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John Blanchette: Grant Zawadzki’s career trajectory takes detour to pitching mound

Spokane Indians pitcher Grant Zawadzki, center, smiles during player introductions at the team’s FanFest on Saturday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Indians pitcher Grant Zawadzki, center, smiles during player introductions at the team’s FanFest on Saturday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Job – or career – retraining gets mixed notices. One downsized worker’s livelihood jump-start is another’s waste of time.

All the data isn’t in on Grant Zawadzki’s baseball retooling. But he’s an advocate nonetheless.

“If it keeps me in the game longer,” he said, “why not?”

“Why not?” is sort of the operative question every summer when Opening Night rolls around for the Spokane Indians – assessing their chances of this being a step toward the summit of the major leagues.

Zawadzki is the grand old man of the 2017 Indians, not quite two months past his 25th birthday. That’s not unprecedented, but it is about four years past the norm – which means the clock ticks ever louder. Chances are, a player Zawadzki’s age at the Northwest League level is a veteran of one of the independent leagues, where he earned a second appraisal from a major league organization after being undrafted or overlooked.

And that’s Zawadzki’s story, too. Except in his two years in the Atlantic League, he was a where-do-you-want-me infielder.

Here, he’s a pitcher.

“I’d always had a pretty good arm across the infield,” he said. “A couple of guys I played with in the Atlantic League asked if I’d ever thought about pitching. I hadn’t, really. I just liked messing around with it before games playing catch.”

In Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, an hour outside Boston, the Zawadzki home was a greenhouse for good-glove infielders – though father Corey had been an outfielder in his lone season in the old Montreal Expos chain. Troy, two years older than Grant, played two years of independent pro baseball.

And Lance Zawadzki, now 32, is actually attached to, well, lore – at least in San Diego. As a freshman at San Diego State, he got the first hit in Petco Park before the Padres ever had a chance to christen the joint. After being drafted by the Padres and a quick rise through the minors, he got a surprise April promotion to the majors in 2010 – perhaps the only guy hitting .162 ever to get the call – and promptly slapped out a hit in his first MLB at-bat.

“Lance called me at home – I was sleeping when the phone rang – and when he told me he’d been called up, I about lost it,” Grant recalled. “I was a little ticked I didn’t get to go see him play – we were in a state tournament – but Troy and my dad got to go.

“Both my brothers were big influences. Dad always pushed us to push ourselves, but seeing how much they cared about it allowed me to realize how much I did.”

Lance Zawadzki’s MLB stay was short, and he pinballed through five other organizations before landing in the Atlantic League in Lancaster, where in 2014 manager Butch Hobson found himself in need of a fill-in second baseman and asked Lance about his little brother.

“I ended up staying the rest of the year,” Zawadzki said.

His pitching odyssey, however, didn’t start until after the 2015 season, while working at RBI, a baseball facility in Knoxville, Tennessee. When Zawadzki showed some promise with a weighted-ball workout program, his boss, Nate Headley, got him a session with a Padres scout – and that landed him a contract and a roster spot in Arizona last year.

He hadn’t pitched in a game since Little League. So how did that return to the mound go?

“I don’t even remember,” he laughed. “I’m sure there was a walk in there someplace.”

Two actually, and three hits and a run in an inning and two-thirds. He also struck out three – and in his next five relief appearances, he didn’t give up a run. But after an up-and-down season, he was released.

“I struggled just getting comfortable on the mound,” he said. “I didn’t know how I wanted to feel up there. I always felt like I was searching for something.”

He decided not to stop. Over the winter, his friend Chad Bell – a pitcher for the 2010 Indians and now with the Detroit Tigers – used his connections to arrange an audition with the Texas Rangers. And now here he is.

The Rangers have some experience at this switcheroo. Johan Yan, a hapless-hitting third baseman with the 2007 Indians, returned three years later as a pitcher and eventually reached the Triple-A level. And then there was Matt West, the 2008 Spokane third baseman who reinvented himself as a reliever – though his real notoriety here was for two sucker punches he delivered in a 2011 brawl at Avista Stadium. He made a few big-league appearances with the Rangers and Dodgers before signing in Japan this year.

Those two earned their second looks by throwing hard – and they were still just 21 when converted. Zawadzki’s fastball is 90ish, but he’s actually more reliant on a curveball. And his age makes him a realist.

“The odds aren’t great,” he said. “But if you think about it, the odds of just being a professional baseball player aren’t great, either. It’s an amazing opportunity – to have a platform like this where you can be an example to kids. You can be a real light.”

For the road ahead. And a turn signal – if you need to change direction.

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