Tall Tales: The Andrew Zarzour Story
The popular radio talk show host couldn't believe his ears.
"You mean to tell me that you've got all these Letters of Intent just lying around your house from powerhouse basketball programs like Duke, Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, UConn, Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland and other D-1 schools, and you're not going to fill one of them out?"
"On National Signing Day for men's basketball, you're going to say 'No way, Jose!' to legends like Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan, Bobby Knight, Gary Williams?"
The young man on the other end paused for a second or two, then answered with a much meeker, yet confident tone.
"Actually sir," he said. "That's not quite how it's going to work. I don't really say, 'No way, Jose.' I'll just tell them, politely, 'No, sir' or 'No, thank you.'"
And with that humble response, Andrew Elias Zarzour — all 7-foot, 2-inches of him — declared his intentions. The high school senior would forgo the chance to play big-time college basketball and the lure of possible NBA riches down the road for a much-less certain path.
Since early childhood, Zarzour has wanted to be a pitcher in the Major Leagues. This dynasty will about "The Big Z's" pursuit of that goal.
"Even if I just face one batter in the bigs, I'll be fulfilled," Zarzour said. "Of course, I think I've got it what it takes to do a whole lot more than that."
With any luck, he'll have a long and prosperous career as one of the tallest (maybe THE tallest?) pitcher ever to hurl in the Majors. If not, I can always pull out my old copy of Tournament Dreams College Basketball and plug him into that game instead as a 25-year-old freshman.
Come along for the ride if this sounds interesting. Just get ready to crane your neck upward to get a good look at our main character...
Andrew Zarzour always figured he would be tall. His father, Phillip, stands 6-7 and his mom, Elizabeth, is just a shade under 6-0. Both were star athletes for the Bunn Wildcats, a rural 1A high school located in central North Carolina, about a 45-minute drive from Raleigh. And both had passed on their height genes to Andrew's older sister, Mary Katherine, who also neared 6-0 and earned a scholarship to play hoops at Peace College in Raleigh.
But Andrew never dreamed he'd top out over 7-0. He was 6-2 as a high school freshman and actually played point guard on the Bunn junior varsity team early in the season. He quickly moved up to varsity — and quickly outgrew several pairs of high tops over the coming year.
It was like someone put human Miracle Grow into his food. He stood a long and lanky 6-7 by his sophomore season and sprouted up to 6-11 going into his junior year. By his senior season with the Wildcats he crossed the magical 7-0 plateau. And he had filled out a decent amount, so that he weighed in the 210-215 range.
It seemed with every inch Zarzour grew, the number of college basketball coaches and scouts spotted in the little community of Bunn in Franklin County increased exponentially. Fans are still talking about the cold, steely stares that Coach K from Duke and Bill Guthridge from rival Carolina (who had just taken over for the legendary Dean Smith) exchanged when running into each other in a crowded Bunn High gym lobby one winter evening.
While Zarzour thrived in basketball, keeping a lot of the guard skills he had gained as a "little guy," baseball remained his first love. He spent a lot of time working on his pitching mechanics during hoops season, even when that meant tossing old beat-up baseballs through a tire or into a net on his family farm on frigid mornings or late at night after games.
And the baseball scouts flocked to his hometown to see "Andrew The Giant" as well, especially when word got around that he threw a 98 mph pitch during an Easter tournament game as a junior and consistently stayed in the high-80s to low-90s with his fastball.
College basketball and baseball coaches sometimes came together to Zarzour's school, offering "package deals" — incentives for him to do both sports at the next level. NC State hoops coach Herb Sendek and baseball coach Elliot Avent invited Zarzour to be the next Tim Stoddard, who enjoyed a successful Major League pitching career after helping lead the 1974 Wolfpack to an NCAA basketball title.
"I'll think about it," Zarzour told them politely "I really will."
It was his gentlemanly way of saying, "No way, Jose!"
The early period for basketball signees came and went in November 1998. No letters of intent were mailed or faxed to any college coaches by Zarzour, though rumors abounded that he had secretly committed to the UNC Tar Heels. Others had him giving a quiet verbal to Kentucky, who also invited him to be a basketball-baseball "combo" athlete.
