The remarkable lefthander out of Streator, IL started out his major league career with the Diamondbacks by throwing eighteen straight shutout innings spread out over 19 games in which he appeared. But that’s not the remarkable thing about this young handlebar mustached (the result of a Class-A contest) lefthander. Clay was drafted by Arizona out Southern Illinois Edwardsville in the 30th round of the 2006 draft. As a 22 year old, he struckout 51 batters in 49′ innings pitched with a respectable 3.47 ERA in Rookie Ball.
But then his career took a detour, his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack while working at a YMCA, leaving nobody to take over the house & the family farm in Streator, Clay’s brother was in the Navy, and their mother died when Clay was just three years old. So Clay rolled up his sleeves and took over the store, temporarily abandoning his pitching career. Clay said, “My dad worked and died for the place I’m at right now, so I felt like I had more important things to attend to than baseball.” One of those things was return to college to complete his education. “I had promised to my dad that I’d get my degree, so that was something I had to do, both for myself and for him,” said Zavada. “There are a lot of idiots like me out there who go to Division II schools and don’t get a signing bonus. And a lot of ‘em are out of the sport by age 26 or 27, with no degree and no idea what to do. Playing baseball is great, but you’ve got to have a backup plan.”
The 2007 season may have been a “year off” when it came to baseball, but considering the circumstances, it was anything but relaxing. “I wasn’t Cadillac-ing, believe me,” said Zavada. “I was driving 200 miles in order to go to school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then delivering furniture the rest of the week and giving pitching lessons on Sunday. It was real stressful, but I got my best GPA ever. It’s amazing how well you can do in college when you don’t have 30 guys to hang around with every night.”
Once everything was back in order one of Clay’s college buddies talked him into pitching for the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League, there he posted a nifty 1.72 ERA, and he also caught the eye once again of the Diamondbacks, who worked out a deal to reacquire Zavada. The Miners worked out a deal with Arizona whereby Clay could resign with the D-Backs without charging the club a purchase price, Arizona released struggling firstbaseman Brad Miller, who signed with the Miners, and it was a done deal. Clay was on his way.
But then there was another bump in the road, but this kid wasn’t about to be denied. He gave up a walkoff home run in Dayton on Thirsty Thursday, there were 10,000 fans going crazy, smoke was shooting from the nose of a giant dragon, and a 16-foot bullhorn was going off. Zavada says, “part of the fun of this game is getting your butt smacked, but then getting the chance to go out there and redeem yourself.”
Redeem himself, he did. He won the MiLBY for Class A Reliever of the Year, and for good reason. Despite the fact that he didn’t make his 2008 affiliated debut until June 21, the 24-year-old southpaw still put up numbers that could reasonably be called “otherworldly.” Over 24 appearances with the South Bend Silver Hawks, Zavada went 3-1 with eight saves and an 0.51 ERA. Opponents hit just .056 against him and he ended the season by hurling 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
Over the winter the D-backs added him to the 40-man roster, and when they needed a reliever in May they called him up from Double-A Mobile. Zavada picked up the win in his first big league game and did not allow an earned run in his first 18 innings. “Sometimes you ask people how they are doing and they tell you they are living the dream,” Zavada said. “They’re not really living the dream. There’s really only one percent that is really living the dream. I’m living the dream, my dream. Not many people get to do that in their lifetime. Life’s not fair. Life’s not easy. So I’m just thankful. It’s a blessing from God that I’m in this situation. There’s only 750 or so of us. That’s pretty unique. So you had better have fun, you had better enjoy it and you’d better give it all you’ve got. Otherwise you’ll regret it. And I don’t want to regret it.” It’s that attitude and approach to the game that has made Zavada so popular among his veteran teammates. “Clay definitely is one of those guys that lightens everyone up,” veteran left-hander Doug Davis said. “Seeing him wide-eyed every day, ready to pitch, ready to do whatever we ask him to do, he’s just always very humble even though he went 18 innings without giving up a run. It’s fun to have a guy like that in the clubhouse.” Said closer Chad Qualls, “He recognizes that it’s very special to be a big leaguer and he’s had a lot taken away from him, so to have this opportunity given to him, he just relishes it.” Nothing encapsulates Zavada’s journey better than the day he got to meet Ken Griffey Jr. prior to a game against the Mariners at Safeco Field. It was a big thrill and he clearly reveled in it. Later in the day, though, he was all business on the mound as he got Griffey to fly out. “He’s a cool guy,” Zavada said, an autographed Griffey jersey hanging in his locker behind him. “That’s good because sometimes you look forward to meeting someone and you can be disappointed.” Zavada does not expect his appreciation for his big leagues life to change. After all, when just over a year ago you were delivering furniture and struggling to make ends meet, the experiences you have in the Major Leagues are a non-stop high. “It’s amazing here. You play for two weeks and you’re like, this is sweet, this is awesome. And then you get a check and you’re like, holy cow. It’s pretty cool. It’s the best job in the world.”
So today I’m watching the Cubs game against the Diamondbacks, Arizona jumped out to a 10-0 wind, with the aid of a 10 MPH wind blowing out, unusual on a brisk, damp, fall day. There were legions of fans from Streator, IL wearing handlebar mustaches, hoping to see their very own, in action. They got their wish when a fair ball was rocketed toward the Diamondback bullpen, Clay fielded it, egg on his face. But his fandom got their wish, as Zavada came on to close out the game, pitching the 9th inning, without allowing a run, preserving an 12-3 win.
Tags: Clay Zavada
, Streeter IL