In his seven years as a baseball analyst for Sportsnet, Gregg Zaun has developed a straight-talking style has made the former Blue Jays catcher the face of baseball analysis in Canada.
The Gauntlet talked to baseball’s Don Cherry ahead of his appearance at the Dinos baseball and fastball fundraising dinner on Feb. 6, covering everything from the growth of baseball in Canada to his opinions on recently traded Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, with whom Zaun had a rocky relationship.
The Gauntlet: What can we expect during your appearance next week at the Dinos fundraiser?
Greg Zaun: Speaking to a group of people in a college-type situation, I think a lot of them want to know how I was able to last as long as I did. I think that outside of just the fundamental instruction of the game, it’s more of a mindset. What does it take to get to the big leagues? What does it take to stay there for 16 years?
These guys are definitely playing baseball for a reason. You’re not playing college baseball in Canada because you don’t love the game, and I would imagine that most of the guys on the team have some sort of professional baseball aspirations. They want to know how a guy who was 5–8 and 150 pounds got drafted and made it to the big leagues in such a short time.
G: You’ve been living in Canada for a while now. What are you seeing as far as the growth of baseball in Canada?
GZ: To me, it’s all about opportunity. If they have the practice facilities or live out west in B.C., they get a bit better weather, but it’s about opportunity. There’s definitely a passion for the game but there just aren’t enough facilities for kids to train year round here. These facilities that are cropping up, it’s amazing. They’re great facilities. The kids can go in there and hone their skills so that when the weather breaks they can get outside. It’s almost better in a way, because they get to spend a lot more time on the fundamentals.
When you look at the premier Canadian players that are in the major leagues, you’re talking about premier players period. Justin Morneau has won an MVP. You got Matt Stairs, Larry Walker, Jason Bay, Joey Votto — these guys can play. They’re very good players, not just fundamentally sound major league players — these guys are all-stars, and I think a lot of it has to do with the time that they spent indoors, honing their skills because they really can’t go out and play a game.
G: Why did you decide to come back to Canada and work for Sportsnet after you retired from baseball?
GZ: I retired at a time of year — basically right in the middle of spring training — where there wasn’t going to be a coaching job available to me, and I really wasn’t ready to embrace the idea of coaching. I was done. I had enough of playing the game. So the last thing I wanted to do was go through a batting practice, or deal with the game on that kind of a close level. I’d been working with Sportsnet for five or six years already doing postseason analysis. One of my best friends in the world is my broadcast partner Jamie Campbell. He basically gave me the opportunity, hand-picked me eight years ago for the postseason analysis job.
I love the city of Toronto, the country of Canada. People treat me like royalty here, and you can’t beat that. I would rather be a big fish in a small pond any day of the week, rather than some anonymous broadcaster down in the States covering one team. I’m Canada’s baseball analyst, and it helps me with my philanthropic work, the Gregg Zaun Foundation. It makes me a lot more visible in this country than I would be anywhere else and it gives me an opportunity to do some really great things for people nationwide.
G: Have you ever seen a team struggle to meet expectations as badly as the Blue Jays did last year?
GZ: They struggled to meet everyone else’s expectations, to be honest with you. I don’t think the players personally set the bar that high, otherwise you would have seen them make a number of adjustments during the season that you just didn’t see them do. I think a lot of the media hype is what led to the expectations. But if you go back and look at what they brought in [from the Florida Marlins], they didn’t really have a lot of success in Florida. To me, it was all about José Reyes. He was the only one that mattered to me in hindsight, and I’d make the deal all over again to get José Reyes.
I think the expectations will be a lot lower on them, but until the players start putting higher expectations on their level of play and actually go out there and deal with expectations, they are going to remain exactly where they are — in the cellar. They don't play well together. They don’t play fundamentally sound baseball. They don’t catch it. They don’t situational hit. Major changes are going to be needed to take a step in the right direction.
G: You had a pretty rocky relationship with former Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia. Was removing him from the organization the right move, or does he still have a chance to be a good major league catcher?
GZ: J.P.’s going to get somewhat of a rude awakening now that he’s with a new team. When you’re a first-round pick, a bonus baby, and you’re still with the team that drafted you in the big leagues, you get some leeway. There are people with an emotional attachment to you. They drafted you and nurtured you on the way to the big leagues. They have a financial and an emotional investment in your success. When you leave the team that drafted you, they don't care anymore — it’s all about production.
J.P. could be a very good player, but he needs to make some serious adjustments in the way he approaches his at bats, and he has to overhaul what he’s doing behind the plate. He doesn’t catch the ball well, he doesn’t block the ball well, he doesn’t throw the ball extremely well. You might actually see him turn the corner, and I don’t doubt that if he gets the opportunity to do so, he could. But he’s going to need to make some changes, and maybe it’s going to be a little of a wakeup call for him. He’s not going to be able to approach the game or his teammates the way he has done in the past. It has obviously not worked for him.
The fundraiser is on Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Red & White club. Tickets are $200 and are available by calling (403) 220-7749. All proceeds from the event support U of C Dinos baseball and fastball teams’ activities and student athletes.