Hanging in a Zaun virtue Catching a spot: For Gregg Zaun, who hung upside down as a kid to lengthen his big-league odds, his bid to stay with O's just another obstacle.

February 26, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Gregg Zaun has spent a lifetime trying to get bigger. As a kid who didn't break 100 pounds until he was in the ninth grade, he wanted to grow, his eagerness compelling him to hang from chin-up bars in the hope he would stretch.

As an adult and a catcher for the Orioles, he wants to grow in the eyes of those who decide where he will play, when he will play. Zaun wants to stay in the majors, and for a long time.

"When I walk away from this game," Zaun said, "I want people to say that guy could really catch. I'm not looking to get into the Hall of Fame, and I don't care if I make an All-Star team. I want people to say, that guy could really run a game from behind the plate, he could really run a staff."

For now, however, he's a second-year player attempting to establish himself for a whole new set of bosses. Orioles manager Davey Johnson has never really seen him play, and new general manager Pat Gillick hasn't seen Zaun perform on a regular basis. They weren't here last season, when Zaun batted .260 for the Orioles, with three homers and 14 RBIs, after being called up June 19.

Gillick is looking for another backup catcher, which he says isn't a reflection on Zaun's ability. Gillick is preparing for the possibility that No. 1 catcher Chris Hoiles or Zaun gets hurt.

Unfortunately for Zaun, if the Orioles get another catcher, that player likely will stay in the majors, and Zaun could be headed back to Triple-A. For instance, the Orioles have talked to Toronto about Randy Knorr, who has similar credentials to Zaun.

But there is one major difference: Knorr is out of options and cannot be sent to the minors without being passed through waivers; Zaun, 24, still has one option left and can be sent to the minors.

Zaun wants a major-league job outright, options or no options, and he wants Johnson and Gillick to want him in the majors, options or no options. "If [Gillick] is looking for a guy in case Hoiles or I gets hurt, that's fine," Zaun said. "If he's looking for a replacement for me, I don't see why."

But, he says, if he needs to prove himself again, that's fine. Zaun's been doing that his entire life, because he's never been as big as the prototypical catcher.

He's wanted to catch for as long as he can remember, to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Rick Dempsey, longtime catcher for the Orioles. But when he played Little League, he had to beg his coach for a chance. He figures he wasn't any bigger than 4 feet 6 then, the gear overwhelming his body like a garish Halloween outfit.

Zaun tried to figure out ways to get bigger. He would hang from his bar right side up, and then upside down, right to the point of passing out. Gravity, he hoped, would help him gain an inch or two. His parents encouraged him, steering his energy to more useful pursuits. Maybe if you run, they told him, maybe that will help you grow. Maybe if you took out the trash, that would help you grow. "I tried everything," he said.

Zaun also started switch-hitting, the result of listening to his Uncle Rick, a right-handed hitter, complain over the holidays about having to platoon with Dan Graham. Zaun, by now getting the chance to catch, figured he'd play more in the big leagues if he switch-hit, when he got there.

In the ninth grade, Zaun finally got a growth spurt, and became a catcher full time, enough to draw interest from scouts. But when the Orioles selected him in the 17th round, Zaun understood their interest in him was more as an organizational player -- a guy who could play in the minors for a few years -- and as public relations material. He sensed nobody really looked at him as a prospect, because he wasn't that big (Zaun is listed at 5-10 and 170 pounds).

"They didn't treat me any differently [in his first years in the minors]," Zaun said. "They waited for me to fail."

Zaun hung on, though. Already possessing good defensive skills, Zaun improved as a hitter. He batted .274 for Single-A Kane County, and .306 for Double-A Bowie in 1993.

A year later, Zaun stumbled, batting .237 for Rochester. If he was going to progress as far as his hitting allowed, that season was a potential career-breaker. But during spring training last year, coach Lee May helped him change from hitting off his front foot to hitting off his back foot, and Zaun had a respectable season.

"You wouldn't believe the progress that young man made," said Orioles farm director Syd Thrift. "You have to give him a lot of credit."

It's a new season now, with a new manager, and Zaun is back to making a case for himself. "Fifteen years," Zaun said, predicting the length of his major-league career. "Fifteen years, and I've got to be a starter sometime. I'll play until I'm 40-something years old. I want to play here so badly."

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