Gretzky. Jeter. Andretti. These athletes, dominators of their respective sports, all have a specific thing in common. From a young age they, like many famous athletes, have known that playing professional sports was always what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
Wayne Gretzky, known in the world of hockey as "the Great One" received his first pair of ice skates when he was only three years old. Derek Jeter, the Yankees great, started his baseball career at age five by joining tee ball. Mario Andretti, winner of the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, would take pot lids out of the cupboards and run around the kitchen, going "Vroom, vroom" at two years old, pretending to be a racecar driver.
Zach Arneson, the New York Yankees' 2011 ninth-round draft pick fits right in with this group of athletes in at least one way: he's been playing baseball since age four.
"I haven't really considered anything else ever. This is definitely always what I've wanted to do since I've been a little kid," Arneson said. "I've always wanted to play in the major leagues so I'm on the right path and hopefully that can happen. Baseball's always been my main focus."
There's just one small twist with Zach's story. Arneson, who was drafted as a pitcher, didn't become a serious pitcher until college.
"I didn't really even start thinking about pitching until my senior year of high school. And like really, actually pitching -- my fastball, slider and changeup those all developed in college," he added.
From an early age, Arneson always knew that going into professional baseball was what he wanted to do with his life. However, the right-handed pitcher originally started his career as a middle infielder. Yet even though his dream of being pitcher in the Major Leagues got started a little bit late, he still hopes to have his name one day listed among Yankees pitching greats such as Whitey Ford, Andy Pettitte and Ron Guidry.
From the time he could swing a bat, Arneson was playing baseball. His dad, Jim, who played football for the University of Missouri, encouraged Zach and his older brother Jamie to get involved with athletics early. Jamie started playing baseball so naturally Zach followed his big brother and began to play ball too.
"My dad got me into baseball," said Arneson. "He got my brother into playing baseball and I just kinda followed in that path. Baseball, basketball and football, all kinds of sports growing up."
With enrollment in school also came enrollment in the little leagues. Jim and Zach's mother Christine enrolled Zach in tee ball at age five. He showed talent early, and showed intensity atypical of young children.
"Even when he was really little, he'd get irritated when the other kids [on his baseball teams] would not be paying attention, even though they were little. This is baseball; this is serious stuff. He takes it seriously. There is nothing else in the world that kid wanted to do but play baseball," said Christine, reminiscing about Zach's early playing days.
Over time, Arneson developed a strong work ethic and dedication to the sport.
"I worked with both of my boys and to be honest they both gave up a lot of weekends at the movies or whatever because I was taking them to the ball diamond to practice. I told them if you're going to play a sport let's work hard at being the best that you can be. And that's what they both did—they worked extremely hard," Jim Arneson said.
"We would get up early to do weight training at the gym and go running early in the morning. I would always video tape the mechanics of his pitching so he could look at it at home. We would do this for years and years and years."
This dedication continued to be prominent, even during Zach's college years.
"A lot of factors go into a pitcher being successful, but I know this, he'll work as hard as he possibly can, he won't short change the effort that he puts in and in the end I think he'll maximize the opportunity he has to achieve a career in baseball," agreed Lewis-Clark State head coach Gary Picone. "I know that his effort and his focus and his energy will be maximized. He'll get to the full potential that he has."
Growing up, Zach and his brother would frequently play baseball together. Jamie recalls how he and Zach "were always competitive with sports." In addition to being a brother and a teammate, Jamie has also been a huge influence on Zach. Jamie was a draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 and spent three years in the Reds' organization.
"He saw me sign with the Reds and just as an older brother in general you have to set a good example. I'm three years older than him so he kinda looked up to me so I tried to set the best example I could for him," Jamie said.
Zach's father was also a guiding factor in his development as a pitcher.
"My dad influenced me," Arneson said. "My dad's always had a good arm. My dad played football for the University of Missouri. So he kinda pushed me to pitch and I had a really good arm. So it worked out for the best. My dad and my brother really influenced all my pitches."
