As a redshirt junior for a Memphis Tiger team that finished 30-27, Zurcher led the entire country with a .443 batting average. The shortstop became the first Tiger since Dan Uggla (now an Atlanta Brave) in 2001 to earn All-America recognition from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball/Louisville Slugger. Zurcher finished his college career with 252 hits (second all-time at the U of M) and graduated with a degree in management (he posted a 3.58 GPA). Earlier this month, Zurcher became only the third Tiger — after DeAngelo Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts — to be named Conference USA’s Athlete of the Year.
Last month, the New York Mets selected Zurcher in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft. Assigned to the Mets’ Rookie League affiliate in Kingsport, Tennessee, Zurcher finds himself playing home games merely 100 miles from his hometown of Knoxville. If he can excel in the northeast corner of the Volunteer State as he did in the southwest, playing time in the Big Apple may be in his near future.
“My last [college] season was unbelievable,” he says. “I started out really well. About halfway through, I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna keep this up.’ I was seeing the ball really well. Toward the end of the year, I thought I was struggling, but the average was just so high, it was hard to keep it up.”
Zurcher attributes a conservative approach — when it comes to power numbers — for maintaining a groove over more than 50 games. “I knew I wasn’t going to hit any home runs,” he says. “I stuck to my game, and stayed in the middle of the field. Didn’t try and swing too big; just squared the ball up.”
The batting championship is a special personal achievement, but one that hasn’t exactly been a calling card during Zurcher’s early days as a pro. “I really enjoyed playing at Memphis,” he says, “so to go down with a record like that is a dream come true. I went in to win championships, and knew individual stuff would come with the success of the team. It just happened that this last year, we got to 30 wins and I was able to have a great year. It means a lot to me.”
Many of Zurcher’s new teammates don’t even know about the batting title. And fans in Kingsport seem to be more interested in Zurcher’s roots than his college accomplishments. “I didn’t come up here expecting them to know,” he says. “When they do recognize you, it’s nice. I played high school baseball against the high school here, so fans know me from that more than what I did in college.”
Zurcher was taken aback when told he’d joined U of M icons Williams and Douglas-Roberts as C-USA Athlete of the Year honorees. “It was a big-time shock,” he says. “I was in a conference heavy on football and basketball. To be a shortstop and go down with DeAngelo Williams and CDR . . . those two were the best at what they do.”
The adjustment to pro ball, according to Zurcher, is largely an adjustment to pitching consistency. There’s no off day in the Appalachian League when it comes to a hurler’s arsenal. “I’ve played with wooden bats in the past, so that hasn’t been that hard,” he says. “But all the pitchers are talented. It’s realizing you can only hit certain things at this level. Sometimes pitchers make their pitch, and you just can’t hit it. Everybody can throw 90 mph, a few in the high 80s. And they control it better. They throw it where they want and when they want.” (Zurcher was hit in the head by a pitch — a curve ball that didn’t break, as he remembers it — on July 12th at Danville and has missed 12 games as he nurses symptoms of a concussion. He expects to be back in the lineup this week.)
Through Sunday Zurcher was hitting .288 in 16 games. In addition to becoming a Mets fan (he grew up cheering for the Braves and Red Sox), Zurcher realizes his climb up the minor-league ladder will begin with strengthening his frame (6’1”, 170 lbs.). “I need to play the game hard every day,” he says. “And when the offseason comes, I need to get in the weight room, and get bigger, stronger. I’ve got to get stronger to be where I want to be.”
Image by Allen Greene
Three newly published sports books are worth considering as you pack your bags for the beach or campsite, the dog days of summer still ahead.
• Stan Musial: An American Life by George Vecsey (Ballantine/ESPN) He didn’t marry a Hollywood star or set a record still talked about 70 years later. He never hit .400 or flew fighter planes in two wars. No, Stan Musial merely played 22 seasons as an exceptional baseball player and human being. Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday and been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Musial gets the treatment he deserves from Vecsey.
The book, when compared with your average sports biography, is beautifully bland. Musial’s playing career was all but devoid of controversy. He was admired in St. Louis, of course, but revered in every National League city the Cardinals would visit. (He was given his iconic nickname — “The Man” — by Dodger fans in Brooklyn.) He married Lillian Labash in 1940 and remains married to her today. He didn’t have a drinking problem and the only time the Cardinals considered trading him, Musial reacted with dignity, though his hurt feelings were as evident as his distinctive batting stance.
Several of Vecsey’s sources for the book warned the writer that there would be no dirt to uncover in a chronicle of his subject’s 90 years. But the author managed to find one story, one case where Stan the Man acted out of his “perfect knight” character. That chapter is three pages long. The other 334 are a proper tribute.
• Epic by Matthew Cronin (Wiley) Aside from boxing, no sport thrives on individual confrontation like tennis. Unlike boxers, though, tennis rivals can face each other five to ten times in a single year. With apologies to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, no pair of tennis stars captured worldwide attention in quite the same way Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe did in 1980 and 1981. With playing styles — and personalities — as different as their roots, the Swede and New Yorker found each other in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in consecutive years. This was Ali-Frazier across a net, Affirmed-Alydar in sneakers. Four times in 15 months.
