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A league of his own Selected by Mariners, Shank first at Warwick to be drafted by MLB
BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor
, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Angels star pitcher C.J. Wilson once called Pulaski, Va. home.
So did David Justice, Jason Schmidt and other former big-league baseball stars.
Starting this Sunday, June 16, Lititz’s Zach Shank will be playing on the same diamond where those notable alumni honed their craft.
To play shortstop in the near future for the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field.
"I think (playing professionally) is going to be a blast. I feel like I’m ready to play at the next level," Shank said. "I just look forward to the opportunity to continue my baseball career."
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound star got that opportunity last Saturday when the Mariners selected him in the 28th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Shank, 22, is the first Warwick player ever to be selected in the MLB Draft.
Shortly after Seattle made him the 837th overall pick, the 2009 Warwick High School grad received a cell phone call from a representative of the Mariners.
"He just called and congratulated me," said Shank, who recently completed his senior season at Division-One Marist College where he led the Red Foxes in batting (.370) and earned First-Team All-MAAC accolades. "He said he was hoping I’d get picked up earlier, he couldn’t believe I was still there, but he was happy to have me on."
Just over 24 hours later, the M’s called again, this time with further details. Shank’s first stop in his pro career will be with the Pulaski Mariners of the Appalachian League, a Rookie League affiliate. He expects to sign a contract this week.
"The scout is going to come to my house (Tuesday), I believe, with a contract and just kinda go over some more of the basic stuff," Shank said. "He said $2,500 for a signing bonus, which is more than I was expecting."
Shank certainly wasn’t expecting the nerve-wracking tension which accompanied the wait to hear his name called in the MLB Draft last weekend. Not after getting phone calls from the Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the days prior to the draft making sure he still wanted to play.
And not after hearing from the Mariners as the sixth round was unfolding on Friday. That naturally gave Shank and his family hope, watching via computer in the kitchen, that something could happen by the end of the day.
"They asked if I would sign for a $5,000 bonus if it was inside the top 10 rounds," he said. "Of course, I agreed and sat and waited to see if I got picked. Then two rounds later, they picked Tyler Smith from Oregon State, another senior shortstop. At that moment, I was like, ‘That was probably my shot there.’ It was pretty tough on Friday."
There was still Saturday, however. Finally, in the 16th round, Shank’s Marist College teammate Kevin McCarthy, a rising senior pitcher, was taken by the Royals. The two friends exchanged texts as Shank continued to wait.
"I congratulated him. He’s a great ball player, I’m happy for him and there was no way he was getting passed up," Shank remarked. "He said, ‘Now you just need to get picked up.’"
As one round after another went off the board, though, Shank was beginning to wonder if it was meant to be. He eventually left the kitchen and laid on the living room couch for awhile. No phone call ever came alerting him that he might be selected, even during a break following the 25th round.
"I was kinda getting nervous," Shank admitted. "I was just saying (during the break), ‘OK, the call has to come in now.’ I was waiting for somebody to call and ask what I wanted to sign and everything like that, and it never happened. At that point, I was starting to think it might not happen and trying to prepare myself for that."
Three rounds later, the good news finally arrived.
"My dad (John) stayed in the kitchen and kept watching and the Mariners picked me in the 28th round," Shank said, "and I just heard everyone start going nuts and I figured I got picked up … It’s really a dream come true. It’s what I’ve been working for my whole life."
He still has a lot of work ahead of him to get to the big leagues. In all, the Mariners selected three other shortstops ahead of him in this year’s draft – East Carolina junior Jack Reinheimer in the fifth round (147th overall), Smith in the eighth round (237th overall) and Stanford University junior Lonnie Kauppila in the 16th round (477th).
Asked if will have a chip on his shoulder to prove himself, Shank said, "I’m happy for the opportunity, but there’s always a chip on my shoulder, pretty much. Coming from a smaller school, getting passed up last year too … I mean, I’m sure not too many people are giving me a chance. But I don’t really need that for motivation because I love to play the game."
According to MLB.com, the player info accompanying Kauppila states that "he has been a fixture of Stanford’s lineup for three years, but his value has more to do with his glove than his bat."
Reinheimer’s report indicates that "he is well-regarded as a defender. Offensively, Reinheimer isn’t as advanced. He has a good approach, but produces minimal power."
Shank finished the spring season batting .370 in the MAAC, while Smith is hitting .311 for a Pac-12 Oregon State team which advanced to the College World Series, Kauppila averaged .271 in the Pac-12, and Reinheimer batted .271 in the C-USA.
Does Shank feel like he has an advantage on the others if he is able to produce offensively?
"I just feel like if I perform, I’ll be fine, really," he said. "I saw Tyler Smith was hitting .299 or .300 or something like that and he plays in a much bigger conference than I do, so I don’t know how comparable our numbers really are. But I feel like whoever performs the best once we’re there is going to get the nod."
Shank certainly performed well while playing in summer leagues following his sophomore and junior seasons at Marist. In 2011, Amsterdam, N.Y. was his destination, where he manned the shortstop position for the Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. Coming off of two seasons at Marist in which he batted .257 as a freshman and .269 as a sophomore, Shank had the good fortune to play under the tutelage of Mohawks’ skipper Keith Griffin, who played a key role in turning around the former Warwick star’s offensive career.
"I owe a lot of thanks to (Griffin)," Shank said. "I think I was putting a little too much pressure on myself at times (in his first two seasons at Marist) and trying to force the action when it should be the other way around."
Although Shank is the same smooth-fielding, hustling shortstop with a rifle arm that Warwick fans knew as he helped lead the Warriors to the 2008 District Three Quad-A crown, his approach at the plate has become much better.
"(It’s changed as far as) just learning how to hunt for certain pitches and certain counts and stuff like that," Shank said. "When you can sit on a pitch and you get it, it’s a lot easier to hit it and I feel like I’ve gotten better at doing that."
His batting average between his sophomore and junior seasons at Marist climbed from .269 to .321, and then he added to his resume by playing with the Danbury (Conn.) Westerners in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer. There he finished at .318 and was named the starting shortstop in the NECBL All-Star Game while also claiming Perfect Game Summer Collegiate All-America Team accolades.
At 6-foot-1, 180, Shank has good size for a shortstop. However, it’s not too big, Shank believes, to remain at that position, which is his preference. Still, he played some third base previously in his freshman year at Marist and again last summer at Danbury, and if the Mariners approached him about moving to the hot corner, he’d be willing to do so.
"I would like to (stay at shortstop), but whatever the Mariners have in mind, I’m willing to do," Shank said. "I love playing over (at third) too. It’s very similar to shortstop, I think, and I would be completely willing to shift over if I had to."
Shank is just happy to get the chance to put on a professional uniform. If he hadn’t been drafted, his plan was to return to Marist College in the fall for a semester of student teaching to complete a math secondary education degree. If he doesn’t student teach within one year, it will be finalized as a math undergraduate degree.
Shank, though, has no self-imposed time limit on his baseball career. Whether it takes him five years, 10 years or longer to reach his goal of playing in the big leagues, he expects to play as long as possible.
"I’m planning on just going for as long as I can," he said.
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