From an early age, Arneson has been a huge Yankees fan. Even though he grew up in Bakersfield, California, and the rest of the family were Dodgers fans, nobody questioned his baseball allegiance with New York. Call it fate, or call it luck, but the Yankees possibly drafted their number one fan.
"It's just out of control awesome [that he was drafted by the Yankees] because he's just the biggest fan," Christine said. "When he was a kid, whenever Yankees games would come on, and I'm talking recently, he gets geared out.
"We've got jerseys, hats, and he puts them on. He's the biggest Yankees fan in the entire world so for him to be drafted by the Yankees is just…even If he goes no further than A-ball, it is a dream come true to this kid and I know he's gonna work just so hard to make the most of this opportunity."
The rest of the family also recalls Zach's fascination with the Yankees.
"As far as I can remember he's always had Yankees shirts, jerseys, hats for years and years so for this to actually come to fruition to play for the Yankees—just everyone in our family just couldn't be happier for him," Jaime said.
"Basically everybody in our family is Dodgers fan but here's Zach in California—a diehard Yankee fan ever since he was an elementary kid," Jim added.
Through elementary school Zach played as a middle infielder. However, he was a small kid, and he didn't get many opportunities to show his skill in middle and high school. In fact, he didn't make the varsity team his junior year of high school.
"He was a really good player when he was a little kid but once he got into the junior high years he quit growing," his father said. "So what happened was his junior year of high school he did not make the varsity team—he actually got cut from the varsity team. But going into his senior year he had a growth spurt and he just developed a really strong arm. And the rest is kinda history."
On the varsity team his senior year, he discovered his arm strength that, in the future would catch the attention of the Yankees scouts. In addition, he was able to showcase his talents and get the attention of college scouts.
"[In middle school] he played baseball. He was a middle infielder," Jim Arneson said. "He played second base. He's played baseball his whole life ever since he was...well I had those guys out there since they were five years old. Physically he didn't explode and develop until his senior year of high school and that's when the arm strength really shot up. Of course now he can get it up to 97 miles per hour."
After high school, Arneson attended Bakersfield College for two years. Using his newly found arm strength, Arneson spent his college years developing his pitches.
"The bottom line is if you have a strong arm they'll find a place for you and it's usually on the mound," Jim Arneson added.
However, playing for the BC Renegades, Arneson only had 17.2 innings of work. He had a record of 1-3 with one save in 14 appearances. In an effort to get more innings, he moved on to Cal-State Bakersfield. Unfortunately, the move wasn't as productive as Arneson was hoping. He pitched only 15 innings in 12 appearances.
Still yearning for more playing time, he again moved to Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. There, he finally got the playing time that he craved. During the 2011 season, he pitched 44.2 innings, more than doubling the innings he was allowed at his previous two colleges. He averaged an ERA of 2.82 with 46 strikeouts and only 17 walks.
"By the time he had come to Lewis-Clark State he had already pitched three years in college because he had been to a community college for two years and one year at Bakersfield, so by the time he came to Lewis-Clark State he'd been pitching for a while. Obviously he doesn't have a ton of experience because of when he started with pitching but I think he certainly had enough experience to come here and be successful," commented Picone.
At Lewis-Clark State, Arneson's pitches, as well as his incredible arm strength, were able to catch the attention of Major League scouts. He has a devastating four-seam fastball, a changeup that with a bit of work could rivals Sabathia's, and a slider that could fool big leaguers. His fastball reaches velocities of 95-97. His changeup is 77-81 and his slider is 86-88.
"He's got a live arm. He's got a good slider and a developing changeup—it needs some work but it's got the ability to be a very good pitch for him," commented Jim.
"There are only so many guys out there who can throw 95 mph and he's one of them," added Picone.
As well as the head coach, teammates also noticed Zach's talents on the field. Lewis-Clark State fellow pitcher Carsen Nylund echoed the coach's sentiments.
"His strengths? Everything to do with baseball," Nylund said, "and his work ethic on and off the field. The way he carried himself was really good. I never really noticed too many weaknesses with him."
Zach's intensity and dedication not only made him a good player, but also a good teammate.
