Zany Zaun hopes to make Orioles and fans cry uncle

February 22, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- You should have seen him in 1989, playing in the Florida Instructional League. Greg Zaun told everyone he'd be going to The Show, but it took him so long to get his first hit, they stopped the game and gave him the ball.

In a sense, you've already seen him. The way he walks, the way he talks, the way he catches, he's just like his uncle, Rick Dempsey. His early minor-league teammates even called him "Red" -- short for baseball's rear-end slang for hothead.

Come to think of it, you definitely saw him, if you were watching nTC closely at the All-Star Game last July. Zaun, then at Double-A Bowie, was the catcher in the celebrity home-run-hitting contest and the bullpen catcher for the National League.

Remember how hot it was on workout day? Zaun was extra miserable, suffering from food poisoning. When comedian Bill Murray decided to use him as a foil, he didn't even realize what was going on.

"He leans over to me and starts looking at me," Zaun recalled. "I'm like, 'What's wrong?' He's like, 'I'm going push you over.' I said, 'Why do you want to push me over?' He said, 'Just let me push you on the ground.' "

Then came the game.

"I caught Lee Smith that night," Zaun said. "That was unbelievable. He's sitting there watching the game. When he realized he wasn't going to get in, he said, 'OK, rook, let's get it on. I don't want to go to the ballpark tomorrow.' "

As usual, Zaun "big-leagued" it.

"OK," he said. "Whatever you want to do."

Oh, you're going to see him, all right -- even though he was only a 17th-round draft pick, even though he's only 5 feet 10, 170 pounds.

Zaun, 22, figures to catch every day at Triple-A this season. By this time next year, he should be ready to back up his outlandish prediction from the Instructional League.

"He came in, he couldn't have been 145 pounds, and all he talked about was how he was going to be in the big leagues," said Orioles minor-league pitching coordinator Tom Brown. "He couldn't even get his bat through the strike zone."

That's Zaunie, as in zany, just like his Uncle Rick. Remember Dempsey's band? Zaun tried to start one of his own with Double-A teammates T. R. Lewis and Jimmy Roso. Never mind that neither he nor Lewis knew how to play guitar.

The project collapsed when the Orioles released Roso, the group's keyboard player and only accomplished musician. "We're kind of in shambles right now," Zaun said. "The Pitch is not really functional."

"There is no band," Lewis said, laughing. "He's dreaming. It never really began. You've got to have talent to have a band."

"We might make a comeback," Zaun replied, ever optimistic.

To be sure, confidence is not one of Zaunie's problems. He adds an extra "g" to his first name when he signs autographs, because, when Zaun was 13, his grandfather told him it made for a better signature.

Yet, for all his swagger, Zaun struggled to reach this point. He shaved his head to change his luck when he hit .130 at Single-A Wausau in his first pro season. And he feared his career was going nowhere when he hit .251 at Single-A Frederick in 1992.

"I was just a mess," Zaun said. "Mentally, the game was beating me. I was struggling for the first time in my life. I had never been in the position when I wasn't top dog.

"I had off-the-field problems with my girlfriend. I was homesick. I wasn't getting along real well with my mom. We didn't speak for months. It was tough."

Zaun's mother, Cherie, is Dempsey's sister -- "she's a feisty gal," Zaun moaned, "exactly like her brother." A former professional golfer, she gave up her LPGA Tour card to raise children. These days, she and Greg are doing fine.

Zaun turned himself around by reading two books -- "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and "The Mental Game of Baseball." He hit .306 at Bowie last season, .256 during a brief stint at Rochester and .366 in the Arizona Fall League.

Still, he's so small, it's difficult to envision him as a major-league regular. Zaun is a switch-hitter and fine receiver, but the Orioles' starting catcher, Chris Hoiles, outweighs him by 45 pounds.

Can you imagine Zaun trying to hold his ground with Frank Thomas rumbling toward home? Bowie manager Don Buford can. He saw Zaun survive numerous crashes with bigger players last season.

"You could tell him, 'Zaunie, give 'em the old swipe tag, the old matador, don't block the plate,' " Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said, chuckling. "He'd look at you like you were crazy. He'd straddle the plate and block it. He wouldn't give in to anybody."

That's Zaunie.

The heir to a legacy.

The Dempsey of the '90s.

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