PEORIA, Ariz.—As far back as he can remember, Mike Zunino was hanging around ballparks, tagging along with his father Greg, a scout with the Marlins back then.
“He was always watching, asking questions, wanting to know why things were happening,” said Greg, who is still based in Florida but now scouts for the Reds.
“When he first got to tee ball, he was a little advanced,” Greg remembered. “One day they are playing catch and he says, ‘Coach, when are we going to take infield?’ ”
The father laughed.
The kid was serious.
“He always wanted to get better,” Greg said.
And he has.
A 29th-round draft choice of the Athletics when he came out of Cape Coral (Fla.) High in 2009, Mike opted instead to attend the University of Florida. Three years later—after going from 6 feet, 185 pounds, to 6-foot-2, 220 pounds—Zunino was the first-round selection of the Mariners, the third overall pick.
He made such an impressive pro debut last summer that the Mariners invited him to major league spring training, where he has a chance to accelerate his development because of his exposure to big league players and the big league staff, including Seattle manager Eric Wedge, a former major league catcher himself.
“Having a manager who played the position, it’s easier to relate,” Zunino said. “I can talk to him about any aspect and he has a reference point.”
And so far this spring, Wedge has been impressed. “You like the way he handles himself,” Wedge said. “He listens. He’s eager to get better. And he has the tools you look for in a catcher.”
Yearn To Learn
The scouting report on Zunino is that he was a safe pick. There is nothing overwhelming about his game, but he is average to above-average in every aspect. And he definitely made his presence felt in his pro debut after last year’s draft.
He debuted at short-season Everett and hit .373/.474/.736 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 29 games, earning a promotion to Double-A Jackson, where he hit .333/.386/.588 with three home runs in 15 games. He also threw out 12 of 28 basestealers, including five of 12 at Jackson.
“It was a good experience,” Zunino said. “It was about getting used to play every day, getting use to the road trips. It’s different, but as long as you take care of yourself physically and eat the right food you’ll be fine. It’s all a part of learning the game.”
That’s the way Zunino has always been—looking to learn.
He initially pitched and played shortstop, but his favorite player growing up was Charles Johnson, the original first-round draft pick of the Marlins in 1992. The fact that Greg Zunino was the area scout who followed Johnson, first in high school and then at the University of Miami, led to a strong relationship between the two. The relationship carried over to the youthful Mike, and led to his eventual evolution into a catcher.
“When he was playing Little League I was hoping he would be good enough to get a scholarship,” Greg said. “And then I remember Gary Hughes was in town when Michael was 10, and Gary said, ‘He’s not bad back there. Interesting.’ ”
Hughes, who now works for the Red Sox and has served as scouting director for both the Expos and Marlins, was the Yankees area scout who signed outfielder Greg Zunino as a 31st-round pick in 1981 out of the University of California. He later persuaded Zunino to go into scouting, and hired him in Florida.
By the time Mike got to high school, his father’s expectations had grown. Greg not only had watched his son play, but he knew the inner drive that he possessed. He admits disappointment that Mike lasted to the 29th round in the draft that senior year in high school—though it was at least partly driven by Mike’s commitment to Florida.
“I told (the area) guys that they missed on him,” Greg Zunino said. “They had known him a long time, and maybe they didn’t go back and see how much he had grown. It worked well. He went to Florida and got bigger and stronger.”
Mike definitely made the most of the time, taking the Gators to the College World Series all three years he was there, and winning Baseball America’s College Player of the Year award in 2012.
“It kept me from getting too complacent,” he said. “I learned so much more about myself. Every day I felt I got better.”
And the scouts paid attention this time.
“I probably had the lowest draft number on him (in 2012),” Greg said. “I would have loved to have had him in our organization, but I am happy he wound up in another organization. It’s good for me to be able to back away. He’s on his own. He has to establish himself.
“It is tough separate the scout and dad. I watch him and I’m asking, ‘Why did you try and pull that pitch? Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ ”
Mike says he welcomed the input from his father. It was one of the ways he could get better. It would make him rethink situations. It would open his eyes to alternatives.
“He played in the minor leagues, so I was always able to ask him questions and he could relate to what I am working to accomplish,” Mike said.
Greg’s career consisted of 145 games in the minors and a couple of years in an Italian pro league, which is where he met his wife.
“I can probably help him deal with the downs more than the ups,” Greg said.