"Zach's committed to being a really good player so I think that he is a teammate that can lead by example," Picone said. "He takes care of what he needs to take care of. He's very focused on what he needs to do.
"I think basically he's the type of guy that goes about his business in a very quiet way but is very focused and concerned about taking care of the work he needs to do. He's a really good teammate because he sets a good example. I think he's a good person so he's the kind of guy that people like to be around."
In addition, he has a mentality often seen in veteran players.
"My favorite part of the game would be pitching in big situations," Arneson said. "I'm not scared to do that at all actually. I enjoy doing that especially as a closer when the game's on the line and getting my team the win."
As well as a veteran-like mentality, Zach also is a very devoted player.
"You know Zach is an organization and a coach's dream because he's going to do nothing but bust his butt and work hard," his father noted. "I think his weaknesses are just experience at the pro level. He's got to have more of that. And improving the command of his pitches."
Between the pitches, the mentality, the devotion, and the wealth of potential that comes from Zach's arm strength, Yankees scouts see good things to come out of Arneson, and he is eager to continue showing his stuff.
"Just keep doing what I'm doing. Obviously I'm doing something right. Help out the team in any way that I can," Arneson said.
With being drafted by a team like the Yankees, there comes a lot of pressure to perform and excel.
"What expectations do I have for him? Well I expect for him within a month to be on the New York Yankees. I'm kidding," Jim continued. "I just expect for him to work his butt off and do what the organization asks him to do on a daily bases. It's a job—just get up for work and work his butt off.
"Nothing's guaranteed in this life and it's definitely not guaranteed in professional baseball. I expect him to work hard and pay attention to major league and professional coaching and see where it takes him from there."
"He throws major league velocity which is obviously part of the reason of why he got drafted where he did," Picone said. "I think his delivery is getting more consistent. I think he'll just keep getting better from where he is. I don't think that he's anywhere near where he'll be a year or two from now. His experience and pitching delivery will catch up to his talent in another year of two and hopefully it'll all work out and someday he could pitch in the big leagues."
Even with these pressures, however, Arneson will most likely still find time to de-stress and have fun.
"One thing that people might not know about Zach until they really get to know him is that he's a prankster," his father noted. "So the more he gets comfortable with his teammates, they'll probably notice that he's quite a prankster sometimes--all in good fun. I could see him [being the guy with the shaving cream pie]. He would love to get to the major league level and work extremely hard to get there but once he got there he would enjoy every second of it and that would include some shaving cream pies—you never know."
Arneson's success in the draft brought a wealth of emotions from his family and friends.
"It brought his mother to tears. She said ‘I can't believe he was drafted by his favorite team.' I mean how many guys can say that?" shared Jim. "I'm proud. I'm most proud of the type of person that he is and secondly I'm really proud of how hard he works.
"He's always looking to improve his game whether it's watching video on the computer of major league guys who currently play the game or studying film of himself. He is constantly working to improve his pitching ability and that's what I'm really proud of, the way that he's focused and trying to get better. And that makes me proud to see him carry that work ethic into baseball—now his professional life."
"He's got an explosive fastball and a very intimidating presence and he's definitely not the little brother that I remember," said Jamie nostalgically.
"I just wish him the best and hope he does well," Nylund said.
"I'm glad for him and that he's got the opportunity that he's got and I'm looking forward to following his progress," Picone added.
Arneson is more than ready to be on the New York Yankees, pregame ritual and all.
"I always have to have Stride Spearmint Gum before every game. I always put my right sock on last. For no reason at all, just something I've always done," he said.
Superstitions aside, this newly pronounced pitcher is looking forward to the big leagues already.
"Hopefully you'll see me someday in the big league playing for the New York Yankees. That's my goal and I'll do anything I can to get there. Then you can come watch," Arneson said.
Yankees great Joe DiMaggio once said, "I think there are some players who are born to play ball." Zach Arneson is one of those players. Even if he only recently discovered that his place in the diamond was on the pitcher's mound, he always knew that playing baseball is where he belonged.
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