Turner's Take: Room to Zoom
Mike Zolk Sr. remembers the kid in the Mazda commercial. “His face would pop up on the screen, and he sort of looked like Alfred E. Neuman or Alfalfa. Big ears and freckles and dark hair. He looked exactly like Zoom.”
It started at a youth soccer game in Philadelphia. Young Mike Zolk was not yet ten years old, a blur on the soccer pitch, when a family friend turned to his father and began singing the jingle. “A buddy of mine, Andy Stackhouse, kept singing ‘Zoom zoom zoom,’” Zolk Sr. remembers. “I’m like man, what are you talking about?’ So he said ‘Mike, when you go home tonight, put ESPN on. There’s a commercial that’s been going on every day. There’s a kid at the end of the commercial that looks exactly like Mikey.’ And then we saw it, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was scary. He looked just like the kid. So, next thing you know, everybody was doing it, and the name stuck.”
It turns out that Zoom wasn’t just talented on the soccer field. His hard work on the baseball diamond caught the eye of Tar Heel assistant coach Scott Jackson, who was working as an instructor at the Mid-Atlantic College Coaches Camp in New Jersey. “There was this little dude that did not stop taking ground balls and hitting, so that piques your interest,” Jackson says. “Because instead of being a . . . what do they call them in basketball, a gym rat? He’s a cage rat, I guess.”
The Zoom nickname followed Zolk to Chapel Hill, where as a freshman in 2012 he started 42 games (all but one at second base). A month into the season, sophomore third baseman Colin Moran broke his hand. In his absence, Michael Russell slid in at third. Upon Moran’s return after 21 missed games, the Tar Heels shifted the infield around. Having proved himself in the infield, Russell moved to shortstop, and Tommy Coyle slid to second base. Zolk was the odd man out. After starting for the first two-thirds of his freshman season, he was on the bench. “I think it was just part of a building process,” Zolk says. “I didn’t really take it too hard. I knew I was still going to get my chance. I was going to be able to come up in big spots, pinch-hitting. I didn’t really take it too hard.”
Jackson agrees, saying that the experience was good for Zolk. “He’ll tell you, ‘the best thing that happened to me was to sit over here (in the dugout) and for it to eat at me that I wasn’t out there, and when I got back on the field I was going to make the most of the opportunity that I had,’” he says.
Zolk’s father runs a hitting facility in Philadelphia, Sluggersville, and just wrapped up his second year as head coach at Neumann-Goretti High School. “It’s the first time he’s ever had to sit in his life,” Zolk Sr. says of that season. “We talked, and I said, ‘Zoom, you just need to be a good teammate and be prepared to play whenever they need you.’” Zolk is a competitor, and it hurt to not be on the field helping his team. “I’ve always told him, you’re not great at one thing except for competing. What you have in your chest and your head can’t be taught,” his dad says.
That heart was on display last April in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. In the eighth inning of a scoreless game against Duke, Zolk pinch hit for Cody Stubbs. He ripped a double off the wall in left field to drive in the go-ahead run. “He gets up and slaps the ball off the Blue Monster,” Jackson remembers. “He hadn’t hit a ball hard in like a month, and there he is with the game on the line, and he comes through so clutch. He’s kind of that Chad Flack type. Maybe not a home run, but when the pressure’s on, he’s going to play well, he’s going to respond.”
This spring, Carolina welcomed a talented class of freshmen, including middle infielder Landon Lassiter. With Russell entrenched at shortstop, at the beginning of the year it looked as though Zolk may be squeezed out again. “I think it’s just my fight,” he says. “I love playing every day and that’s what I set my goal to be, every day. When Landon came in, obviously he’s awesome, he’s a stud, I think I just wanted to be out there on the field.”
The first start of his sophomore year occurred on the season’s second weekend, in the second game of a Sunday double header with Stony Brook. Carolina led 6-2 when the Seawolves struck for six runs in the eighth. The Tar Heels trailed 8-7 in the ninth when Cody Stubbs drove in Skye Bolt. After a couple of walks, Zolk singled in the winning run on an 0-2 pitch. Since then, Zolk has been entrenched in the lineup, with Lassiter at designated hitter.
Between coaching and running Sluggersville Hitting Academy, it’s hard for Mike Zolk Sr., or ‘Big Zoom’ (“I might be the only guy in the world to pick up a name because of his son”), to make the seven-hour trip to Chapel Hill. He and Zoom’s mother, Diane, sometimes split the trips. Often Zolk Sr. will hook up his laptop or XBOX 360 to the TV at the batting cage. But it’s not quite like being at Boshamer Stadium. “As crazy as this sounds, when I’m there, I feel like he’s comfortable,” Zolk Sr. says. “I feel like he’s comfortable if he knows where I’m at. It’s probably not even a fact; it’s probably just me.” Although he’s a coach himself, Big Zoom tries to be dad in the stands. “I’m both,” he says. “It drives me nuts when he takes strikes, when he takes fastballs with men on base, I go bananas. I’m screaming at the TV. It just makes me nervous, that’s all.”
