PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Jeff Zimmerman had never faced a lineup this good in France, the Northern League or a Canadian beer league. Not even close.
He was trying to get out some of the best hitters on the World Series champion New York Yankees. But as he's done ever since signing with the Texas Rangers, Zimmerman met the challenge.
The 26-year-old right-hander got five of his six outs on strikeouts and allowed just one hit and a walk, another example of why he's the team's biggest spring surprise and one of baseball's best feel-good stories.
"It's been a pleasure to watch him pitch," Texas manager Johnny Oates said. "It's a very interesting situation for us to have someone come on the scene like that, especially a pitcher. Pitching is so hard to find that to have him come through for us, boy, that would be a shot in the arm."
The dream of hearing such praise is what kept Zimmerman going during his six-year baseball journey through three countries. He almost ended up getting a "real" job and nearly lost his father, the man most responsible for helping him get close to the majors.
It began in 1993 when Zimmerman wasn't drafted coming out of Texas Christian University. The native of British Columbia, Canada, went 8-3 his senior year and impressed some major league scouts--but not enough.
So in 1994 Zimmerman followed a former coach and played for the Montpelier Barracudas in the south of France, probably as far away from the majors as he could've gotten.
The next year, he joined Team Canada with the hope of qualifying for the 1996 Olympics. Despite having home-field advantage, it lost to Nicaragua in the championship game in 1995, leaving Zimmerman without a place to play the following summer.
Instead of vying for gold in Atlanta, Zimmerman took the final courses for his master's degree in business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He kept his arm loose by playing in a summer beer league and looked for a 9-to-5 job.
But the Canadian economy was down and people weren't hiring. After a four-month search, Zimmerman decided to give baseball one more try.
"I realized baseball was the only thing I really loved doing," he said. "I thought I'd pour everything into it for a few years and see where it took me. If it didn't work out, I knew I could look myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had and it wasn't meant to be."
In the independent Northern League he went 9-2 for Winnipeg and led the league in ERA. He was the league's rookie of the year and Baseball America magazine put him on its independent leagues postseason all-star team.
Nonetheless, only Texas showed interest when Zimmerman sent his resume to all major league teams.
"I got a couple of rejection letters--saying thanks, but no thanks--and a lot of teams didn't respond," he said.
At the Rangers' minor league spring training camp last season, he earned a spot as a reliever with the Class A Charlotte Rangers.
The joy was quickly tempered by bad news from home. In April, his father went into a coma while fighting cancer.
Bill Zimmerman is the reason Jeff and his younger brother Jordan, who is in camp with Seattle, could become major leaguers. He spent about $100,000 of his own money supporting a traveling amateur team for which they played in Canada, then left home to follow Jordan to Brenham, Texas, when he got a scholarship to play for Blinn Junior College. The boys' mother, Sharon, refused to leave and they divorced.
While his father was in a Temple, Texas, hospital, Jeff Zimmerman went 2-1 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 games at Charlotte to earn a promotion to Double-A Tulsa after just six weeks.
At the same time, Bill Zimmerman was near death. Jeff went to the hospital to tell his dad he'd made it to Double-A and thank him for all he had done.
His father touched his hand and winked, giving the family hope that he was going to recover. A relieved Zimmerman earned his first Double-A victory the next day. He finished the year 3-1 with a 1.29 ERA and nine saves as the Drillers won the Texas League.
Zimmerman became the organization's minor league pitcher of the year and was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he went 1-0 with a 1.73 ERA and a save to earn an invitation to the major league camp this spring.