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DR. J, AS IN JUNK : Geoff Zahn, His Arm Dead at 39, Now Teaching Others the Craft of Pitching

August 14, 1986|GORDON MONSON | Times Staff Writer

Geoff Zahn was never called overpowering. He was called boring. Sportswriters never gave him one of those nicknames that carry the possibility of Madison Avenue millions. Those were reserved for the hard throwers, the guys who could bring heat. No one named him Dr. Z.

Dr. Zzzzz, maybe.

He was the kind of pitcher sportscasters call crafty. Always around the plate, he moved pitches in and out and kept hitters off-balance. A tactician.

Recently, Zahn stood on the mound at Anaheim Stadium during an old-timers' game, looking for all the world as if he were trying to set a shotput record, not pitch a ballgame. He couldn't even retire a bunch of retired hitters.

Former New York Yankee Tom Tresh had hit Zahn's changeup into left field for a double, scoring former Chicago Cub Randy Hundley, who also had 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. Just getting the ball to the catcher was cause for celebration. By comparison, Warren Spahn, 65, had better control. Bob Gibson, 50, had more velocity. In just one inning, it became clear that Zahn, a relative youngster at 39, had the oldest arm of them all.

The exhibition was called in the sixth inning because the old men had run out of breath and time. The modern-day Angels had a game to play against the Cleveland Indians.

While Zahn and the other seniors hobbled off the field, two pitchers from the Pleistocene era, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, hobbled on.

Ironically, Sutton, 41, was added to the Angel 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, 6 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 Bo Belinsky or Dean Chance.

Zahn's arthroscopic surgery, performed by Dr. Lewis Yocum, revealed a torn rotator cuff. Even worse, the cartilage in the shoulder was badly damaged.

"The cartilage is destroyed," Zahn said. "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."

There were plenty of pit stops along the way, too. The shoulder surgery was the eighth operation of Zahn's career. Eight, finally, was enough.

Since his retirement in February, Zahn has said he would like to work with the Angels as a pitching instructor, but he hasn't heard from the club. "They know I'm available, but I won't beg them," he said. "I assume they'll call if they need me."

Meanwhile, Zahn has taken a job at The 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 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, The Master's College will be hard-pressed to land top prospects. Pitchers with 90-m.p.h. fastballs usually don't end up there.

"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 pitchers whose fastballs aren't that fast, 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 Philadelphia Phillies when he graduated from high school, but he headed, instead, for the University of Michigan. He was then drafted each of his four years in college--by the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Dodgers. He signed with the Dodgers midway through his senior year.

From 1968 to 1973, though, it seemed that Zahn played in every city where the Dodgers had a farm team.

But he didn't get called up to the majors, not even after posting a combined 19-3 record for El Paso and Albuquerque in 1972.

The problem, according to Zahn, was that he didn't throw hard enough. The Dodgers were looking for a left-hander reminiscent of Sandy Koufax. Zahn had a drooping fastball like Johnny Podres'.

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