But none of that was true, and Zarzour appeared to have closed the door on his basketball career when Bunn lost in the state championship game to Burlington Cummings at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill on a cold Saturday afternoon in early March 1999. Zarzour was a beast in the paint despite his team's loss, scoring 25 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, rejecting five shots and dunking a couple times over Cummings' best player in the fourth quarter.
"Sure you don't want to play in the ACC?" one reporter asked Zarzour in the post-game press conference. "You look at home here in Blue Heaven."
"Yeah, it was fun to play here and to represent our school by getting this far in the playoffs," Zarzour said. "But I'll feel even more at home on Monday.
"That's when baseball season starts..."
Zarzour's senior baseball season didn't quite go as well as his basketball season — or his junior year on the diamond. It took him about a month to get back into "baseball shape." His knees were sore sometimes, and he got knocked around pretty good a few times but still finished with a respectable record of 10-3, with an ERA of 2.45. He averaged about 12 strikeouts a game. He had four complete games and four shutouts.
Still, his baseball stock was through the roof because of one word — potential. (And 7-foot-2 potential at that).
"When he follows through on his delivery," a reporter from The Franklin Times newspaper wrote, "it's like he's close enough to the plate to grab the bat out of the hitter's hands before they can swing at his offering. They certainly feel that way when his fastball zings by at 95 miles per hour or his wicked slider dives out of sight just as it makes its approach to the plate."
Scouts from all sorts of Major League franchises starting replacing college coaches during Zarzour's senior season, once he made his very public radio announcement to a nation full of 'clones' that he was choosing baseball. Often, you'd find 10 to 12 radar guns aimed at Zarzour from behind home plate on a given night. Even the Yankees and Red Sox visited, as did representatives from Zarzour's favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies. As long as the little red numbers kept reading in the low-90s when Zarzour pitched, they would return.
All wanted to know the same things: was this gentle but towering prospect a legit pitching talent for their club and why is he really choosing baseball over hoops?
From: Tony Blengino (TBleng@milwaukeebrewers.com)
Sent: Wednesday, April 21, 1999 7:46 AM
To: Jack Zduriencik, Director of Scouting
Subject: The Zarzour prospect
Watched the 7-footer (Zarzour) last night against one of the better "big" high school teams from Raleigh. He's definitely a legit 90-mph thrower. Hit 93 mph one time, 91 and 92 several times. Won the game 3-1 with 14 strikeouts, 4 walks, one hit batter.
He's got good -- not great -- mechanics, but has TONS of potential in my opinion if we get him with our developmental guys. He's so close to the plate when he follows through I really think it scares hitters. Of course, the pros won't be as intimidated as these guys down here, but I recommend we still keep him high on our draft board.
I think he's serious about saying no to basketball now that the spring signing period for seniors has past. Let's stay on him. Mets and Pirates were also here tonight. Heard the Marlins were coming for his next start.
I'll be staying in Raleigh for another night to check out the Josh Hamilton kid from Athens Drive High. We should have been here a few weeks ago when Hamilton's team played against Zarzour's. Apparently that was a barn-burner. Hamilton threw a no-hitter, while Zarzour gave up just two hits (both to Hamilton). Athens won 1-0.
After Raleigh, I'm off to South Carolina for the weekend, if you need anything...
From: Jack Zduriencik (JZdur@milwaukeebrewers.com)
Sent: Thursday, April 22, 1999 10:46 AM
To: Tony Blengino, Assistant Director for Amateur Scouting
Subject: Re: The Zarzour prospect
Thx for the update Tony. Did you find anything about rumors of his knee injuries? I remember seeing some newspaper clippings from his basketball season referencing "ailing knees". Get back to me on that.
Also, remind Dave to get me that report on the Hudson and Nixon kids sometime over the weekend. Have a good one — and don't get lost in all those North Carolina tobacco fields on your way out of there...
