A model student, Zunino absorbs all aspects of game
Scout father provided beginnings of baseball education for Mariners catching prospect
PEORIA, Ariz. -- As far back as he can remember, Mike Zunino was hanging around ballparks, tagging along with his father, Greg, then a scout with the Florida Marlins.
"He was always watching, asking questions, wanting to know why things were happening," said Greg, who now scouts for Cincinnati.
And Mike Zunino was paying attention.
"When he first got to tee ball, he was a little advanced," said Greg. "One day, they are playing catch and he says, 'Coach, when are we going to take infield?'"
The father laughed. The kid was serious.
"He always wanted to get better," said Greg.
And he has.
A 29th-round Draft pick of the Oakland A's in 2009, when he came out of Cape Coral (Fla.) High School, Mike Zunino opted to attend the University of Florida. Three years later, Zunino was the third player taken in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft as the first-round selection of the Seattle Mariners.
And this spring? Zunino -- ranked Seattle's No. 3 prospect by MLB.com -- made such an impressive pro debut last summer that Seattle invited him to Spring Training, where he is getting a chance to accelerate his development with exposure to big league players and the big league staff, including manager Eric Wedge, a former catcher.
"Having a manager who played the position, it's easier to relate," said Zunino. "I can talk to him about any aspect, and he has a reference point."
And Wedge is impressed.
"You like the way he handles himself," said Wedge. "He listens. He's eager to get better. And he has the tools you look for in a catcher."
The scouting report on Zunino is that he was a safe Draft pick. There is nothing lights-out about his game, but he is above average in every aspect of the game. And Zunino definitely made his presence felt.
Zunino debuted at Class A Everett, hitting .373 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 29 games to earn a promotion to Double-A Jackson, where he hit .333 with three home runs and eight RBIs in 15 games. Zunino also threw out 12 of 28 runners who attempted to steal against him, including five of 12 at Jackson.
"It was a good experience," said Zunino. "It was about getting used to playing every day, getting used to the road trips. It's different, but as long as you take care of yourself physically and eat the right food, you'll be fine. It's all a part of learning the game."
That's the way Zunino has always been -- looking to learn. He initially pitched and played shortstop, but his favorite player growing up was Charles Johnson, the first-round Draft selection of the Florida Marlins in 1992. Greg Zunino was the area scout who followed Johnson first in high school and then at the University of Miami, setting up a strong relationship between the two. That carried over to young Mike.
And that led to his eventual evolution into a catcher.
"When he was playing Little League, I was hoping he would be good enough to get a scholarship," said Greg Zunino. "And then I remember Gary Hughes was in town when Michael was 10, and Gary said, 'He's not bad back there. Interesting.'"
Hughes, who was a scouting director for both Montreal and Florida, was the Yankees' area scout who signed Greg Zunino, a 31st-round Draft choice in 1981 out of the University of California. Hughes later convinced Zunino to go into scouting and hired him in Florida.
By the time Mike got to high school, his father's expectations had grown. He not only had watched his son play, but knew the inner drive that Mike possessed. The elder Zunino admitted disappointment that his son lasted into the 29th round in the Draft that senior year in high school.
"I told [the area] guys that they missed on him," said Greg Zunino. "They had known him a long time, and maybe they didn't go back and see how much he had grown. It worked well. He went to Florida and got bigger and stronger."
Mike made the most of the time.
"It kept me from getting too complacent," he said. "I learned so much more about myself. Every day, I felt I got better."
And the scouts paid attention.
"I probably had the lowest Draft number on him [that time]," Greg Zunino said. "I would have loved to have had him in our organization, but I am happy he wound up in another organization. It's good for me to be able to back away. He's on his own. He has to establish himself.
"It is tough separate the scout and dad. I watch him, and I'm asking, 'Why did you try and pull that pitch? Why did you do this? Why did you do that?'"
Mike, however, welcomed the input from his father. It was one of the ways he could get better. It would make him rethink situations. It would open his eyes to alternatives.
"He played in the Minor Leagues, so I was always able to ask him questions, and he could relate to what I am working to accomplish," the younger Zunino said of his father.
An outfielder, Greg Zunino's career consisted of 145 games in the Minors and a couple of years in an Italian pro league, which is where he met his wife.
"I can probably help him deal with the downs more than the ups," Greg Zunino said.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.