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RailCats preview: After ups, downs, Clay Zavada eyes return to bigs

Clay ZavadJohn Hester

Clay Zavada, John Hester

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Opening Series

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Updated: June 18, 2013 7:48AM



GARY — With a controlled motion, Clay Zavada angles his left hand and arm upward. He then abruptly thrusts skyward, then just as abruptly toward the ground.

The demonstration serves to reinforce the words encapsulating his journey — if that’s even possible.

“I’m just trying to stay on the light incline, going up, but slowly and steady — get better every day,” Zavada says. “I’ll take that over the ups and the downs, because that is not a fun road trip.”

Zavada reached the major leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009. He also sat out the 2007 season after the death of his father, and missed almost all of 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery (not to equate the two by any means).

And now he’s a member of the RailCats, after having been a non-roster invitee.

Zavada pronounced himself healthy, saying his arm strength has returned post-surgery, with his challenges more mental than physical at this stage. More mature and perhaps wiser — and spurred by his recent fatherhood — he’s optimistic he can once again attain the heights. And, if not, at least the Streator, Ill., native will know he made the effort.

“I didn’t want to have any regrets,” said Zavada, who turns 29 on June 28. “I’m still pretty young, and I still feel like I can really get back. My arm feels good; I just have to get more comfortable, more confident out there. But I didn’t want to wonder ‘what if,’ I didn’t want to be that guy who’s 35, 36 years old, and kick myself in the butt for just throwing in the towel.”

If he needed extra incentive, it was provided in the form of his daughter, Chloe, who was born on March 22.

“That’s given me a lot of inspiration to get my butt in gear and make a real push for her, and give her a good life,” Zavada said. “It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me, being a dad. At first I was little surprised and a little scared, but it’s been absolutely awesome.

“That little girl, you’d do anything for her. That’s mainly why I’m here — for myself and for her and for my girlfriend.”

Zavada attended the RailCats’ tryout, after initially having been in contact with Greg Tagert about a month earlier to let the manager know he “was serious about doing something with baseball.” The left-hander was invited back for the team’s exhibition against the “Local Stars,” and pitched again in its final tune-up against Schaumburg on Monday. And he continued to impress. The parties conferred again to make sure it indeed would be a good match, and he decided to sign with the team.

“You have to love it here, because you get worked pretty good,” Zavada, who also experienced independent baseball with the Frontier League’s Southern Illinois Miners in 2008, said with a laugh. “I bought into the running program here, and all the stuff that I haven’t done pretty much since junior college (at Illinois Valley Community College). He’s got a program, and that’s what I signed up for. He was up front with me about it, and it’s been great.

“He gave me an opportunity, which I appreciate, because I really like the game and I want to keep playing. I love Gary, and I love the RailCats, but I don’t want to just be satisfied as a good RailCat. I have aspirations to get to where I was.”

The Diamondbacks drafted Zavada in the 30th round in 2006, out of then-Division II SIU-Edwardsville. In rookie ball, he promptly proceeded to help Missoula win the Pioneer League title.

But on Dec. 28, his father died at the age of 55 after suffering a heart attack. His mother, Linda, had died of cancer when he was 3, and Clarence “Big Clay” Zavada had raised him and older brother Dustin, who at the time of their father’s passing was serving in the Navy, on carrier in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I got derailed in my life,” Zavada said.

“Any time I was on the baseball diamond, my dad was happy, he was proud. And that’s another reason I play.”

But not at that point.

Zavada told the Diamondbacks he wasn’t ready to report for the start of spring training, which they understood. But by the time he was ready in the middle of the summer — after also having broken his hand and having to rehab from the injury — it was too late. And in November of 2007, the Diamondbacks officially released him.

“It’s a business — I get that,” Zavada said. “I didn’t have any animosity, I wasn’t mad. I didn’t show up. Regardless of circumstances, they had to do their thing and move on.”

And so did Zavada.

That fall, he had resumed taking classes at SIU-Edwardsville; after Zavada got drafted, his father had made him promise he would eventually go back to get his degree. Through the spring of 2008, Zavada attended school — graduating with a degree in business, proudly mentioning his 3.5 GPA — and delivered furniture on the side. He drove from Streator to Edwardsville on Monday morning, went to classes through Wednesday night, then headed back home for his part-time job on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

It was also that spring that a buddy convinced Zavada to try out for Southern Illinois in the Frontier League, despite the closest he had come to pitching competitively was playing slow-pitch softball. But he made the Miners roster. And after going 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 12 games in about a month, the Diamondbacks signed him again, sending him to South Bend in the Class-A Midwest League.

All he did was go 3-1 with a 0.51 ERA in 24 games, allowing two earned runs in 35 1/3 innings with 54 strikeouts and five walks.

“I was locked in,” Zavada said. “It was unbelievable.”

Zavada then began the 2009 season at Double-A Mobile and, in May, earned a promotion to the bigs. He was a valuable part of the Diamondbacks bullpen, going 3-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 49 appearances, striking out 52 in 51.0 innings with 24 walks.

“It’s a pretty big jump in a year (from the Frontier League to the major leagues) — that was kind of cool,” said Zavada, who no longer sports the Rollie Fingers-esque handlebar that won him the American Mustache Institute’s esteemed Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year award in 2009. “It happened fast, and it was fun, and it ended quick too.”

Indeed, he struggled the following season in spring training, and was sent to Triple-A Reno, where he allowed 10 runs in five games covering 3.0 innings with 10 walks and two strikeouts.

With that performance, Zavada sensed something was wrong, and it turned out he had a torn ligament in his pitching elbow, requiring what he called “this stupid surgery.”

Even though he said he wasn’t fully recovered, Zavada pitched relatively well at Double-A in 2011, helping Mobile win the Southern League title. That offseason, though, the Diamondbacks let him walk, and he later signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds with an invitation to their major league camp. But he admittedly didn’t pitch well in spring training, and they released him in April of 2012. After he was home for a month, the St. Louis Cardinals then picked him up, and he posted a 12.60 ERA in 10.0 innings over nine appearances for their Triple-A Memphis affiliate, before they released him, too.

“I was burned out,” Zavada said. “Just working, working, working, it didn’t really seem like it was adding up to what I was getting out of it.”

But after some reflection, focusing on his passion and providing for his family, Zavada resolved to take another crack.

“I’ve been at the top and bottom of my abilities, and it tests you more as a man than as a player as far as how you handle yourself,” he said. “I’ve learned that you have to treat the good and the bad the same. I was good at handling myself when things were good, but I’ve struggled with the bad. You get frustrated, you try too hard and you dig yourself a deeper hole. You beat yourself up mentally and get down on yourself so much that you really don’t have a chance. If you don’t give yourself a chance, how is somebody else going to give you a chance?

“But through all the ups and downs, I think I’ve finally learned to keep it simple, and that’s what I’m trying to do this year. So just love the game, have fun playing it, play it the right way, work hard. And if I still have something that somebody likes, that’s fine too.”



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