ST. PETERSBURG — The internal drive and intense determination that led to Mike Zunino’s career renaissance this year and a spot in Tuesday’s All-Star Game was evident early on.
Such as how quickly a young Zunino could build multi-tiered castles and Batman’s cave and car.
“He was a big Lego kid,” said his father, Greg. “You gave him any kind of big Lego set at Christmas or whenever, and in an hour you’d have to give him something else because he’s done. He was focused. It’s that focus right there. It’s always been there. That’s a great asset in anything, but in this game especially.”
That workmanlike approach steered Zunino growing up. As a 5-year-old he’d often go out to the back patio and hit off a tee for hours, then parade through the house wearing catcher’s gear three sizes too big.
It led to success through youth leagues, Cape Coral Mariner High (playing shortstop as a freshman before going back behind the plate) and the University of Florida, where he swept national player of the year awards in 2012 and was the No. 3 pick in the draft by Seattle.
It helped him handle the ups and downs of his pro career after being rushed to the majors by the Mariners the next year and struggling during his first two seasons with the Rays. He was benched for the 2019 postseason and had his $4.5 million option declined after 2020 (despite a strong postseason), re-signing for just over half as much money because he wanted to stay and re-establish himself as a starter. He then diligently completed an overhaul of his swing, leading to his 18 homers and majors-best 1.180 OPS vs lefties (minimum 65 at-bats).
And it’s why since his election to the All-Star team by his peers became official last week, he has given credit to just about everyone — his wife, Alyssa, and other family members; current and former coaches, staff and teammates from both organizations ― but himself.
“It’s one of those things — it’s sort of how I’m wired,” Zunino said. “I’ll just continue to show up and do my job and work until I can’t anymore. It’s just something that I’ve done from a young age. I think persistency goes a long way. And I just tried to do that.”
His dad, for one, was hardly surprised: “That’s his personality. He doesn’t seek attention. He doesn’t really care what he does. He just wants to be part of the whole group and help everybody get better.”
Baseball was a family sport, as Greg played a couple years in the Yankees’ minor-league system, then pro ball in Italy before starting a long career as a scout, currently a supervisor with the Reds. Plus, his wife and Mike’s mom, Paola, was a catcher on the Italian national softball team.
As fiercely as Zunino can hit a ball (max exit velocity 117.3 mph), as well as he can block balls behind the plate, as hard as he can throw to the bases, and as much praise as he gets for handling a pitching staff, his father says those aren’t his real strengths.
“He’s always had great perseverance,” Greg said. “He’s smart where he likes to he works things through. He’s not afraid to try different things if something’s not working, but it’s his mental side, I think, is probably one of his biggest assets, because he’ll work hard at everything. He’ll try to figure out every possible way to get things done.
“You can see the physical tools, but the people who get to know him, they know the mental side of him, and I think that’s the part that really gets him through all this.”
Longtime agent B.B. Abbott of Tampa-based Jet Sports said it’s been “remarkable” how Zunino has handled all the challenges. “He has gone through moments where it would have been easy to throw up his hands in frustration, but he never did,” Abbott said. “He knew he could impact the game defensively and offensively every night. He endured, he kept working, he kept grinding.”
Alyssa, who married Mike in October 2012, marvels at his balance of work and family, as they have two toddlers, Rhett and Paisley, born just over 11 months apart.
“I am unbelievably proud of him,” she said. “He has worked so hard. Through the ups and downs of this game he has always been the same amazing man and never brings it home. He is as humble of a player as it gets.”
Zunino, predictably, said what will make the All-Star trip to Denver even better is who he gets to share it with.
Because the Rays reached the World Series last year, manager Kevin Cash, his coaches and staff (23 in all) will run the American League team.
And it will be something of a family affair, with about 15 relatives going. That includes Alyssa (”I wouldn’t be here without her,” Zunino said) and the kids, both of their parents (Greg got permission to skip the last day of the draft), Alyssa’s two sisters and their husbands, who are Zunino’s closest friends since childhood and throw to him during the offseason as they all live near each other in Gainesville.
Maybe, Zunino said, when they get on the chartered flight west after Sunday’s game, he’ll allow himself a moment of satisfaction.
“When you’ve got those three-hour plane rides, you can really sit down and just see your family and have a good time,” he said. “And to be able to share it with the coaching staff and the staff here is going to be special as well.”
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