September 2, 2015: Peoria, Arizona
Bottom of the ninth, two outs, and the bases are loaded. One run ties it. Two runs and the Mariners win it all. White Sox first baseman Corey Zangari is locked in. As the ball leaves the bat of Mariners’ Juan Camacho, Zangari follows it into foul territory, gets underneath it and makes the catch. And with that, the White Sox are 2015 AZL Champs. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind as he made the catch. There weren’t any nerves either. That’s because winning is all he knows how to do.
First, with his American Legion team at age 9, Corey won the first of three consecutive home run derbies. Then, at Carl Albert High School, when he and his Titan teammates played in four and won three, Oklahoma state championships. Could have been 4 if Corey hadn’t been intentionally walked every time he stepped to the plate. However, if you’re the opposing team, you know that in the previous two games he hit 3 home runs, including 2 grand slams, accounting for 11 RBIs. You’d have walked him too.
If his games were televised, each time the catcher from Midwest City stepped to the plate, they would be must-see tv. You’d put down the remote and watch the right-handed power in all its developing glory. At 6’4”, 240 lbs, Zangari is an imposing figure, especially since he celebrated his 18th birthday a week before playing in his final high school game.
Both parents were athletes growing up; dad, Matthew, ran track, and mom, Kathy played softball and basketball but neither has the same physical development that Corey does though younger brother Caleb shows potential. Corey’s aptitude for the game started as a toddler when his mom introduced him to the game of baseball. Through American Legion, his arm developed just like his bat; both with power, and he was already taller and bigger than most of his peers.
CARL ALBERT HIGH SCHOOL, MIDWEST CITY, OKLAHOMA
As a freshman at Carl Albert High School, Corey joined a program that had already produced J.T. Realmuto, drafted by the Marlins in 2010. And on the team was Sophomore Gavin LaValley and Senior Taylor Hawkins. 'Z', as his mom calls him, would be the 4th power hitter in five years. Corey was not assigned to the Varsity squad until mid-season when he was called up to varsity by legendary coach Wayne Dozier, someone who knows a lot about winning himself. During Zangari’s high school career (2012 – 2015) the team posted a record of 139-18-1 – this translates to an 89%-win percentage.
Under Dozier’s leadership, the Carl Albert Titans won 563 games in 17 years. Since 2006, they played in the state championship game 7 times, emerging the victors in 5 (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014) and the runners-up in 2006 & 2015. Since 2010, Coach Dozier has had 4 players drafted high enough to forego their college commitments and sign professional contracts out of high school. They include: Realmuto (Miami Marlins, 2010 /3rd round), Taylor Hawkins (Tampa Bay Rays, 2012 /12th round), Gavin LaValley (Cincinnati Reds, 2014 /4th round) and Corey Zangari, (Chicago White Sox, 2015 /6th round).
Zangari, the youngest of the group, learned the importance of creating a culture of winning, where the momentum works in favor of the team, even in challenging times because the players have a bond with one another. No one gives up, they keep fighting. That was the culture awaiting him his freshman year at CAHS. He learned this because it’s the only way he knew. According to Dozier:
“We had a very close-knit group of players that spent a lot of time together away from the field. They would spend many a night at Gavin LaValley’s (Reds’ organization) house throughout the year and especially at playoff time. We would also have team meals together at my house and then go to movies together as a way to become a closer-knit team.”
Corey was always excited about all of these things and was always asking when we could do it again. His attitude was contagious, especially with some of the other team members who might not be inclined to do that sort of thing. These players began to be more involved.
In 2012, Zangari wasn’t added to the varsity roster until midway into the season. A few weeks later, he was in the starting lineup for his first of four consecutive championship games. Then, without a great deal of experience, Corey was named and remained the team’s lead catcher. Due to a common theme found when asking about his strengths, Corey’s desire to learn and excel expedited his baseball development so that it soon matched that of his physical stature. He logged games in the outfield and at first base as well.
Prior to his senior year, the hard-hitting righty spent time developing into a hard throwing right handed pitcher. His fastball would touch 95, though not consistently. His command of the strike zone was also understandably underdeveloped. But there was promise in his potential, enough to be listed as a pitcher, along with Ashe Russell, Justin Hooper, and Mike Nikorak for the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field in 2014. He was one of only two pitchers to go 2 innings.
As an integral reason for the three consecutive championship seasons, Corey was on the radar of MLB scouts in the area, especially that of Clay Overcash.
The White Sox area scout knew he wanted to sign Corey the first time he saw him play. The more he saw of the power-hitting junior, the more convinced he became that the White Sox were the perfect fit. He also knew that with the right deal, there would be a good chance Zangari would forego his commitment to play for Oklahoma State and sign a professional contract instead. "He always had a plan to hit, but his greatest strength from the first time I saw him was his ability to make adjustments as a hitter.”