From: The Boss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sent: Monday, April 30, 1999 8:46 AM
To: Jeff Wilt, lead scout
Subject: The Big Fellas
Jeff, give me your honest assessment - should we go after Randy Johnson now for instant results or try to make a play for this 7-foot-2 kid from North Carolina, thinking about our future.
Hey, we're the friggin' Yankees. Let's do both!
Now go get me a sub sandwich...
Sent: Thursday, May 20, 1999 10:49 PM
Subject: Great season, see you in 'Big Show'
Hey Z, Josh here. Sorry to see you guys get knocked out of the playoffs. You did your part getting a win in round two. Glad to see your coach not try to burn your arm by making you throw again.
I'm excited to still be playing. Hopefully we'll be in your backyard playing for a state title next week at Five County Stadium, home of the Carolina Mudcats. Come on by and see us.
It was cool playing on traveling teams with you the past few summers, and I think our little duel a few months ago between Athens and Bunn will be a classic for many years to come in this area. I was lucky to beat you, man. Your stuff was nasty! You made Williams look absolutely ridiculous the way you screwed him into the ground with your slider. Dang!
Best of luck in next month's MLB draft. Have you seen the latest Baseball America? The mag projects we both could go in the first round or two. Wouldn't that be something if two ball players from nearby high schools in little ol' North Carolina both got picked so high? Just don't strike me out too many times once we reach the majors, OK? Haha.
Anyways, take care dude. If you got some time, come on out and see us in the playoffs this week...
Nice start looking forward to reading this.
It was like any other summer morning for 18-year-old Andrew Zarzour.
He awoke well before dawn — but not before his parents — and guzzled down a couple of tall glasses of his mom's beloved homemade fruit juice. Today's frothy creation featured fresh oranges, pineapple and grapefruit, all spun together using one of those "Juiceman" contraptions pitched on infomercials.
After a hearty and healthy breakfast, Zarzour retired to the screened-in porch to read that morning's installment of Our Daily Bread and a few chapters in his Bible (every year he tries to complete the entire Bible-in-a-year program. Last year, he got through about 75 percent).
After a few minutes of prayer and quiet contemplation, Zarzour slipped on his well-worn Phillies cap, raced out the screen door, grabbed some of his most prized equipment and jumped into his dad's old beat-up Ford truck. He spun out of the long gravel driveway and rumbled off to pick up his two best friends, Brandon Weaver and Robbie Maine. The three had played sports together as long as they could remember, starting together in T-ball, Junior Hornets basketball and Pop Warner football.
Brandon was Bunn High's star shortstop (and starting QB in football). Robbie had been Zarzour's catcher since Little League All-Stars.
"You're late," Brandon teased as he jumped into the truck, throwing his own equipment in the bed. "It's 6:07 a.m. We're on a tight schedule here. Snap, snap."
"Very funny," Andrew said. "Now, let's go pick-up Robbie and get to work..."
Andrew eyed his target intensely for several seconds as the sun peaked over the horizon. He then made eye-contact with his catcher, nodded twice and began his wind-up.
After raring back, Zarzour hurtled himself forward at full velocity, following through with a somewhat side-armed motion. The object left his hand like a bullet out of a gun, producing a loud "whoosh" sound as it bee-lined straight ahead. At the last moment, the object began tailing off, eventually coming to rest right where Zarzour had aimed.
* Plop *
"Nice cast there, Big Z," Brandon shouted from nearby.
Another great morning of fishing had begun for the three best friends, who had been coming out to this private pond for more summer mornings they can remember. This very well could be among the last times, however.
After spending a couple of hours fishing, the trio would head back to Zarzour's house. It was draft day in Major League Baseball 1999 and it seemed like everyone in Bunn — and Franklin County for that matter — would be stopping by to find out which team, if any, would select their tall hero.
Robbie Maine, a Yankees fan, obviously wanted the Bronx Bombers to pick his good buddy. Brandon Weaver, more of a Red Sox' affeccionado, said he could never cheer for Yanks even if Zarzour was the No. 1 starter for Steinbrenner's club. Today's Raleigh News & Observer had a detailed story on Zarzour and his draft possibilities — the reporter had spent two whole days hanging out with him and his family the week before. A few scouts projected him as a first-round pick. Most guaranteed he'd be selected by round three.
