Zinter's perseverance a major inspiration

New Padres hitting coach spent 14 seasons in Minors

March 9th, 2016

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For nearly three weeks, Padres first baseman Wil Myers has spent his mornings and afternoons hanging on the every word of first-year hitting coach Alan Zinter. Approach, setup, swing mechanics, they've just about covered it all.

Only recently, though, did Myers delve into a different topic, namely Zinter's own story, one steeped in perseverance, heartache and, finally, complete and absolute fulfillment.

Zinter played for seven organizations and spent 14 seasons in the Minor Leagues, nine of them in Triple-A, hanging on the precipice of realizing his dream, before he finally got the call to join the Astros in 2002 at the age of 34.

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Myers, after hearing this, was floored.

"He's put so much time into it [baseball] and to continue to keep pressing after 14 years, trying to get better each day … that's so inspiring," Myers said. "He's a guy you want to get behind because you know he is never going to give up on you."

Zinter's story and the ones he's accumulated along the way during a professional career that began in 1989, might well be part of the fabric of who he is and what he's about, but his purpose in Padres camp is to help others with their journey -- not talk about his.

"I am loving this," Zinter said the other day, on his way from the field to cage at the team's Spring Training facility. "It's just so fulfilling to be out here with these guys; being able to help them to prepare, work and compete and walking with these guys each day in their journeys."

But when players ask about Zinter's journey, he doesn't deflect them. There's a story here to share, a relatable story that can resonate with hardened veterans and rookies alike.

"They seem to gravitate to some of my stories," Zinter said, smiling. "… But I can't remember all of them off the top of my head. If you give me a subject, though, then it's like, 'well, here you go.'"

Stories? Zinter, 47, has a few of those.

Go back to June of 1989 and Zinter, a switch-hitting catcher -- if there's a scout's dream, it's that -- was selected with the 24th overall pick by the Mets out of the University of Arizona.

The feeling internally from the Mets was that he could move quickly through their system and not need much Minor League seasoning. Zinter, for his part, felt the same way.

At every ballpark he played in, those first few years in the Mets' system, Zinter made a mental note to himself.

"I remember always saying, 'Well, I will never see this place again,'" Zinter said.

But he did. Zinter spent three seasons in the Eastern League. He reached Triple-A with the Tigers at the age of 26, but couldn't crack through. He spent a season in Japan (1999) only to return to find himself back in Triple-A, waiting for a shot at the big leagues, a shot he felt might never come.

Zinter and his wife, Yvonne, even delayed beginning a family during Zinter's time in the Minor Leagues. They lived with his parents. They lived with her parents, as they saved enough money to buy a small home in Tucson. The grind wore on him, but never did Zinter consider doing anything else.

"There were lots of points where I felt like I was never going to make it," Zinter said. "But it was never a point where I was going to quit, where I decided that this was not worth it or that I was done."

It's a good thing he didn't.

On Father's Day of 2002, Zinter and his New Orleans Zephyrs teammates were in Colorado Springs for a day game. Zinter's father, also named Alan, was there, as was Yvonne, who sat in the stands holding their 19-month-old son, Michael.

Zinter, one month past his 34th birthday, ran out to take his spot defensively at first base. As he did, Zinter had an epiphany.

"We when I went out for the bottom of the first inning and they [infielders] were throwing the ball around," Zinter said. "I thought to myself, 'You know what? If I never make it, I'm fine with that.' I worked really hard and did everything that I needed to do to that point. What's funny is before that, I had never said that."

During the eighth inning of the game, Zephyrs manager Chris Maloney, now first-base coach for the Cardinals, removed Zinter from the game as part of a double-switch. Not thrilled with the decision, Zinter headed to one corner of the dugout to get a cup of water.

When he looked up, his life changed.

Maloney had worked his way down to where Zinter was, the eyes of players in the dugout, aware of what was about to happen, fixated on Zinter. They all knew. He had no idea.

Why would he?

"I'd seen what he had been through and seen how hard he worked. I was acutely aware [of Zinter's journey]," Maloney said Tuesday by phone from Florida. "It was a shot in the arm to tell him he was going to the big leagues."

Zinter was mobbed by his teammates, stunned by the news.

"I wasn't thinking about it. It had been 13 years and that call had never been for me," Zinter said. "When he [Maloney] stuck out his hand and said, 'Bull,' and he called everyone Bull, 'you're going to the big leagues,' I couldn't believe it.

"I mean, I couldn't feel my body. It didn't make sense to me. But it was amazing."

Two days later, Zinter was standing in the box at Miller Park in Milwaukee, facing Ben Sheets. He grounded a ball to Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson, who then flipped the ball to Sheets who was covering first base for an uneventful putout.

Uneventful, that is, to everyone but Zinter. He had finally made it. He was a big leaguer.

Zinter appeared in 39 games for the Astros that summer and 28 more with the D-backs in 2004, where he was a teammate of Padres manager Andy Green. His career average in the big leagues was .167 in 78 at-bats.

But those numbers only tell you a small part of Zinter's story. It wasn't just getting to the big leagues that made Zinter's story, but the journey it took to get there.

"It was all necessary and standing here today, I wouldn't change anything," Zinter said. "The experiences I have had, the relationships I built, the people that I have been able to play with and work with and now the players I'm able to touch.

"I feel more prepared than if I had played 10 years in the big leagues. I continue to learn, that's what keeps me going."

Green has enjoyed watching Zinter in this chapter of his life. His story was already a good one and Green thinks it will only get better.

"I knew he was never leaving the game, I was certain of that," Green said. "There are certain people who just love the game so much they're in it for life."