Geoff Zahn was never called overpowering. He was called boring. Sportswriters never tagged him with one of those nicknames that carry with it the possibility of Madison Avenue millions. Those were reserved for the throwers, the guys who could bring heat. No one named him Dr. Z.
Dr. Zzzzz, maybe. He was the kind of pitcher sportscasters called crafty. Always around the plate, he moved pitches in and out and kept hitters off balance. A mere tactician.
Recently, Zahn stood on the mound at Anaheim Stadium during an old-timers game looking for all the world like he was trying to shatter the national shotput record, not pitch a ballgame. He couldn't retire a bunch of retired batters.
Former Yankee Tom Tresh had plugged Zahn's floating changeup into left field for a double, scoring Randy Hundley, who had also doubled. That gave a team of assorted old-timers a 1-0 lead over a team of former Angels. Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, 55, followed with another double, scoring Tresh.
With each pitch, Zahn's left shoulder sloshed around like a sloppy gearbox. If he could get the ball to the catcher, preferably in the air, it was cause for celebration. By comparison, Warren Spahn, now 65, had better control. Bob Gibson, 50, had more velocity. In just one inning, it became clear that Zahn, a pup at 40, had the oldest arm.
The exhibition was called in the sixth inning because the old men had run out of breath and time. The modern-day Angels had to play the Cleveland Indians.
While Zahn and the other seniors hobbled off the field, two pitchers from the Pleistocene Epoch, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, hobbled on.
Ironically, the 41-year-old Sutton had been added to the Angels roster last season after Zahn had spent most of the year on the disabled list. After 18 years in professional baseball--12 in the majors, six in the minors--Zahn announced his retirement this year before spring training. An injury to his left shoulder--and subsequent surgery--left him unable to wash his car, let alone throw a slider.
During the off season, the Angels released Zahn. They invited him to Palm Springs for a tryout during spring training but, realistically, they might as well have invited back Bo Belinsky or Dean Chance. They, at least, could have washed team owner Gene Autry's limo.
Dr. Lewis Yocum performed arthroscopic surgery on Zahn's shoulder which revealed a torn rotator cuff. Even worse, the cartilage in the shoulder was badly damaged. Said Zahn: "The cartilage is destroyed. They cleaned out the joint, but that made it less stable. It's bone on bone."
Yocum, sounding more like a mechanic than a doctor, said, "There's only so much mileage issued to a shoulder. And he wore his out. He had gotten his 30,000 miles."
With plenty of pit stops along the way. The shoulder surgery was the eighth operation of Zahn's career. Eight, finally, Meanwhile, Zahn has taken a job at Master's College, a small Christian school in Newhall, as an assistant to longtime friend John MacArthur, the school's president. Besides overseeing the athletic program, he has joined the baseball staff as a recruiter and pitching coach.
The idea is that Zahn, who had a 111-109 lifetime record in the majors, will attract better talent to an NAIA baseball program that isn't exactly brimming with future major leaguers.
"A pitcher has to ask himself what he wants out of a program," Zahn said. "I tell them, I'm gonna teach you everything I know. I can teach them how to pitch. The mechanics. I have to consider myself very knowledgeable."
Even with Zahn, Master's will be hard pressed to land top prospects. Pitchers with 90-m.p.h. fastballs usually don't end up in Newhall.
"Maybe one or two of our pitchers have the chance to be prospects," he said. "And I think they're excited to learn from me. You can teach the breaking ball, but you can't add the fastball."
But then, if anyone can help slow-throwing hurlers, it's probably Zahn. He made a living throwing junk.
That he ever pitched in the majors was surprising to some. It wasn't that he didn't show potential. He was drafted by the Phillies when he graduated from high school, but he headed instead for Ann Arbor, Mich., to play for the Wolverines. He was then drafted each of his four years in college--by the White Sox, Red Sox, Tigers and Dodgers. He signed with the Dodgers midway through his senior year. But after the Dodgers shipped Zahn off to their farm system, he floated around like a letter lost in the Bolivian mail. He all but disappeared from 1968 to 1973.
He bounced from Daytona Beach to Albuquerque to Spokane back to Albuquerque to El Paso back to Albuquerque. Zahn's dream of playing in the major leagues had been pretty well dusted. Even his 19-3 record for El Paso and Albuquerque in 1972 wasn't enough. The Dodgers never called.
The problem, according to Zahn, was that he didn't throw hard. The Dodgers were looking for a strong left-hander to replace Sandy Koufax. Zahn had the drooping fastball of Johnny Podres.