When Gianni Zayas was a young boy, he always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player.
Zayas didn’t have to look far for inspiration. After all, his older brother, Gil, a former high school standout at St. Joseph of the Palisades and two-time (2002 and 2004) Hudson Reporter Player of the Year, played pro ball with the Atlantic City Surf (2008) and two independent teams in Illinois (2009).
“I used to go to all his games,” the younger Zayas said. “I was a ball boy when he was at St. John’s and I took ground balls with the team. I always wanted to be like my brother.”
But the younger Zayas took his dreams a step further than minor league baseball.
“I always dreamed of being in the big leagues,” said Zayas, a right-handed pitcher.
Last week, the 21-year-old Zayas took the first step toward fulfilling those fantasies, when he signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners, just a few days after the Mariners selected Zayas in the 35th round of the recent Major League Baseball Free Agent Amateur Draft.
Zayas didn’t waste any time. A day after signing with the Mariners, he was on a plane to Peoria, Arizona and the team’s spring training headquarters. It’s the location where all of the Mariners’ draftees reported after signing.
After a few weeks in Arizona, Zayas will be sent to the team’s Class A affiliate in Everett, Washington.
It’s a complete whirlwind for Zayas, who went from North Bergen High School (graduating in 2012) to North Carolina State to Seminole State Junior College in Florida eventually to Florida International, where Zayas spent this past spring.
Zayas was indeed drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 29th round in last year’s MLB Draft, but decided not to sign a contract and went to Florida International instead.
At Florida International, Zayas pitched mostly in relief, pitching in 21 games (four starts) and compiling 35 innings, striking out 34. Zayas didn’t exactly blow people away with his 5.60 earned run average, but he figured he was facing some of the best teams in the nation.
“My velocity was up [averaging around 94 miles per hour] and I didn’t allow anyone to steal a base,” Zayas said. “I did okay, but I was quicker to the plate and throwing harder. I think playing fall ball helped me with my velocity. I hit 96 [MPH on the gun] one day. I think having a pitching coach at Florida International really helped me and helped my confidence. We were playing some of the best schools and when I got my chance, I thought I pitched well.”
When the college baseball season was over, Zayas knew he was ready for professional baseball, even if he had another year of college eligibility remaining.
“Last year, when I was drafted, I didn’t know what to expect,” Zayas said. “I didn’t know what it all was like. This year, I wasn’t taking anything for granted, but I knew that if I got drafted, I was going to take the opportunity to sign. I was ready to sign this year. Looking back last year, I wished that I signed. Don’t get me wrong. I liked playing at Florida International. It wasn’t a mistake. I just wasn’t ready to sign last year. I’m a better player now. I’m smarter now.”
So when the MLB Draft started last Monday, Zayas watched intently on the Internet.
“It was exciting for me to watch,” Zayas said. “I saw all of my buddies and teammates from the Cape Cod [summer baseball league, where Zayas pitched last summer] get drafted. I was definitely ready.”
A scout from the Mariners called Zayas during the draft.
“It was about the 28th round when I got the call, asking me if they took me, would I be willing to sign,” Zayas said. “I told them yes and a few minutes later, I was taken. I was happy. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in baseball. I’m so happy. I knew that if I didn’t get drafted this year, I’d be pretty disappointed.”
Zayas knows now there will be no speed guns or scouts or reports to help him along in the process. It’s all up to him now.
“I am just going to try to get better every day now,” said Zayas in a phone interview from Peoria, Arizona. “I have no excuses. It’s up to me. I am playing on all the best facilities in the world. There’s no pressure on me, but I have to get it done now.”
And if things get tough, Zayas knows that there’s an inspirational voice a phone call away.
“I call my brother all the time,” Gianni said of his brother, who coaches and teaches at North Bergen now. “He tells me what I’m doing. I always can ask for his advice. The same with my other buddies in pro ball, I can ask them as well.”
Gianni Zayas said that he had to ask his brother what he should bring to Arizona.
“I didn’t know if I needed money or if there was a chance to do anything else other than playing baseball,” Zayas said. “It really has been an overwhelming experience. I know only a handful of guys get this chance. It’s still incredible for me that I’m doing this. I was never the best pitcher in high school or in college.”
But the gun never lies to baseball scouts. Zayas was throwing 92 at a scouting combine in Georgia before his senior year at North Bergen, drawing the attention of the North Carolina State coaching staff, earning a scholarship there. Zayas then was throwing 94-95 earlier this year to have the Mariners’ scouting staff take notice.
“Of course, this is like a dream for me, but the ultimate dream is to play in the big leagues,” Zayas said. “That’s what I’m shooting for now.”
The first step has been put into place.
This is the first of the EXTRA INNINGS features that appear here during the summer months.
EXTRA INNINGS focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area, from Little League action through travel leagues.
If you have any noteworthy information to contribute to the EXTRA INNINGS, feel free to contact Jim Hague by phone at (201) 303-5792, by general mail at 1400 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ 07030, or via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com.
The e-mail would be the best way of getting in touch.
Please include a telephone contact name and number, in order to secure further information for a possible story. Also, if you have a picture to be used with the story, that would be a great help….–Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.