There’s a good chance the teams that faced Zangari and the Carl Albert Titans, especially in 2015, would agree with that assessment. With LaValley gone – drafted by the Reds in 2014 – it was Corey’s team now. No one to lean on or learn from, he was now the leader, on the field and in the clubhouse. Corey struggled a bit at first, according to his coach, “…by trying to be too vocal. After we had some discussions, he realized that to be a leader, to be a truly mentally tough player, it was better for him to say less and focus more on traits of mental toughness.”
He started to lead by example, and as his teammates followed. “Corey’s confidence strengthened and he became more comfortable as a team leader, and in living with his own success and failure.”
In January, Zangari, a member of the National Honor Society, received the prestigious Ferguson Jenkins Award at the annual Warren Spahn Awards Gala. The Jenkins award, sponsored by the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, recognizes excellence by students in their sport as well as in the classroom. Among other recipients that evening was Wayne Dozier, Outstanding Coach of the Year, and two-time Cy Young Award winner from the LA Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ ace received the Spahn Award, the best left-handed pitcher in the game.
(Photo courtesy of Kathy Zangari)
Little did anyone realize when this was taken that the two award recipients would become neighbors when spring training comes around. The Dodgers and White Sox share facilities at Camelback Ranch, Glendale.
ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON?
As always, the goal is to play until the final out of the season, and for the fourth year in a row, Corey and his Carl Albert teammates played in the championship game. The Titans did not win the title, due in large part to the fact that Corey's bat was silenced. Even when there was nobody on base, he was intentionally walked each time he stepped to the plate. That may sound extreme at first, but if the team from Shawnee High School wanted to dethrone the reigning champs, they knew better than to let Zangari swing a bat.
After being “The Kid” for three years, Corey was now, “the Man.” He, literally and figuratively, stepped up to the plate and made the opposition regret having pitched to him. He alone was the subject of meetings as teams prepped to face the Titans. He was already having a monster year the best year of his career; hitting half of his 38 career home runs in his senior year. In the playoffs, when it mattered the most like he did all year long, Corey came up big. In the two must-win games, he hit 3 home runs, including 2 grand slams (one each game) and a 2 run home run, to leave no doubt who would advance to the title game. Won and Won.
Of the many memories Dozier holds dear to of his time with Corey, it all boils down to this:
“Corey is a clutch player. He was able to raise the level of his game to an even higher plateau after many of the players, the backbone of our 3-year state championship run, had graduated. We were not as deep or talented as before, so Corey stepped up and produced at a greater level. He put more weight on his shoulders and responded with unbelievable consistency, especially during the playoffs.”
Kathy Zangari’s son turned 18 on May 7th, but he was already a man.
Less than a month after the championship game, Corey’s life would change forever.
Overcash wanted Zangari in the White Sox organization from the first day he saw him, and once he signed the 6th round pick, it was official.
“Anytime you take a high school player you worry a little about how they will adapt to professional baseball and the daily grind. After spending five days in the dugout with him in Jupiter at world wood bat tournament, I felt like he was ready. He’s really a great athlete; such a mature kid when it comes to hitting, too. “
When asked for a big leaguer to compare to Corey, the longtime area scout didn’t pull any punches: “Paul Goldschmidt…with an infectious personality.”
He’s not wrong about that.
WELCOME TO GLENDALE!
Shortly after signing his contract with the White Sox, Corey headed for the player development facility in Glendale, Arizona where he would spend the next 3 ½ months playing in the Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) or as it is often referred to, “The Fire League.” Games are played in the evening, but the 7 pm first pitch temperature is often 100 degrees or even above. The 2015 season was one of the hottest summers on record, too. The heat takes a toll on everyone, but you adapt.
As all teams do to some extent, the White Sox host a pre-season mini-camp for the draftees. Veteran guest instructors are brought in to talk to and work with the young rookies whose lives have been in a whirlwind of excitement and change. In another example of insight and understanding what the newest kids need, former Sox DH/1B Jim Thome was, for a few days, Corey Zangari’s coach. The elder power hitter watched the rookie send a few sailing over the batters’ eye in batting practice.
“He [Thome] told me, 'Yes, you can definitely hit. But we need to work on the fundamental round. Gotta get to work on the fundamentals of hitting.' I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant at the time, but I did whatever he told me to do, the best I could do it and it seemed to work.” Corey shared.
Truth be told, Corey may not have known what it was called, but as Overcash states, “He is a mature hitter, who hits for power.” Let the distinction be clear, the in-game adjustments, and toward the end of the season, even in-at-bat adjustments that he made could not have happened if he were merely a power hitter. Zangari is a hitter, who can hit for power.
However, it was taking this hitter longer than he wanted to record his first professional hit. Not until his 3rd game, after going 0-10, but it was worth it. With catcher Seby Zavala on base, Corey announced himself to the world of professional baseball with a loud 2 run home run to left field, and the “Killer Z’s” were born.
