Amidst all of the frustration and failure to live up to expectations, the Arizona Diamondbacks season was able to uncover a few hidden gems in their minor league farm system. The rash of injuries and the failure of some of the players to reach their potential opened the door for others to be given a shot that perhaps they would not have gotten if this team had performed as expected.
One such player on the Diamondbacks roster is left-handed pitcher Clay Zavada. Zavada’s story is one that Hollywood movies are made of and he is perhaps the feel-good story of the year for the team and its fans. We find ourselves engulfed in a global recession and each and every one of us is struggling to make ends meet. It is stories like that of Clay Zavada that not only give you hope but they make you appreciate the American spirit.
In June 2006, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected a left-handed pitcher in the 30th round out of Illinois Valley Community College. He was not a highly touted ballplayer who was destined to receive multi-million dollar bonuses and become the poster child for a rebuilding ball club. Instead he was just a guy who had a fairly decent fastball and an above average change-up.
Zavada signed his first professional baseball contract and with it came a signing bonus of 1,000 dollars. The bonus money after taxes was used to pay the deposit on his first apartment in Missoula Montana where the Diamondbacks assigned him to their rookie level Missoula Osprey team.
Zavada had a fairly successful first season as a professional appearing in 22 games and accumulating a 3.10 ERA over 49.1 innings pitched. For a 30th round draft pick he had exceeded expectations.
When the season ended, Zavada like other minor league players returned home to try and find work and keep themselves in shape so that hopefully they would be invited back to Spring Training to continue their dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player.
That winter, tragedy came to the Zavada family when his father Clarence, age 55, passed away from a heart attack. In his passing, Clarence left the 40-acre farm in Streator, a small town in central Illinois, to his two sons Dustin and Clay. With Dustin serving in the Navy, it became incumbent for Clay to care for the farm. His dreams of becoming a professional baseball player were now put on hold as he tried to manage the family farm and its responsibilities.
When Spring Training arrived in 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks attempted to contact Clay Zavada to invite him to camp. They were unsuccessful until the night before Spring Training was to begin. They finally reached him and Zavada explained his situation to the Diamondbacks and requested his release.
Rather than give him an outright release, the Arizona Diamondbacks placed him on the restricted list so that they could retain his rights. As per protocol, Zavada was notified via letter of his status. Clay did not understand the concept of the restricted list and felt it was some sort of blacklist. He implored the Diamondbacks to release him. Zavada explained that his father would be horrified if he knew his son had been placed on a restricted list. The Diamondbacks obliged and gave him his release.
For the 2007 season Clay Zavada was out of baseball. Zavada was now in survival mode trying to make ends meet to keep the farm and himself afloat. The 40-acre property is part farm and part forest and was a sense of pride within the family. Before his father died, he spoke to Clay about how important an education is in today’s society. That fall Clay went back to school completing his bachelor’s degree at Edwardsville and worked part-time delivering furniture.
In 2008 Clay Zavada graduated from college. To celebrate, a friend suggested that he once again try baseball. He tried out for the Southern Illinois Miners, and independent team. After some initial struggles, Zavada returned to form and began to dominate.
During this same time the Arizona Diamondbacks found themselves in need for minor league relief help. Farm director AJ Hinch asked his staff to begin combing the statistics of Independent League teams to see if they could find a suitable candidate. From the research, a familiar name returned – Clay Zavada.
Hinch contacted Zavada to gauge his willingness to return to professional baseball and in general to find out what had happened in his life. The discussions ensued and Zavada agreed to once again to attempt to follow his dream. He had one request of the Diamondbacks; he wanted to be assigned to South Bend Indiana.
Typically a player does not dictate to a club where he will play and his request was met with some resistance. Zavada explained that he meant no disrespect; he just was hoping to play there so that on off-days he could return to the family farm to properly maintain it. Given the circumstances the Diamondbacks agreed and Zavada became a member of the South Bend Silver Hawks.
