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How new Rays pitcher Zach Eflin overcame life’s grenades

The death of a sister and his parents’ divorce when he was a child shaped him to be the man and player he is today.
 
New Rays starting pitcher Zach Eflin, 28, says childhood experiences with death and divorce made him grow up fast. "But never was I jealous of anybody’s life or anything. Our family doesn’t think like that.”
New Rays starting pitcher Zach Eflin, 28, says childhood experiences with death and divorce made him grow up fast. "But never was I jealous of anybody’s life or anything. Our family doesn’t think like that.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 18, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Zach Eflin is not resentful, not covetous, not jealous.

He is well aware of the idyllic childhood some of those around him in a major-league clubhouse have had, of the limited challenges others have had to overcome.

And of the hell he lived through.

An older sister who died at age 7 of leukemia. Another born with a development disorder. A mom whose alcoholism led to divorce. A third sister forced to become a de facto parent. A dad who worked multiple jobs to provide for them. A slew of financial and other issues.

“As much as it’s tough growing up in an environment like that, it’s shaped me to this day,” said Eflin, 28. “It’s basically what I based my life off of, what I’ve learned throughout those years, and it forces you to grow up as a kid.

“Growing up I always felt like I was more mature than everybody just because I had been through life experiences that nobody had really been through. But never was I jealous of anybody’s life or anything. Our family doesn’t think like that.”

Family is what got him through the pains of childhood in the Orlando area to where he is now, an eighth-year big-league pitcher with World Series appearances on his stats page and a three-year, $40 million contract from the Rays in a drawer.

“It’s our story,” he said. “I’m not jealous of anybody else’s story. Everybody has their own.”

New Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Zach Eflin in a December 2018 photo with his sister Brittany, father Larry and sister Candace.
New Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Zach Eflin in a December 2018 photo with his sister Brittany, father Larry and sister Candace. [ Courtesy Larry Eflin ]

A series of events

Eflin doesn’t have any personal memories of his sister Ashley, who died in November 1995 when he was about 1 ½. But he has heard of her extended, savings-draining battle with leukemia — including the small world reality that she had treatments in St. Petersburg at what was then All Children’s Hospital, a few blocks from where he will be pitching at Tropicana Field — and is well aware of the trauma the family went through.

“It’s like a hand grenade gets rolled underneath your kitchen table and everybody gets blown in different directions,” said Larry Eflin, his father. “Because everybody grieves different. Everybody handles that differently. We were very fortunate that it brought us closer together.

“We understood we were the only ones that had been through that experience with us. And that did make us stronger.”

Zach’s bond grew with his other older sisters, Brittany, and Candace, who was born with global development delay, due to a deprivation of oxygen. She reads at a third-grade level and is able to hold conversations, plays in a Challenger baseball league (”A lot of people joke that she’s got a better arm than I do,” Zach said) and cheers on her younger brother.

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“She’s my biggest fan,” he said. “I’m sure you’re going to see her a lot (at Tropicana Field). She’s the sparkplug of the family. She’s the best.”

Zach Eflin practices  during spring training camp at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista on Thursday.
Zach Eflin practices during spring training camp at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista on Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But the family also frayed as it dealt with the fallout from mother Catherine’s issues with alcohol.

“It wasn’t a good environment for children, I know that,” Zach said. “So just kind of want to leave it at that.”

It took nearly a decade, including Larry living with his parents for about 2 ½ years, for that relationship to sever. He and Catherine divorced, and the kids moved in with him when he had enough for a new house, thanks to double shifts and help from friends.

Zach is extremely close with his father, who is approaching 30 years with UCF, currently as a utilities supervisor. Larry coached Zach in youth leagues, and provided ample inspiration and guidance, such as when Zach decided as a sophomore that he no longer like playing baseball and wanted to quit his Oviedo Hagerty High team.

“I said, “Okay, but you have to tell your coach in person that you’re quitting,’” Larry recalled. “It took him about a week or so and he went in and the coach said, ‘You’re not quitting,’ and that was it.

“From that moment on it’s been total dedication to his profession.”

A familial inspiration

Zach Eflin, shown at age 6, was coached in youth league play by his father, Larry.
Zach Eflin, shown at age 6, was coached in youth league play by his father, Larry. [ Courtesy Larry Eflin ]

Zach played his way into being a top prospect and a first-round pick in 2012 by the Padres after the Rays, who had shown interest, instead took Richie Shaffer.

“Watching my dad walk through that life and seeing how something so devastating can happen — not even just my sister Ashley, but other things in our life — to watch him overcome things like that really gave me inspiration to chase my dream,” he said.

“And really kind of use the presence and power of believing that my sister is watching down on me to go out and fulfill my dream. It’s pretty crazy.”

Zach picked up something else from his father that has helped him cope — a love of music and the safe haven it can provide.

“He always said that’s his source of being able to release his pain from in his life,” he said.

Zach prefers artists and bands that “have had similar experiences that I have,” citing the Lumineers (relating to lead singer Wesley Schultz), John Mayer and Ed Sheeran.

Whereas Larry found solace in playing guitar, his son gets his when on the mound, shedding all his stresses. He used to scribble a message on the inside of his cap but now has it memorized: I play to motivate, to inspire and to show that you can fulfill a dream with faith and dedication.

Zach Eflin, left, Drew Rasmussen, center, and Jason Adam practice during spring training camp Thursday.
Zach Eflin, left, Drew Rasmussen, center, and Jason Adam practice during spring training camp Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“Baseball’s my comfort spot,” Zach said. “I go out there and I don’t worry about anything. That’s my moment to release whatever’s built up inside. You go golfing with me, I’m mad the whole time, I’m showing my emotions.

“I go out to pitch and it’s just so free. So it’s helped me out tremendously.”

Zach said he doesn’t push to be an inspiration to others, but realizes the tale of what he overcame may make him so.

“If they choose to learn something from me, or see that someone could get through something like that, then it’s a huge blessing.”

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