Offensively, the AZL White Sox were a force to be reckoned with. Each batter was a grinder. The organization’s philosophy on hitting centers on having a plan and being aggressive. That combination resulted in a team leading the league doubles, hits and OPS, 2nd in HRs and runs scored, SLG, OBP. Another sign that the two-pronged approach was working, the team was in the top 5 in walks and had the 2nd fewest strikeouts. This team production is why 4 of the 9 positions on the AZL All-Star team were White Sox. Well, if we're going to be precise, there were 3 players, named to 4 positions. Zangari was the DH and the 3B, despite never having played the position. Never mind the details, just get the big picture: he’s good. Really good. Everyone knows it.
The transition from catcher to 1st base required a greater focus on the defensive details by the 18-year-old rookie. He didn’t get frustrated, he became more determined; extra drills, extra reps, extra effort of whatever would help him improve. In contrast to his physical presence and his mental approach, he was among the very youngest in the league at all times. Easy to forget, at times.
While I attended many games and spoke to him at different times, I formally interviewed Corey on two separate occasions in August.
My 3 takeaways were: 1) How grounded he is; doesn’t try to be anything other than who he is. Impressive, especially for being so young. 2) That he’s a respectful young man, not just one who says what he should in order to be seen as respectful – there’s a difference. 3) How much he loves the game of baseball.
The most surprising thing I learned about him: his favorite food is sushi!
One game that Corey won’t ever forget – nor will I or anyone else in attendance – was at home against the Indians on August 5th.
In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Seby Zavala scored; Corey and teammate Micker Adolfo were heading home on a single by Danny Mendick. As Zangari scores, he turns to direct Adolfo, At the same time, the catcher moved to the outside of the plate, forcing Adolfo to head to the inside the plate, when his cleat got stuck in the ground. Adolfo’s body turned, his leg did not. Resulting in a spiral break of his tibia. Freak accident.
What is unforgettable is the sound Adolfo made as he fell and writhed on home plate in great pain. The deep shrill and the pain on his face was too much for me. Corey and the rest of the team were motionless while Adolfo was cared for, then carried off the field. It was the last game of the season for one of Corey’s roommates and good friends.
I caught up with Corey again on August 15th and asked how he was doing. He said he had been "in a little slump." This was news to me because I checked the box scores every day and nothing stood out. When I asked if he knew what was causing the "slump", he paused for a moment and then broke down the mechanics of his swing and how he needed to adjust his hands to keep up with the rapid pace of the game on the professional level. He then followed with "but it just takes one hit to end it." During his self-analysis, I couldn't help notice his hands involuntarily act out what he was describing that he should be doing. The moves were discrete and seemed instinctive.
I asked what he would normally do if he were experiencing the same thing at home. “Talk to my mom.” he said. That’s a good approach anytime, but especially when mom played softball and knows both the game and her son so well. When I suggested he call her, he said he didn’t have to because she and his dad, Matthew, arrived in Phoenix and would be at the game that night.
I don’t have to tell you that the slump ended that night, do I? Corey went 4-5 with 2 RBI. Slump over. The next night at the Reds, he logged his first – and only – multi-home run game of the season. Two 2 run home runs. I repeat: the slump was over.
Earlier I shared Coach Dozier’s memory of watching Corey mature and become a clutch player. This single elimination playoff game against the Dodgers is when I can pinpoint seeing Corey Clutch. In retrospect, it’s quite fitting that in a playoff game, when it matters the most, Zangari performs best. I took the picture below in the bottom of the 11th inning. The losing team packs up and starts their off-season. Perfect time for Corey to step up to the plate.
Runners on first and second. Corey takes a breath, swings the bat and Danny Mendick scores the winning run on a base hit. Walk off White Sox. Next, they defeat the Royals 4-1 to move on to the title game against the Mariners, as the visitors.
Pregame and throughout every inning of the nail-biter, there did not appear to be the same nerves on the field that permeated the stands.
Middle of the 9th; White Sox lead 3-1 and are 3 outs away from their first AZL championship. The bottom of the 9th took years off the lives of many in the stands. One run scored, pitching change, a walk to load the bases. I survey the players on both teams; everyone seems to be mentally present. Then with 2 outs and the bases loaded, first baseman Corey Zangari tracks the ball as it leaves the bat and heads to foul territory by first base. With the same expression he wore the whole game, he’s locked-in. He wants the ball, every ball, to come to him. He knows he’ll make the play. As he positions himself under the foul ball for the 3rd out of the game and the final out of the season, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he’s going to make it. He does. Ball game. AZL Champs and none of it came easily.
The next day, Corey was on a plane to join the Great Falls Voyagers, the short season affiliate in the Pioneer League. He joined former roommate Jordan Stephens for the final week of their season.
The stats below do not include post-season play, which is too bad. It’s also sad that there’s no measurement for coming through in the clutch.
Coach Dozier says, “Big players are going to turn up big in big games. That’s the competitor in them and that’s what they do. They look for situations. They’ll find a way to be successful and the other guys will wilt.
There is no doubt that Corey Zangari is a big player.
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