While a member of the Silver Hawks, Zavada dominated the competition. In 24 games he had a 0.51 ERA in 25.1 innings. Clearly he had what it took to be a professional baseball player. At the conclusion of the season the Diamondbacks assured the left-hander that they were interested in seeing him continue his professional career as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
Zavada retreated to the farm in Streator and picked up where he left off, trying to make ends meet while waiting for baseball season to begin again. As a minor league baseball player Zavada earned $280 a week. Once the season ended, so did that paycheck.
He made ends meet by splitting logs on the family property and selling them for firewood. He refurbished go-karts and sold them on e-Bay. He looked for items he could buy cheap, fix-up, and resell for a profit. He did what all of us have had to do; he survived.
In the spring of 2009, Clay Zavada was back in Tucson with the Arizona Diamondbacks. This year he was someone to watch, a pitcher with a future. Out of Spring Training the Arizona Diamondbacks sent him to Mobile Alabama to play for the Double-A Mobile Bay Bears.
In 11 games with the Bay Bears he had a 2.60 ERA over 17.1 innings pitched. On May 12, Zavada was summoned to the Diamondbacks when right-hander Bobby Korecky was demoted to the minors. It was an exciting day and was the culmination of a lot of hard work. The excitement barely had an opportunity to sink in when Zavada was sent back to Mobile the very next day without even an opportunity to pitch.
His demotion did not last long. When pitcher Scott Schoeneweis was notified of the death of his wife on May 21, he left the team immediately to fly home to Fountain Hills. The Diamondbacks recalled Clay Zavada That night in the final game of a series against the Florida Marlins, Clay Zavada made his major league debut. He threw one inning not allowing a hit or a run and striking out two. The Diamondbacks would score two runs in the top of the inning and Clay Zavada would be the winning pitcher.
Zavada has become an important part of a developing Diamondbacks bullpen. He has shown a knack for getting out right-handers as well as left-handers when called upon. As the Diamondbacks entered the final week of the season, manager AJ Hinch and general manager Josh Byrnes have both suggested that Clay Zavada will be a part of their 2010 plans.
This final series of the season, the Arizona Diamondbacks are playing for nothing but pride. They have long sense been eliminated from the post season and when many players are counting the innings before the off-season starts, Clay Zavada is living a dream.
He travelled with the team to Chicago to play their final three games against the Cubs. To Clay Zavada, it is the biggest moment of his life. He grew up just two hours away from Wrigley Field, a diehard Cubs fan. When he walked out onto the playing field it was a validation that he was now a Major League Baseball player.
The citizens of Streator Illinois came out in droves to support their favorite Diamondbacks player. Zavada estimated 150-200 people came to the game hoping to see Zavada in action. Today was definitely one Clay will never forget although he would probably like to forget part of it.
Zavada was in the bullpen and was assigned the duty of watching out for errant foul balls that might hit the pitcher or catcher warming up. In the seventh inning a scorching ball was hit by Chicago’s Micah Hoffpauir and was heading directly for Diamondbacks bullpen catcher Jeff Motuzas. Zavada reached out and caught the ball. He looked up at first-base umpire Ed Rapuano who was motioning it was a fair ball. Zavada immediately dropped the ball and took a step back. The call was a ground-rule double and the hit allowed the Cubs to score the first run.
While that may have deterred other players, it was just another learning experience for Clay Zavada. He put it out of his head and when the ninth inning came, it was Zavada who entered the game throwing a perfect ninth inning preserving a Diamondbacks win.
Clay Zavada left the field to the cheers of 200 fans who had made the journey from Streator, among them his grandmother. In this one game he realized a lifelong dream and was able to share it with family and friends.
When the season ends on Sunday Clay Zavada will once again pack up his things and head back to the family farm in central Illinois. This time though it might be a little easier for him to survive knowing he has a place on baseball. Knowing Clay, this winter you’ll still find him listening to “Swap Shop” on the local AM radio station hoping to find a rare item he can turn around and sell on e-Bay to earn a little extra money. I only wish the Diamondbacks had more people like Clay Zavada.