Cronin alternates chapters on his subjects’ background and rise to prominence with accounts of the 1980 championship matches (each player winning one). And he manages to place the rivalry in the context of world events that made sports a nice distraction (i.e. the Iran hostage crisis and the U.S. boycott of the Soviet Olympic Games). Contemporary players Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis play big roles in the tale, the former as a foil to both Borg and McEnroe, the latter as the hard-living social maestro who brought fun to the lives of two men inherently withdrawn. (McEnroe’s oncourt outbursts are nothing if not ironic considering his shyness as a young player.)
Nadal has already won more Grand Slam events (10) than did McEnroe (7) and will catch Borg (11), perhaps as early as this year’s U.S. Open. So the debate over the “Greatest of All Time” will remain centered around the Spaniard and Federer. But for sheer heat, volume, and depth, no rivalry in the history of tennis can touch Borg-McEnroe. The fact that such a good book has been written 30 years after they last played is fitting testament.
• Tales from the Dallas Mavericks Locker Room by Jaime Aron (Sports Publishing) The Dallas Mavericks and I go way back. To June 1983, when the three-year-old franchise drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s Dale Ellis. Over the 28 years I’ve followed the team, the highs (a 67-win season) and lows (an 11-win season) have each run to extremes. Aron’s collection of stories and profiles covers it all, including the actual birth of the franchise during a time when the NBA had a fraction of the media coverage it enjoys today.
This book is not for bandwagon-riders. Among its 225 pages, exactly five are devoted to the team’s 2010-11 championship season. You’ll read as much about Mark Aguirre in this tome as you will Dirk Nowitzki. Much more on Rolando Blackman than Jason Kidd. But it makes for a fun read of a professional team’s rise, ugly fall, and rise again to the pinnacle of the basketball world. Athletes often mention “the journey” when reflecting on a first championship. As Tales exemplifies, journeys are often measured not by years, but by decades.
The tour starts at Daytona International Speedway on the east coast of the Sunshine State. Sorry Indy, but this is the Great American Race, after all. Open-wheel racing is dynamic, particularly the Formula 1 variety. But when it comes to burned rubber and paint-tradin', nothing compares to NASCAR, particularly the golden era of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, when Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt took as much pride in the way they drove as their place at the finish. You decide if NASCAR is better or worse minus the southern culture that gripped the sport for two generations.
We'll change out of our Budweiser t-shirts before stopping at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the Masters. I might even put on a tie if it will buy us a walk up the 18th fairway. The tournament created by Bobby Jones and conquered by Arnie, Jack, and Tiger. The color green in its most beautiful setting.
We'll have to spend the night in Louisville, Kentucky, after visiting Churchill Downs. Because I'm not stopping with one mint julep. While the erstwhile "sport of kings" struggles to compete in today's media jungle, the Kentucky Derby somehow retains the prestige it first established in the 19th century. There are few automatic tear-jerkers in sports, but hearing "My Old Kentucky Home" as the thoroughbreds make their way to the gate on the first Saturday in May is one.
We'll next make a stop in the midwest, to stroll the hardwood at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. The Jayhawk program was founded by Dr. James Naismith, the man who famously nailed those peach baskets to the walls of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, inventing the game we love as basketball. Among the players Naismith coached at Kansas was Phog Allen, who later coached Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, men who made basketball religion in North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively. That could well be the Mount Rushmore of college hoops (though a fifth likeness would have to be carved for John Wooden). If basketball was born in Springfield, it grew up in Lawrence.
Our lone west-coast tour will be of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Long before there was a BCS, at a time when reaching a bowl game virtually demanded an undefeated season, the Rose Bowl was the destination of choice for every college football team in the country. (The first game in the current stadium was played on January 1, 1923. In 1947, the game began hosting the Pac 10 and Big 10 champions each year.) Still "The Granddaddy of Them All," the Rose Bowl somehow remains above the hype of modern college football.
We'll turn back east, but stick to the gridiron as we stop at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Home to the Green Bay Packers since 1957, this NFL stadium has no roof, natural grass, and more "frozen tundra" references than any venue south of Canada should claim. But it was the home of Lombardi. And Nitschke. And Starr. And, yes, Favre. The Packers are owned by the people of Green Bay, for crying out loud. The NFL should conduct every meeting of the ongoing labor dispute at Lambeau. The ghosts would be screaming.
The House that Ruth Built has been destroyed. (The cost to build the new Yankee Stadium would make even the Babe blush.) And I can't bring myself to tour a ballpark known primarily for a century of losing. So we'll head all the way to Cooperstown, New York, for some time well spent at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Whether it's a hat worn by Sandy Koufax or a bat swung by Ted Williams -- maybe a glove donned by Willie Mays? -- this shrine houses one goose-bump-inducing gallery after another. You'll have to guide yourself as I stare at Stan Musial's plaque.
Finally, we're heading to central Vermont and the Dog River. Snaking alongside two-lane highways, dirt roads, and an occasional covered bridge, the Dog is an amateur fisherman's delight (but also appreciated by those handy with a fly). The Green Mountain State in July is so lovely Mother Nature slammed the region with the harshest of winters just to keep it from becoming North Florida. The most American of sporting endeavors is a day with the sound of a river as our soundtrack, all buttons, screens, and engines in our rearview. Whether or not the trout are biting, this stop will mean a tour fulfilled.