He welcomes the challenge of being one of the youngest pitchers in pro-ball. He's not afraid of throwing over 100 mph fastballs. The threat of injury does not phase him. He won't fear facing power-hitter Barry Bonds. Erie starter Joel Zumaya is fearless, except for one thing. He is afraid of heights.
"I actually went to Niagara Falls on an off day. I went close to the edge, looked over and was like - no way - I'm not even getting close! I'll just sit back here."
The 11th round draft pick for the Detroit Tigers (2002) may not go near a roller coaster, but his pitching speed matches the velocity of one.
"Sometimes I don't know how hard I'm throwing, but that [digital speed display] gets me in trouble so much because I always look back at it after a pitch," Zumaya, 20, said. "Every time I strike someone out and I know I throw hard, I look over there and get yelled at by the catcher and all of them telling me to stop looking. Sometimes they yell the speed out for me."
The speed of 95-100 mph is one reason why he leads the AA Eastern League with 143 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings pitching. Zumaya still has a comfortable lead in the league strikeout race, despite having been promoted to AAA Toledo. That number makes the San Diego native proud.
"I love striking out people," Zumaya said. "Back where I lived, I played in neighborhoods where it was bad and all. You've got the bullies who pick on you and I use to love striking out those guys. I love taking care of bullies."
Zumaya didn't have to worry about bullies after his junior year of high school growth-spurt "I was chubby. I was short and chubby. I didn't even look like a baseball player," Zumaya said. "In high school, my junior year, I just – boom – grew up and just kept growing and growing. My senior year I came back and people were like ‘oh my gosh' and coaches from high school were like ‘you grew up' and since then it's been awesome."
In his growth spurt, Zumaya shot up from 5'7 to 6'3. He said the growing got rid of most of his baby fat and he tells people that his "left-over baby fat" helps him get the ball to the plate.
Zumaya made his pro-ball debut at age 17 and said it was a little scary for him.
"I didn't have any family around me and I was nervous meeting new people," Zumaya said. "At first I thought [being young] was a disadvantage. I would have people picking on me. I had the coaches who knew I was a new comer coming in just picking on me, yelling at me, making me feel small. But I think it helped me out."
Teammates like fellow Erie pitcher Nate Cornejo have helped Zumaya along the way.
"Cornejo is one of my best buddies," Zumaya said. "We talk all the time and he's helped me out so much. The beginning of the year was bad for me. I had 3 straight starts where I just wanted to hang it up. I was like – no way – this is not me. Cornejo came in and talked to me."
Zumaya would go to Cornejo in search of advice. "I asked him, how is it up there – talk to me. He said – I know how hard you throw, but you don't always have to throw that hard. He's helped me out so much, "Zumaya said, "and now I'm top 10 pitching and going to the futures game and the all stars game and everything. I give it all to that guy. We are like brothers."
Cornejo wasn't the only one who helped Zumaya along the way.
"My pitching coach has helped me out a lot. Last year I got to Erie, I was just throwing – I wasn't pitching," Zumaya said. "I was just throwing as hard as I could. I was pumped to be in double A – I was showing people what I have and I actually ended up hurting myself. He told me with the stuff I have, people are not going to hit me and if they do hit me it's because they got lucky or something. You will come across good hitters that will hit it but there's not everybody that can hit a ball as fast as I throw."
Zumaya has his supporters but also has his critics. Some complain that Zumaya gives up too many walks. His response?
"I'll tell you right now, those people don't know too much about baseball. I'm a power pitcher," Zumaya said. " I throw really hard and sometimes I have no control over the ball. I have no clue where the ball is going so it's hard to throw strikes every single time. You're going to walk people. Yeah – I give up 4 or 5 walks and sometimes it's a bad thing, but look at my strikeout to walk ratio. I strike out 10-12 people a game so I don't really care what people say about the walks."
The amount of walks cannot kill the buzz around Zumaya that Detroit will call him up soon.
"I take it one day at a time. People are always saying to me – oh, we can't wait to see you up there and can't wait till they call you up. And you know," Zumaya said, " I can't wait either. That phone call is hopefully one day away. I just take it one day at a time. I focus on what I'm doing right here and if I get that phone call, I'm calling everybody!"
Zumaya thinks his role with the Tigers won't be as a starter.
"Sometimes I think I'll be better as a closer because I like throwing really really hard," Zumaya said. "I love to throw hard and I think if I come out for one inning just to get three guys out to win the game – then that's my role right there."
Zumaya said if he was in the National League, the player he always dreamt of facing was Barry Bonds.
"That's one guy I want to face, " Zumaya said. "That guy is a great hitter. He can do anything with a baseball. If he hits a home run off me, I'll tip my hat and shake his hand, but hopefully, if I strike his butt out – he tips his hat to me and says ‘congratulations kid'."
If that were to happen, Zumaya's mother would be the first to clip out the article to add to her son's album. Zumaya said his mother searches his name on the Internet every single day. "My mom probably has every single article you can think of," Zumaya said. "She has albums of it, newspapers and everything. She always says – hey, go on the computer and look at you and I'm all – no Mom, I don't do that stuff. It doesn't do any good for me."
What works for Zumaya is calling his family and girlfriend every single day. He calls his mom in the morning, before he goes on the field, after he gets out of the game and before he goes to bed. One thing that also keeps Zumaya going is his little brother.
"My little brother says I'm his biggest idol," Zumaya said. "He went to every game of mine. He was always on the road with me when traveling. I'm doing everything I can to get him ready."
While his little brother is getting ready – Zumaya is perfecting his pitch. He is working on the slider and is told to stick with his curve ball, change up and fast ball – because it's doing so well.
Since the age of 8 to today Zumaya plays this game with heart.
"I hate losing. I'm such a competitive person," Zumaya said. "I love to win. I get down sometimes when I lose, but we live to fight another day."
Soon, the next day he fights will be in Detroit with the Tigers.