07/17/09 12:00 AM ET
Zavada relishing time in Major Leagues
D-backs reliever in awe of opportunity to play in the Show
By Steve Gilbert / MLB.com
"I just enjoy it," Zavada said. "Every day is a great day to be here. It's the best job in the world. You don't ever have a bad day at a ballpark. If you have cleats, a glove, a hat and someone has your name on a list to be out on the field for batting practice you've got the best job in the world. That's the way I feel."
That Zavada looks at things that way is not surprising. After all, his journey to the big leagues was more winding road than rapid ascent, and it's the challenges and detours that allow him to appreciate every moment in ways that other players cannot.
Zavada, who is 2-2 with a 1.69 ERA in 23 games this year, first gained national attention this past offseason when he was featured in a New York Times story. He also has received considerable attention for the Rollie Fingers-like handlebar mustache he sports, the result of a contest in Class A ball last year. But he also has caught people's attention on the field as he began his Major League career with 18 consecutive scoreless innings.
However, what will eventually make Zavada, 25, a fan favorite is the way he looks at the game and the opportunity he has to be a part of it. In the words of one teammate, he is still "wide-eyed." While other players may grumble about packing for yet another road trip, Zavada looks at it as an opportunity to see cities he's never seen before.
"He enjoys the big leagues," 15-year veteran Tony Clark said. "It's not lost on him that this is special, that this opportunity is special. He appreciates its worth and he's taking it all in. It's great to see. The longer you're here the more difficult it can be to consistently appreciate it for what it is. It can become a business real quick."
Zavada, though, knows all about real loss and true adversity and is anything but naïve when it comes to the world away from baseball.
Zavada's mother died when he was just 3 years old and that left his father, Clarence, to raise Clay and his brother, Dustin, who was then 4, in the town of Streator, Ill., a small, rural community about 100 miles southwest of Chicago.
It's where Zavada still lives and takes care of the family farm. It is a community that gathers in one of the local bars to watch him pitch for the D-backs.
It was Clarence who was there to play catch with Zavada, who threw batting practice to him and who encouraged him to keep playing.
"He was just superman, trying to be there all the time," Zavada said. "He felt bad for us and was always trying to fill in the gaps for me and my brother because our mom died when we were so young."
When Zavada finished high school, there were not many scholarships offered to him and he did not want to take the one from Illinois Valley Community College.
"I didn't want it because it wasn't cool to go to a community college," Zavada said. "It was cooler to go to a state school and party. That kind of thing. My dad, though, he made me play. He said you're going to go to Illinois Valley Community College, take this scholarship and play baseball. I had a good year freshman year, sophomore year was OK and I got into a four-year D-II school in Edwardsville, Ill."
D-backs scout Mike Daughtry had seen Zavada pitch and told him he was going to get drafted following his junior year. That seemed like a pipe dream for Zavada, who took a summer job following his junior year working alongside his father at a plant that makes parts for nuclear reactors.
It was while he was there working on the second day of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft that his dad checked on the Internet and saw that his son had been drafted.
"We punched out," Zavada recalled. "Well, I quit, he punched out, and we went and started celebrating."
Two days later he was at the D-backs mini-camp in Tucson, Ariz., and after that it was on to the Rookie League, where he was part of a championship club. Zavada had a good year there and followed it up in Instructional League. It seemed like everything was falling in to place for him.
A dream deferred
That all changed that December when Clarence died of a heart attack while working out at the local YMCA.
"After that I was pretty messed up," Zavada said.
Indeed, he broke his hand and failed to report for Spring Training that year, and the D-backs eventually put him on the reserve list before releasing him in December 2007.
To fulfill a promise he had made to his father, Zavada went back to school that fall and eventually graduated. To make ends meet, he delivered furniture. It was a living, but it wasn't the life he and his father had dreamed of for him.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys that say, 'What if?'" he said. "I didn't want to be one of those guys who says I was this or I was that. I didn't want to be miserable because I gave up. Because I quit. Being out there delivering furniture, I could do it, but it wasn't fun for me. I can't work an office job. The only thing I know is baseball. It's the only thing I've ever known."
So, in 2008, Zavada went to play for the Independent Southern Illinois Miners where Daughtry once again saw him and convinced the D-backs to give him another chance.
Living the dream
The D-backs assigned him to Class A South Bend so Zavada could be close to home and tend to the family farm. Meanwhile he put up video-game-like numbers -- 0.51 ERA, 54 strikeouts and six hits allowed in 35 1/3 innings.
Over the winter the D-backs added him to the 40-man roster, and when they needed a reliever in May they called him up from Double-A Mobile.
Zavada picked up the win in his first big league game and did not allow an earned run in his first 18 innings.
"Sometimes you ask people how they are doing and they tell you they are living the dream," Zavada said. "They're not really living the dream. There's really only one percent that is really living the dream. I'm living the dream, my dream. Not many people get to do that in their lifetime. Life's not fair. Life's not easy. So I'm just thankful. It's a blessing from God that I'm in this situation. There's only 750 or so of us. That's pretty unique. So you had better have fun, you had better enjoy it and you'd better give it all you've got. Otherwise you'll regret it. And I don't want to regret it."
It's that attitude and approach to the game that has made Zavada so popular among his veteran teammates.
"Clay definitely is one of those guys that lightens everyone up," veteran left-hander Doug Davis said. "Seeing him wide-eyed every day, ready to pitch, ready to do whatever we ask him to do, he's just always very humble even though he went 18 innings without giving up a run. It's fun to have a guy like that in the clubhouse."
Said closer Chad Qualls, "He recognizes that it's very special to be a big leaguer and he's had a lot taken away from him, so to have this opportunity given to him, he just relishes it."
Nothing encapsulates Zavada's journey better than the day he got to meet Ken Griffey Jr. prior to a game against the Mariners at Safeco Field. It was a big thrill and he clearly reveled in it. Later in the day, though, he was all business on the mound as he got Griffey to fly out.
"He's a cool guy," Zavada said, an autographed Griffey jersey hanging in his locker behind him. "That's good because sometimes you look forward to meeting someone and you can be disappointed."
Zavada does not expect his appreciation for his big leagues life to change. After all, when just over a year ago you were delivering furniture and struggling to make ends meet, the experiences you have in the Major Leagues are a non-stop high.
"It's amazing here. You play for two weeks and you're like, this is sweet, this is awesome. And then you get a check and you're like, holy cow. It's pretty cool. It's the best job in the world."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.