Winter Work/Play in the Ozarks, Part II

It can't be baseball all the time, every day of the week. Zack Cox and James McCann know the Ozarks is the right place for some down time. Here's the second part of the series on the former Razorback stars.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the time former Arkansas stars Zack Cox and James McCann spend in Fayetteville over the winter as pro baseball players.

It's not true that Zack Cox -- along with a handful of other professional baseball players -- spend the winter in Northwest Arkansas because of the duck hunting.

"It's a nice perk," Cox said. "But I'm here because it's a good place to train. I wouldn't do it if it didn't help me to be here."

It also helps that he's got good friends around him like James McCann, Logan Forsythe, Jarrod McKinney and Brett Eibner. There's mentors like Arkansas coaches Dave Van Horn, Todd Butler and Scott Gurss close by to provide advice.

"And the facilities are as good here as anywhere in the country," Cox said. "I played with James, Jarrod and Brett and we've gotten close with Logan in the last year working here."

And the duck hunting?

"It's pretty good," he said. "I'd done some at home, but I got into it after I got here. The ducks are kinda scattered right now, but it can be real good. It was really good last year.

"You have to do something in the offseason and duck hunting is about perfect timing. You can't be all work in the offseason or you will burn out."

McKinney contributes heavily to the duck hunting of the group. A product of Hughes Springs, Texas, his family has ranch land in good duck hunting area in Northeast Texas. An outfielder in the Houston Astros system, McKinney lives to duck hunt.

McCann is catching the fever, too. He recently bought a portable duck blind to join in the fun. He had never hunted until coming to school in the Ozarks. A California boy, the closest thing he'd done to hunting was to "shoot some coyotes" in the mountains.

"There's not much hunting in Santa Barbara," McCann said in his understated style.

McCann said he's had to learn to pace himself in the offseason, with the advice of Cox and Butler.

Cox is one year ahead of him in pro baseball and told his best friend that there is a trick to making it through the grind of the long pro season.

"I can remember Coach Butler telling me that you have to be able to turn it off and slow down or you wouldn't make it," McCann said. "Cox told me the same thing. There's a way to do it.

"I'd say this group here, the guys I train with, are all pretty intense. We all work hard and that's why we are here together. But you do have to slow down in the winter. You get your work done, but you need something to release. Duck hunting is it for us."

McCann has to take care of his body because a catcher faces a different type of wear and tear over the course of seven or eight months.

"There is a cliche about baseball -- it's a marathon and not a sprint," McCann said. "I had to learn that. I had to realize that my hands and body needed time to recover. A catcher is going to take some foul balls on his hands. You have to keep playing. But at some point, you have to heal them. Your wrists are going to wear down from all the swings in the cage. It's a day after day grind.

"Your hands just get sore. Cox told me about that first. His wrists would just get sore from all those swings. Unless you've done it, you don't understand.

"I listen to Cox. Coach Butler preached it to me, too. I remember telling Coach Butler one time during our spring college season that it was a grind. He laughed and said, ‘You better figure out how to pace yourself because if you don't, you won't make it in pro ball.

"That turned out to be true. It's a challenge and we've all had to learn to handle it. But it's something we look forward to and really like.

"I probably didn't give myself any time off as a college player. We'd play all spring, go to Cape Cod in the summer and jump right back into it with fall ball. But we did that knowing we were going to have days off during the spring season. In pro ball, there are no days off so you better take time off in the winter."

Most wouldn't recognize that that group was taking it easy. They work in the batting cage in the morning, then go to the weight room during the middle of the day. They might run sprints or take ground balls after lunch. But there is evidence in the Cox living room that there has been plenty of duck hunting in the last couple of years. He's got quite a few mounted ducks, including the most coveted of the species common to Arkansas.

"I got the first duck I killed mounted," Cox said. "I've got a canvasback, a pintail and the first greenhead I shot all mounted," he said. "I don't know how many, but I've got a few."

Cox enjoys the woods. It's not just for hunting. He's got a special hill back home in Kentucky where he's hacked a path to work on his conditioning.

"I've worn a groove through the woods," he said. "It's up a long hill. I try to sprint it. It might be 50 or 60 yards. Right through the woods. "I went home two or three weeks ago for a bit and did that hill. I still do that as part of my training."

There's plenty of work, but it isn't all work. "That's where the duck hunting comes in," Cox said. "It can't be all work and no play." There is play. But the former Arkansas stars do work at their craft, too.

"That's a solid group to work with in the winter," McCann said. "We push each other pretty good and we all like it here. The people and the facilities are great.

"I'm not sure any of us would push each other by ourself so it's good to have workout partners. "I've turned into a hunter. We do a little deer hunting and I got a doe this fall. Then duck season opens up about the time we get back here in the late fall. It's perfect timing."

Zack Cox likes to work on his conditioning with a run up a hill in the woods.

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