Zoom balances the baseball and family roles as well. He admits that when it comes to the sport, his dad probably knows what he’s talking about, but, “I’m too thick-headed to listen to him,” he says.
Until recently, Zolk went through something of a hitting slump. He hadn’t been producing, so he went back to the film room and the batting cage with Jackson. He worked on his stance - Zolk sits a little lower now - and his hands, setting them back a bit further. He kept grinding, and took his never-say-die approach to the plate.
Meanwhile, Big Zoom knew not to pressure his son. “Coach Jackson is his hitting guy pretty much and I lay off, you know?” he says. “I just keep telling him, keep on keeping on, keep plugging away and you’ll find grass at some point. There’s nine people out there for a reason and it’s not to let the ball fall for you. You’re there for a reason. They believe in you for a reason and you’re on that field for a reason. You’ve got to get a hit.”
Big Zoom was in Chapel Hill for the weekend regional, but couldn’t stay for Monday’s game against Florida Atlantic. He’d driven back early that morning to coach in a playoff game that evening. Around Washington, D.C., he got a call that Neumann-Goretti’s game had been postponed a day. “I was absolutely mortified, to say the least,” he says. “I couldn’t come back, because I had scheduled clients for hitting lessons. I couldn’t cancel them, and I was already three-quarters of the way home.”
So that night, Big Zoom routed his XBOX through the TV at Sluggersville. “Me and a bunch of guys watched the game at my work,” he says. “It was chaos.”
In the top of the ninth inning, Florida Atlantic’s Tyler Rocklein hit a grand slam that gave the Owls an 8-6 lead. Zolk came up with runners at second and third and one out. He hit a 2-2 breaking ball through the right side to tie the score. “I blacked out,” he said. “When I got to first base, Coach Jackson got so fired up, he punched me in the rib cage. I thought I’d punctured my lung. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Zoom wasn’t the only person feeling the after-effects of that hit. “I actually was running around like a lunatic,” Big Zoom says. “When he got the hit in the ninth, I head-butted a Dippin’ Dot machine. I thought I had a concussion.”
His next time up, Zolk was intentionally walked in the 11th to create a force play at second base. The Tar Heels weren’t able to scratch a run across in that inning.
The Owls struck back with a three-run home run in the 12th. The lead looked insurmountable, but in the Tar Heel dugout, and 422 miles away at Sluggersville, hope was not lost. “I was sitting there saying, just get a man on base, and you never know,” Zolk Sr. says. “I was telling the guys we were watching with, if we get Lassiter to the plate, I think we’re OK.”
Lassiter singled to start the bottom half. Then, Colin Moran walked and Brian Holberton singled to load the bases with no outs. Cody Stubbs and Michael Russell each drew walks to pull the Tar Heels within one. Skye Bolt lined out to the pitcher, bringing Zolk to the plate with one out.
“All I wanted at that point was for him to hit the thing hard,” Big Zoom says. “I’m pacing back and forth, swinging a bat the whole time, trying to will a hit.”
Zoom took two balls before taking a fastball for a strike. He fouled off the next pitch. Florida Atlantic’s Michael Sylvestri went high and away with the next pitch and Zolk hit it into left field. He drove in Holberton to tie the score before Stubbs was tagged out. “I love being in situations like that,” Zolk says. “After I singled in the ninth and then they walked me with Russell on second I was fuming. I wanted to hit again. I love being in spots like that. When I came up again in the 12th I knew I had to do something productive.”
In Philadelphia, Big Zoom was ecstatic. “Of course I was happy, but my first reaction was, that’s Zoom. That’s the Zoom I know and I’ve been hitting with his whole life.”
In the 13th, Stubbs would single in Lassiter to win the game for the Tar Heels, but they wouldn’t have been there if not for Zoom. “I think it’s fearing to lose,” he says. “It’s our testament to our character and how much we battle. We’ve been doing it all year with State, Clemson, and then the other night was absolutely insane.”
Jackson knew that Zolk’s hard work had paid off. “That’s the most rewarding part of coaching, to sit back there in the cage with him and throw to him and watch him go through the frustrations of trying to figure through something mechanically or something with their approach in the box,” he says. “Coach (Scott) Forbes and I have talked about it before. Hey, you know what? Even though he struggled, I want him in the box when the game’s on the line.”
He couldn’t be there, but Zoom’s other hitting coach was beaming in Sluggersville. “I just texted him told him I was proud of him,” Big Zoom says. “Nothing beats heart and competition.”
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