Many fans — especially the many who "had a take" on national sports radio talk shows — still wondered why in the world, at 7-foot-2 with skills of a point guard, Andrew Zarzour wasn't planning to play basketball somewhere. Goodness knows, the Tar Heels or Kentucky Wildcats can always use another big man.
"Bite! You gotta bite! Quick!" Brandon yelled to Andrew. Weaver still got excited whenever he saw the line dancing in the water, even though he and his friends had caught hundreds of fish (and even a few turtles) over the years.
"This could be the biggest one yet! Get it 'Drew! Bring it on home!"
This is very cool. Can't wait to see how it works out!
Nice start for sure. Looking great!
The clocked ticked toward 10 a.m., and the three boys knew what that meant. It was almost time to go home. It was an exciting day for sure. For Andrew — who would hopefully begin his professional baseball career in a matter of hours — this was the launching pad toward his ultimate dream of being a Big League pitcher.
For Brandon and Robbie, this was a time to celebrate with their friend. And they, too, would be pursuing big dreams over the coming weeks. In just a short time, Brandon would be off to the University of North Carolina to pursue a degree in journalism ("I want to be a sports writer for the Boston Globe and cover the Red Sox," he would tell anyone who listened). Robbie was going to rival NC State to study turf management. He wanted to build and run his own golf course someday.
As much as the three reveled in the wide-open opportunities that lay before them, there was sense that none wanted this day to end either. They all knew this would be their last day together as "kids." College and baseball and real-world jobs and paying taxes wouldn't afford many more lazy summer days of fishing all morning, and playing ball and video games the rest of the day.
Andrew, Brandon and Robbie just stood there. None wanted to make the first move of starting to pack up the gear.
"Let's cast one more time," Zarzour said, surprising even himself by fighting back tears as he looked at his friends. "Ready, on three -- one ... two ... three ... Heave-ho!"
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh ... plop, plop, plop.
The sounds of change were in the air...
The Major League amateur player draft wasn't like the NFL or NBA. There wasn't nearly as much glitz and glamour. No putting on a team's hat or holding up a jersey with the No. 1 on it in front of millions of TV viewers.
Part of that was because there were so many rounds and so many players. Part of it also was tradition. In time, when folks learned how to make money off the MLB draft, the Hollywood effect might take over. But for now, the draft was done on conference call, with teams given just a few minutes to make their selection.
Andrew and the army of friends, family and fans who had come to his farm on draft day would all be following the picks via the family's dial-up Internet connection and the ticker scrolling along the bottom of the ESPN News channel.
Zarzour was given a special cell phone by his agent, with a phone number only a select few folks in the baseball world knew. Andrew very well could be getting a phone call from a club at some point, asking him if he'd sign if they took him at such-and-such position for such-and-such a signing bonus. The agent would call in if he got any news or had advice.
Zarzour's bonus could end up being pretty hefty if he got picked in the first round. Then again, if teams got scared away by worries over his knees or his legitimacy as a real prospect, he'd be lucky to even get a small bonus.
Just before the picks began rolling in, Andrew called his two best friends into his room, which was filled with posters of all sorts of ball players, including one of his current heroes, Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners.
"I wanted to give you guys these as a gift," he said, offering each a wrapped box the exact same size. "This way we can keep in touch and stay close no matter where life takes us."
Brandon and Robbie unwrapped the crudely wrapped packages to discover new laptops inside.
"Already preloaded with a year's worth of Internet access on it," Andrew said. "And I bought you guys licenses for the new version of OOTP that just came out. I even downloaded the latest roster sets, team logos and photo packs. Just make sure when you put me into your game, to make my ratings five-star, OK?"
Tucked inside each laptop case was a soft-bound edition of Zarzour's latest favorite book, The Base Ball Life of Patrick O'Farrell. His own copy was in tatters it had been read so many times.
