Tampa Bay Rays Gregg Zaun wants to be baseball's oldest catcher

Gregg Zaun says because he spent eight years on the bench, he has experience without “mileage on my body.”

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Gregg Zaun says because he spent eight years on the bench, he has experience without “mileage on my body.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Know this about Gregg Zaun, the catcher acquired last week who makes his Rays Trop debut tonight: He's at home behind the plate.

Sure, he's 38, he has been playing pro ball since before David Price started kindergarten, and he was in the majors three years before the Devil Rays were, but he's not planning on going away soon.

Zaun wants to play until he's 40. Then he wants to get 20 seasons in the bigs, which will take him to 2014, when he will be 43. Then he wants to outdo Carlton Fisk, who was still catching at 45, and be known as "the oldest guy" to start a game behind the plate.

"I know I'm 38 years old, and I know I'm a catcher," Zaun said. "But a lot of people forget that the first eight years of my career were spent on the bench. So I got the benefit of those years of experience, being there watching the games and playing behind some pretty good catchers, without the mileage on my body.

"I would like to be mentioned in the same breath as a guys like Julio Franco (who played until 48) as far longevity goes. … All the rigors of the position, the pain, the stuff you go through to play, I don't know anything else. I really don't. I really don't know what else there is to do."

Zaun has had a couple of seminal moments along the way.

He was the backup on the 1997 world champ Marlins and the struggling starter in 1998 but realized after playing behind Pudge Rodriguez on the 1999 Rangers that he wasn’t ever going to be that good and accepted his limitations, which actually made him a better player.

He learned from Brad Ausmus during 1½ seasons in Houston how to really call a game.

He contemplated retirement after being released by the Expos in spring training 2004, and again a couple of weeks into a minor-league gig with the Blue Jays, but he got an unexpected chance, at age 33, to start, and manager Carlos Tosca kept him out there.

He acknowledged his immaturity and addressed it, giving up drinking for four years, curtailing his off-field activities and settling down with his new wife, Jamie.

"As long as I'm physically able to compete and I still feel like I'm better than the other guys, I'm going to keep going out there," Zaun said.

"I'm not one of those guys who was like some humongous star player and is worried about his legacy, that the last three years with low numbers are going to tarnish a great career. I don't care. I really don't."

Here's a few other things to know about Zaun:

• He has a sports pedigree. His mom, Cherie, was a pro golfer and the women's coach at Southern Cal. His uncle (his mother's brother) is Rick Dempsey, who caught 24 seasons in the majors (until age 42), was an Orioles coach and is now a broadcaster. Another uncle, Pat, played 11 seasons in the minors and is a senior long drive champion.

• He likes an old-school look and a new-wave mask. He hits bare-handed because he doesn't like the feel of the batting gloves on the bat, and he usually wears his socks up and pants to the knee when he starts. He began wearing the hockey-style mask in 1998 and was grandfathered in to sport a custom paint job, though he will go generic now because the Orioles' orange wouldn't really work.

• He was his own agent. For several years he was one of a few players who handled their own negotiations. But after jousting with Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi on a two-year, $7.25 million deal, he noted how "these guys play rough in the deep end." Now he has an agent, former Dodgers GM Dan Evans.

• He is a local. When Zaun was with the Jays, he got tired of renting a few years ago and bought a house in Palm Harbor.

• He has a cool Web site. The plan was to use GreggZaun.com as a platform to sell memorabilia to raise money for Right to Play, an athlete-driven humanitarian organization he joined a few years ago. That part is still in the works, but the site sports catchy images and tunes.

• He plays the drums. Ex-Ray Eric Hinske taught him when they were in Toronto and gave him an electric setup. "I always thought I'd like to be a rock star if I wasn't a baseball player," Zaun said. "And I tried for years to play the guitar, and I stunk. My hands are bludgeoning instruments — I have no dexterity whatsoever — so hitting a drum is way more natural."

• He already has another job. Zaun spent the past three postseasons doing TV commentary in Toronto and has an offer to do so this October. He hopes, however, to be busy with the Rays.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays Gregg Zaun wants to be baseball's oldest catcher 08/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 14, 2009 11:20am]

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