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Zaun Catching On to Life as a Pro

August 09, 1990|GARY KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gregg Zaun thought he knew what to expect when he signed a professional baseball contract with the Baltimore Orioles at the end of last summer.

Zaun's uncle, Dodger veteran Rick Dempsey, had counseled him about the road that a ballplayer, particularly a catcher, must travel to reach the major leagues.

Still, as Zaun's first pro season winds down, the former St. Francis High star said his rookie season has not been devoid of surprises.

"It's a lot tougher to play everyday than I thought it would be," said Zaun, who is the starting catcher for the Bluefield (W.V.) Orioles, Baltimore's affiliate in the Appalachian Rookie League. "I don't have quite the spring in my legs that I thought I would.

"When you play every day, you're always tired. You have to eat right and you can't stay out late if you want to be able to play the next day."

Entering the week, Zaun, 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, was batting .323 with one home run and 10 runs batted in with 24 games to play.

Zaun, however, considers himself a defensive specialist. Though just 18, he has been entrusted by the organization to call all of the pitches for a staff composed, almost entirely, of former college and junior college players.

"He's one of the best catchers in the league," Bluefield Manager Gus Gil said. "For his age, it's amazing the way he handles pitchers.

"In that regard, he's very mature, he knows how to set up hitters."

Zaun was selected The Times' Glendale-area player of the year in 1989 after he batted .475 with 32 RBIs and eight doubles for St. Francis. He was recruited by several Division I schools, including USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount and Oklahoma, but he signed a letter of intent with Texas.

Zaun's longing to be a Longhorn probably affected his selection in the amateur draft. The Orioles selected Zaun in the 17th round, then spent the summer trying to persuade him to start his professional career.

Zaun, who played for the United States junior national team at the world championships in Canada last summer, was set to attend college until he found out that Texas had also recruited another catcher who was a junior college All-American.

"(Texas) told me I was going to come in and play right away," Zaun said. "When I found out they were also bringing in someone else who fit their mold and was sure to play, I decided to sign with the Orioles and take my chances."

Because he signed after the regular season, the Orioles sent Zaun to their winter Instructional League in Florida.

Zaun caught bullpen workouts for Ben McDonald, the No. 1 draft pick in the country last year, and played daily against the best prospects in other organizations.

"It was kind of tough because I was playing against guys from high (Class) A and double-A teams," Zaun said. "But by the end of Instructional League, I was hitting the ball pretty good."

Because the Orioles had eliminated their extended spring training program this year, Zaun was assigned to Class-A Wausau (Wis.) in the Midwest League following regular spring training. In June, when the short-season rookie leagues began play, he was sent to Bluefield.

Traveling through the Appalachian League to outposts throughout Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, Zaun has become acclimated to life as a professional. And he's not the only family member riding the buses from town to town.

Zaun's cousin, John Dempsey, is a catcher for Johnson City (Tenn.), the St. Louis Cardinals' affiliate in the same league.

"We've played once at their park and once at ours," Zaun said. "My mom was out here when we played them and it was like a big family reunion."

Zaun is hoping to follow his uncle, Rick, into the major leagues. He said his first season as a pro has introduced him to many of the things he'll have to know to climb through the minor leagues.

"You can't get too excited when things are going good or too upset when they're going bad," Zaun said. "People think you can give 100% all the time, but when you play everyday that's very difficult so you just try to do your best.

"You have to hustle and sacrifice yourself and do the things necessary to win ballgames. You have to be a team player and that's the only thing I know how to do."

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