10/29/08 10:00 AM ET
Zavada shines in comeback summer
D-backs prospect overcomes loss of father in award-winning season
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
So here's a simple tip: root for Clay Zavada. No matter what team he's pitching for, this is a guy worthy of your support.
Zavada won the MiLBY for Class A Reliever of the Year, and for good reason. Despite the fact that he didn't make his 2008 affiliated debut until June 21, the 24-year-old southpaw still put up numbers that could reasonably be called "otherworldly." Over 24 appearances with the South Bend Silver Hawks, Zavada went 3-1 with eight saves and an 0.51 ERA.
Opponents hit just .056 against him and he ended the season by hurling 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
The Illinois native followed that up with a dominating postseason in which he notched three saves and struck out five over three shutout frames as the Silver Hawks made it to the final round of the Midwest League playoffs.
But statistics, in and of themselves, do not constitute a sufficient reason to root for a player. It's the context in which they are achieved that makes the story, and this story is a great one.
Zavada's professional career began in 2006, following three seasons with Division II University of Southern Illinois-Edwardswille. After being selected by the Diamondbacks in the 30th round of that year's Draft, he played his first Minor League season with Rookie-level Missoula. There, he went 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA over 22 relief appearances, striking out 51 over 49 1/3 innings as the Osprey won the Pioneer League championship.
Following his successful foray into the Minor Leagues, Zavada returned to his hometown of Streator, Ill. That December, tragedy struck.
"My dad died at age 55 and we weren't expecting it," said Zavada. "My mom had passed away when I was younger and now I lost him as well. My brother is in the Navy, so it became up to me to take care of our house and our farm. I decided to take a year off in order to figure out what the hell was going on.
"My dad worked and died for the place I'm at right now, so I felt like I had more important things to attend to than baseball."
One of those things was return to college to complete his education.
"I had promised to my dad that I'd get my degree, so that was something I had to do, both for myself and for him," said Zavada. "There are a lot of idiots like me out there who go to Division II schools and don't get a signing bonus. And a lot of 'em are out of the sport by age 26 or 27, with no degree and no idea what to do. Playing baseball is great, but you've got to have a backup plan."
The 2007 season may have been a "year off" when it came to baseball, but considering the circumstances, it was anything but relaxing.
"I wasn't Cadillac-ing, believe me," said Zavada. "I was driving 200 miles in order to go to school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then delivering furniture the rest of the week and giving pitching lessons on Sunday. It was real stressful, but I got my best GPA ever. It's amazing how well you can do in college when you don't have 30 guys to hang around with every night."
This spring, equipped with a college degree, Zavada allowed himself to think about baseball once again.
"One of my college buddies tried to talk me into joining the [Southern Illinois] Miners, in the Frontier League. I said to myself, 'Screw it, that'll be my graduation present. I'll go down there and play baseball for a summer, just to reward myself.' On the drive there, I kept thinking about turning around. I had never felt so unprepared for anything in my life."
Under his father's advice, Zavada got back in the game.
"In my first bullpen, I was all over the place. I'm sure everyone was thinking 'Who the hell is this guy?' But the next bullpen was good and the next one was even better," he recalled. "When I finally got into a game, I struck out the side in my first outing and never looked back. I just had fun with it, because there was nothing to worry about. My dad worked and worried his whole life, but he told me not to. So I went out there doing what he said, just having a good time."
After going 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA and four saves with Southern Illinois, Zavada returned to the Diamondbacks as part of a highly unorthodox "trade." The Miners allowed Zavada to re-sign with the D-backs without charging the club to purchase Zavada's rights. In return, the Diamondbacks released struggling first baseman Brad Miller so he could sign with the Miners.
Zavada was back in affiliated ball and made his debut with the Silver Hawks on June 21. Five days later, he endured his worst outing of the season.
"I gave up a walk-off home run in Dayton on a Thirsty Thursday, and 10,000 fans were in the stands screaming and dumping beer on each other," he said. "There was smoke shooting from the nose of a giant dragon and a 16-foot bullhorn going off. But part of the fun of this game is getting your butt smacked, but then getting the chance to go out there and redeem yourself."
Zavada redeemed himself plenty through the rest of the season, as he didn't give up another run en route to putting up the aforementioned "otherworldly" stats.
"I'm a real superstitious guy, so I don't pay attention to stats," he said. "As long as everyone's happy, I'm happy. It just sucks losing. Everyone's [ticked] off and walking on eggshells and you've got to eat a cold meal in a quiet locker room. No one wants to deal with that, and that's what gives me my drive to win, every day."
Aware of his stats or not, Zavada acknowledged that duplicating his success of 2008 will be an almost impossible task. Still, he sees room for improvement.
"I'd love to be in Double-A, maybe working as a setup guy in the seventh or eighth inning," he said. "I just need to keep trying to work on my cutter and add a few miles an hour to the fastball. But it's like the Weather Channel -- you can forecast anything, but the main thing is how it all plays out. Hopefully, with hard work, a little luck, and a good defense, everything will turn out all right."
No matter what happens in the rest of Zavada's career, he'll be content with the knowledge that he gave baseball all he had, and had fun doing it.
"I just don't want to be an old man, throwing another log on the fire, feeling sorry for myself and talking about what I could have done when I was young," he said. "All I want to be able to say is 'Hey, I gave it my best shot.'"
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.