It’s hard to write about baseball when there’s no baseball happening. I’ve spent at least two hours today trying to think about how to make the fact the 2020 Seattle Mariners sent some players you’ve never heard of back down to their Triple-A affiliate interesting. I have unsurprisingly failed in this endeavour.
I could write about The Mariners Glorious Future™, of course. But over the course of this season – there will be a season, right? – there is going to be plenty of time to write about the swathe of brilliant prospects the Mariners are bringing through. Indeed, hopefully at some point I’ll have actually had a chance to watch them play as well, giving me opinions that social media clips of Braden Bishop cutting Shed Long’s hair, or Julio Rodriguez not knowing how to play Operation, can’t.
As Mathew Roberson said on the brilliant Lookout Landing podcast before this whole “virus” thing happened – “It’s not my fault I don’t know who these people are, I’m just happy baseball is back”.
So, what to write about? For me, because I feel like if I didn’t write about him, my career as a writer on this site would be a big fat lie, and in lieu of an actual opening day – and because this week he welcomed his second child into the world – there’s only one person or thing to talk about. His name is Mike Zunino, and he’s the catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Zunino is never far from my mind. Not only did the official Bat Flips & Nerds Twitter account tag me in a tweet where someone was disparaging Zunino’s skills as a hitter last week, but I also own two shirts with his name on. That’s probably one more than he does.
— Bat Flips and Nerds (@batflips_nerds) March 25, 2020
Zunino does a good determined face, like your older teenage brother trying to take the lid off a jam jar. He’s got a smile that looks like he hasn’t got the joke. At 6’1” he’s the kind of “sportsman tall” that means you don’t realise how tall he is. He’s kind of surprisingly big all round, but in an unshowy way, like the doors of your local library. He’s Mike.
I follow his wife on Instagram, because Mr Zunino doesn’t do the socials, you see, and I need more Mike in my life. Oh, and my wife crocheted me this motivational Mike Zunino message for Christmas this year. It sits proudly in my living room. Mike Zunino is always on my mind, and my mantelpiece. I may have problems.
At one point, Zunino was rated the #20 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. He spent six years at Seattle after signing in 2012 as the third overall pick in the amateur draft. Were those six years glorious? Not at all. Did they have moments of glory? Kind of. Is Michael Accorsi Zunino himself glorious? I mean, not really.
I think that Mike might be boring. His nickname – and the name he put on the back of his shirt for Players Weekend in 2018 – is ‘Z’. Nine months on the road for five years in a row with at least 40 other people, and the best you get is ‘Z’. I know technically that might be because of his teammates lack of imagination – you know, like you should always go to the barber with the worst haircut, because someone else in the shop will have done that to him so you can trust him more – but still. You imagine that boring inspires boring.
He married his wife at 22. No specific problem with that, I guess, but this quote – as reported in the Orange County Register – when talking about said marriage, something that for most people is a hugely joyous topic, really hammers it home.
“You play in the College World Series and get drafted and next thing you know you’re playing minor league baseball, all within a month,” Zunino said. “So, it was a fun experience, and then in the meantime I was able to get married”.
IN. THE. MEANTIME.
Zunino’s best hitting year for the Mariners was 2017’s .251. He is a career .202 hitter. In 2017 and 2018, his last two years in Seattle, he struck out 310 times in 760 at-bats.
Among all of that, he’s hit 104 home runs – including walk off homeruns in consecutive years against the Twins, made a Houston Astros Twitter account really grumpy by hitting a homer off of Dallas Keuchel, and caught James Paxton’s no-hitter against the Blue Jays. Coaches and players alike love him for his work behind the plate
Film Room Discussion: #Mariners nobody, Mike Zunino hits a HR.
Were his actions afterwards acceptable?
When is this going to stop happening in our great sport?
Why does it always seem to happen against the Astros?
Should he be drilled?
Will this ever end? pic.twitter.com/oLnPACp0tb
— Astros Rants (@AstrosRants) June 6, 2018
(Before you read on, I urge you to actually click on the above, if only to hear the phrase “Mike Zunino, a loser, hits a home run” uttered just after the big man has creamed it 459ft into Houston sky).
So why do I love Zunino so much? He’s an internet demi-hero, beloved of Mariners bloggers and #ExtremelyOnline fans. The aforementioned Lookout Landing guys, writing back in 2015, put in perspective who he is as a player, describing him as the “But what if he did, though?” player. We know he’s got power, and he can crush a ball; we know he COULD be an all-star catcher – he was Defensive Player of the Year for his position in 2018. But what if he actually DID those things?
I hold a personal torch for Zunino. For about 10 years, until about 2014, I ran a clubnight in south London called Zonino (sample playlist: Clor, World In Motion by New Order, Art Brut, Talking Heads – it was a mess). It was named after a strange decision by the predictive text function on those old Nokia phones – whenever you typed in “Woohoo!”, it suggested the word “Zonino” as an alternative. This nonsensical suggestion amused me enough to start using the word in chatrooms, and then in the wider world beyond.
Imagine then, you’ve been doing this for ages, and you visit SafeCo field in 2014 and discover that there exists a man with almost exactly the same name as this. I cannot begin to tell you how delighted it made me. He was an instant hero. I was smitten.
The fact that during the game I went to see in 2014 he hit an ultimately pointless double off Dallas Keuchel in a 7-2 rout (and struck out in his other three plate appearances – little did I know at the time that this was Peak Zunino) helped cement that love even more.
That everyone agreed he had POTENTIAL made me even more enamoured. I bloody love a player with potential. The thought of what might be, that wrapped in those huge arms and strong jaw lay a man capable of smashing the absolute grapes off a baseball. Almost even more so when it’s unfulfilled.
Mike Zunino is one of the main reasons why I love this sport. For who he might be, for those wonderful things he’s already done, and for the fact he’s an enigma – in a world where I can watch the new M’s first baseman hosting a live chat on Instagram, I have to follow Mike’s wife to learn what he’s up to really stands out.
He might not be in Seattle anymore, but he was my gateway in, and might serve as the perfect summation of what the 2020 (and beyond?) Seattle Mariners might become. They’re full of potential, they all seem to be bloody lovely blokes, and they have promise.
But what if they make it? What if…