The late basketball coach Abe Lemons, whose sometimes irreverent perspective on college sports was formed by surviving combat duty during World War II, once was asked about putting undue pressure on a freshman starter.
There was a danger, Lemons was reminded, in rushing a kid who isn’t ready.
“Yeah,” the coach agreed, “it’s terrible. I remember when I was at Guadalcanal trying not to get my butt shot off, thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not having to play college basketball today.’”
Lemons’ point — it’s just sports, not life and death — resonated Tuesday, when the Mariners announced the fast-track promotion of catcher Mike Zunino from Tacoma.
During the two months he spent in Triple-A, Zunino drew accolades as a field leader who can catch and throw. But the bat was another issue, substantial power — 11 homers and 43 RBI — undermined by a trouble with the curve and baffling inability to hit any kind of pitch at Cheney Stadium.
Zunino was hitting .238 with Tacoma, striking out 59 times in 47 games. Numbers like that gave the catcher trepidation when Mariners director of player development Chris Gwynn called him Tuesday morning in Las Vegas, where the Rainiers are playing a series against the 51s.
“Why do you think I’m
calling?” Zunino recalled Gwynn asking.
“I can think of two things,” Zunino answered.
“Well,” Gwynn said, “it’s probably the better of the two.”
Not everybody shares the Mariners’ sense that Zunino is major league ready after 91 minor league games. News of his promotion wasn’t even official before bloggers and talk-show callers blasted general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge for making a short-term move designed more to save their jobs than to assist in the long-term development of a top prospect.
Nonsense. The move was made because Jesus Sucre, the backup to career backup Kelly Shoppach, hurt his hand, and the Mariners needed somebody who could catch. Brandon Bantz’s afternoon behind the plate Saturday was the stuff of a Kevin Costner script, but the Mariners did not need a one-day temp.
Again, they needed a catcher. Zunino, the former Florida star who as a junior won the Johnny Bench Award — given to college baseball’s outstanding catcher — answers the need.
“We had a little bit of a later target date,” Zduriencik said about Zunino, the third overall selection of last year’s Major League Baseball amateur draft. (While five pitchers from the 2012 draft have reached the bigs, Zunino is its first position player to make it.)
“But when you look at it, we had an injury right now,” Zduriencik said. “There’s no harm in bringing him up.”
In the unlikely event he shows an immediate aptitude for hitting major league breaking balls, Zunino will remain in the Mariners’ lineup for the rest of the season and, perhaps, for many years to come.
And if he flails at curves he can’t reach and whiffs on fastballs he can’t handle? If it’s obvious he was pushed too soon to the next level? Zunino will go back to the Rainiers and resume the task of grooming himself into a big league player.
That’s the worst-case scenario — going back to Tacoma — and Zunino doesn’t figure to be crushed if his first stint in the bigs finds him returning to Triple-A finishing school.
“The first thing you think about is the short period of time he’s been in the minor leagues,” Wedge said before the Mariners took on the Astros before a handful of friends and relatives at Safeco Field. “But he’s shown himself differently than most. You have to think it through, trust in the player and what you know about the player, and know we’ll take care of him up here.”
Zunino is only 22, but in terms of baseball acumen and the maturity required to handle the disparate personalities of a pitching staff, the son of longtime Reds scout Greg Zunino is at least a decade older than Jesus Montero, the Mariners’ Opening Day catcher.
Zunino’s primary responsibility will be behind the plate. He’ll have to hit a little, too, but he wasn’t brought up to jump-start an offense that looked so listless over the weekend. He was brought up to provide the Mariners with a functional battery.
“I don’t think anybody here is expecting miracles,” Zduriencik said. “We’re not looking at him like he’s the answer. We just know he’s a guy that is counted on going forward. It’s the right thing to do at this time for him. So we’ll bring him up here, give him a chance to play and see how it works out.”
And if it doesn’t?
Zunino won’t be scarred, and he won’t lose his hunger to excel. A first taste of the major leagues, even it turns out more sour than sweet, could be as beneficial for him as it was for the Giants’ Buster Posey, a September call-up in 2009 who returned to Triple A for the first two months of 2010 — the year he was named National League Rookie of the Year.
And for those worried about a week of 0-for-4s damaging the self-esteem of a talented but not fully polished pro athlete, remember: The call Mike Zunino got Tuesday was to join the Mariners in Seattle. It wasn’t to join the Marines at Guadalcanal.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com