS 25TH YEAR working in the MLB scouting community and currently serves as a scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds. He has had a huge impact on Mike’s career ever since he started dragging his son to ballparks when he was a toddler.

“I enjoy watching him play because I think he plays the game the right way and I hope I had a little something to do with that,” Greg told PG in February 2012. “I talked to (minor league manager) Tom Kotchman, whose son his Casey (Kotchman), and he went through this same thing … and we’d say we’ll probably be their harshest critics because we know all of their faults.”

Mike Zunino is the first to recognize the influence his dad has had on his career.

“With him being the game with his job, he was able to expose me to baseball at an early age,” Zunino said. “I saw things from a different light, too – I was able to see spring training, I was able to see games from the outside and just see a lot of baseball growing up. I think that helped my (in terms of) how I view the game and I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Zunino’s career will take another big leap forward when the Mariners travel to Anaheim, Calif., on March 31 to open the 2014 regular season against the Angels. He remembered some random thoughts that went through his head at the 2008 PG All-American Classic, played that year at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Zunino had always dreamed of being in someone’s Opening Day starting lineup one day, even if he couldn’t lock his mind around a specific year. And if everything falls into place over the next three weeks, he will have realized that dream, perhaps even earlier than he ever imagined.

“This is where you always want to envision yourself, but the time frame is more than I ever expected or more than I ever thought of,” Zunino said Monday from the big league clubhouse at a Cactus League spring training complex. Maybe a young man’s 23rd birthday represents a little more of a milestone than anyone ever imagined.

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