By Andrew Johnson
Zumaya, the rookie sensation relief pitcher from the 2006 American League champion Detroit Tigers, appeared at Fifth Third Ballpark on Friday night as part of the West Michigan Whitecaps’ “Tiger Friday” series.
Whenever anyone talks baseball with Zumaya, who was known for his blistering fastball that regularly eclipsed the 100 mph mark, they want to know about 2006. And Zumaya clearly loves to talk about that magic season and show off his American League title ring.
“The ring is a special thing,” said Zumaya, displaying the ring on his finger in the shining sun. “That year was really special for Detroit because the past few years had been fairly bad. I think it was a big turnaround for the city and I think it shocked the city.
“I was in the big leagues at 21 and I was a baby going to the World Series in my first year and nobody thought the Tigers were going to do that. That’s just one of my best memories and it’ll never be erased. I’ll take it to the grave.”
Zumaya only played a few more seasons due to nagging arm injuries, which many people attributed to his habit of throwing hard all the time.
But he said if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m that guy who can’t throw the ball soft – it goes halfway up the screen when I do,” he said. “I had more control when I threw bullets. I’d never change a thing. Some players play their whole careers and never get this (ring).”
One of Zumaya’s arm injuries reportedly came when he was playing the “Guitar Hero” video game in the offseason. When asked about that, he said it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it led to an endorsement opportunity.
“I tell people all the time it’s good I hurt myself playing that game because I got a sponsorship from it,” he said. “I got new games every Christmas for a few years.”
Zumaya also has fond memories of his 2003 season with the Whitecaps, which included an appearance in the Midwest League All-Star game at Fifth Third Ballpark.
“I made the All-Star game that year,” he said. “My fastball started exploding and I had a good year. One of my favorite memories was striking out Prince (Fielder) here, which I did three times, and we had one of the biggest brawls ever against Lansing that year.”
When asked what he’d tell the young players starting their careers at West Michigan, Zumaya said it’s all about hard work.
“I was a guy that didn’t want to stay in the minor leagues, so I worked really hard to get up to the big house and just stayed there,” Zumaya said. “Staying healthy and keeping your body healthy is a big thing, along with working really hard.”
Zumaya, who has participated in Tigers fantasy camps in recent years, said he’s happy to do whatever he can for the Detroit organization.
“I just try to give back for what they gave me,” he said. “I signed with the Twins for two weeks in spring training (after his Tigers stint), but didn’t last, so I didn’t consider myself a Twin. I’m a Tiger and always will be.”
He said he’s been following this year’s Tigers and likes the potential he sees.
“They’re really good this year,” Zumaya said. “It’s just a matter of clicking and staying strong and consistent. This game is very grueling and can turn really quick. If they’re consistent and take it a game at a time, they’ll find themselves way up there.”