The friends did their usually "cool guy" handshakes and high-fives after the gift exchange, then even hugged briefly (hoping of course no one else saw them).
"Dude, what are we doing in here. Let's go get you drafted!" Brandon said. "My Red Sox need some pitching..."
The Draft Begins!
The picks began rolling in a little after 1 p.m., scrolling across the bottom of the ESPN News channel -- and more slowly on Andrew Zarzour's dial-up Internet connection. Hundreds of folks had showed up at the Zarzour farm by now, even some TV news crews and a few print reporters. Zarzour's mom, of course had more than enough food for everyone.
The Montreal Expos had the first pick, taking pitcher Juan Pena.
Then, to Zarzour's amazement and surprise, a familiar name showed up as the No. 2 overall pick.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had selected ... Zarzour's friend, left-fielder Josh Hamilton. Wow, the Athens Drive High School phenom, who had thrown a no-hitter against Zarzour's Bunn team a few months ago, was now going to be a multi-millionairre!
Right then and there, Zarzour whisked off an e-mail to Hamilton:
"Congrats, my friend. Still waiting to see where I'll end up. Hope it's somewhere in the National League, so I can see you every so often."
Zarzour started to get a little antsy as the first-round went along. He knew most of the names that were going across because he was a faithful reader of Baseball America.
Pitcher Randy Wolf to Atlanta. Pitcher Kris Benson to Detroit. Outfielder JD Drew to Milwaukee. P Tim Hudson to Colorado. Outfielder Carlos Beltran to Minnesota. Outfielder Trot Nixon to San Diego.
Brandon Weaver, one of Andrew's best friends, couldn't watch as his beloved Red Sox made their first pick. Alas, it wasn't Andrew. The Sox picked up 1B Paul Konerko instead.
Other picks came and went — CF Preston Wilson to the Cubs. CF Torii Hunter to the Rangers. P Jeff Weaver to the Pirates. P Matt Clement to the Reds.
Robbie Maine started to get excited when it came time for the Yankees -- the defending World Champion Yankees he was quick to tell everyone -- to make their first-round pick.
Then Zarzour's cell phone rang. Everyone jumped...
I love the Pat O'Farrell reference. Nicely done. :)
"Hey Z, It's Jerry, your agent."
"Yeah, Jerry, I know who you are. What's up? Any news? I'm on pins and needles over here."
"Alright, I've got a riddle for you. What do these players all have in common: Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, Dazzy Vance ... Andrew Zarzour... ?"
Andrew just paused, trying to put the puzzle together. He thought he knew the answer as he mulled over the names and compared it with the baseball history database in his brain, but he was too nervous to jump to a conclusion out loud.
"The Dodgers, Drew! The Dodgers! They want you, man. They want you bad. They're getting ready to start the 'sandwich picks' before the true second round starts. Los Angeles plans to use their sandwich pick to take you, dude. There is one team ahead of them but they're eyeing someone else. It's happening. You're a first-round pick! Congratulations!"
Drew let out a yelp of excitement, then threw the phone into the air in celebration (bouncing it off a ceiling fan and promptly ending the phone call with his agent). As he regained his composure and went to the floor, awkwardly of course for a 7-footer, to retrieve the phone, he was almost hyperventilating. He tried to speak but couldn't do much more than grunt: "Dah... The Dah... I am going... Sandw... Pick... Dodg..."
Just then Brandon Weaver came streaking into the room. "Drew! The Dodgers picked you in the sandwich round. Come quick and check it out on the computer! Hey, it's not the Red Sox but I can cheer for LA." Then in a sing-song voice, Weaver boomed out: "I love LA!"
It took several minutes before Andrew could catch his breath. His friends and family piled on him like he had just won the World Series. Cheers went up all over the farm. Photographers snapped pictures of the celebratory scene.
"I'm going to play for the Dodgers," Zarzour finally got out of his mouth. "The LA freakin' Dodgers."
"Son, watch your language in this house," his mom said, sternly. "You know better than to talk like that."
Then she let out a big smile and hugged her towering son. He stooped down to let her rest her head on his shoulder...
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