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Alan Zinter Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 51

Alan Zinter’s career, a life in baseball that has spanned over thirty years, changed instantly because Jeff Suppan wasn’t home.

A Baseball America All-American at the University of Arizona, Zinter was what an MLB The Show created player might look like—a muscular, switch-hitting catcher who starred for one of the top college programs in the country. In a program that featured J.T. Snow at 1st base, Trevor Hoffman at shortstop, and Scott Erickson as the Friday night starter, Zinter outplayed them all. The Mets took him 24th overall, setting Zinter on was surely to be a quick trip to the show.

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Six years then flew by in a flash, and Zinter felt about as far away from the big leagues as a guy coming off a Triple-A season could feel. The Mets had given up on him after four seasons, flipping him to the Tigers for another minor leaguer, and his two ensuing seasons at Triple-A Toledo were middling at best. The former first round pick found himself a minor league free agent, with few job opportunities.

“I’m 27 years old, how did that happen? I’m not a prospect anymore, how did that happen?” said Zinter. “I’m with another team that doesn’t know me, that thinks I suck, that didn’t sign me back. Am I done? Is this it? But I still deep-down really believed in myself.”

Thus far during his time in professional baseball, Zinter had struggled with the mental side of baseball. Playing carefree at Arizona allowed him to do damage at the plate, but the professional version of Zinter was too stressed at the plate, too mechanical, and too afraid of striking out. Every multi-strikeout game was met by an immediate mechanical overhaul.

“I didn’t have a process—I was hunting results, and it sucks,” said Zinter. “But I was hunting them with doing everything wrong.”

Zinter caught on with the Red Sox, mentally struggling but hoping to win a Triple-A job in spring training. His roommate, the 21-year-old Suppan, was the polar opposite—all the confidence in the world, and having a great spring.

One morning, while his thriving roommate was out of the apartment, Zinter started flipping through a book that belonged to Suppan, “The Mental Game of Baseball” by Harvey Dorfman.

“I opened it, and read the opening chapter,” said Zinter. “All of a sudden I was just entranced in this book—it was easy reading, and it was talking to me. It was making me realize for the first time (…) low and behold, you’ve gotta be kidding me—I’m doing everything wrong naturally by my thought process and how I’m thinking about things.”

Zinter realized had been a self-fulfilling prophecy—so afraid of striking out when he walked up to the plate that he only had one thing on his mind.

“He didn’t come home until late, but I read that whole book,” said Zinter.

In the baseball sense, from that day moving forward Zinter was a changed man. His entire mental outlook shifted, bringing positivity to the field and especially the batter’s box. Trust in himself and confidence at the dish became instrumental in his growth as a hitter and statistical improvement for the remainder of his career.

“Your body kinda does the right things when you’re thinking the right things,” said Zinter. “I did have to keep making adjustments—you’re always going to make adjustments, but you can’t just make huge changes every three days.”

Zinter turned himself into a standout Triple-A hitter, finding time behind the dish and in the outfield, and began to hop around organizations just searching for a chance. Between 1996 to 2001, Zinter put up solid numbers for five different organizations, plus a stint in Japan.

He’d spent over half a decade as close but no cigar when it comes to getting that elusive call to the show. By the onset of the 2002 season he’d had nearly 1,600 professional games under his belt, and had been told year after year at the end of spring training that he wasn’t making the team.

The spring of 2002 was no different, as Astros manager Jimmy Williams let Zinter know that he’d be heading to Triple-A New Orleans as opposed to Houston. Williams told Zinter he’d use him that year—that they’d need him.

Zinter had heard that before, so it didn’t quite soften the blow of once again coming up short to achieve his dream. As a college student he’d gone to see “Bull Durham” in theaters, and remembered watching Kevin Costner’s portrayal of the aging catcher Crash Davis trying to hang around the minor leagues as “pathetic.” In a weird twist of fate, Zinter was now a nearly 34-year-old catcher, heading for another season in the minors.

That season, however, was different. Jimmy Williams hadn’t just been blowing smoke. On Father’s Day 2002, Zinter’s New Orleans Zephyrs were playing at Colorado Springs. This time, Zinter found himself the player who was removed in the middle of a game, and the guy who the manager walked over to after getting news from the trainer that there’d been a call-up.

“He just walked in and said ‘Bull, you’re going to the big leagues.’”

On June 18th, 2002, Zinter became the 18,109th player in MLB history with a pinch-hit groundout vs Brewers ace Ben Sheets.

Zinter went onto play until his age-39 seasons, with his last big league action coming in 2004 in the form of 28 games with the Diamondbacks. Following his final season with Somerset of the Atlantic League, he dove right into coaching, and has spent the last three seasons as the hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds—something he credits to the trials of his long playing career.

“Without that I wouldn’t be doing what I do now, enjoying big league baseball from this perspective,” said Zinter. “I feel like I have thirty-five at-bats a day now.”

On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm’ Reds hitting coach Alan Zinter walks us through thirty years of life in professional baseball.

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