An Interview with Former Jayhawk Mike Zagurski
Jan. 8, 2008
The following is taken from an article on rockchalktalk.com, a blog devoted to coverage of KU athletics. The story was written by James T. Quinn and first appeared on Jan. 7.
Mike Zagurski is the most recent KU baseball success story. Mike pitched at KU from 2004 – 2005 and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 12th round. As a Jayhawk Zagurski was impressive, but no one could have expected how rapidly he would climb through the minors and reach the big leagues. In just under two years Zagurski earned six promotions, the final bringing him to the main club where he made his major league debut on May 25th, 2007, pitching an inning of scoreless relief in a Philadelphia’s 8-3 win over the Braves.
While at KU Zagurski and Kodiak Quick formed a Left-Right hammer that gave the Jayhawks a solid Big-12 weekend rotation. Zagurski set the KU single season record for most punchouts with 112 in 2005. That same year Zagurski also set the school record for most starts (19) and his 112.2 innings pitched ranks 6th in team history.
The Phillies converted Zagurski into a relief pitcher and the change seems to have agreed with him. A quick glance at his performance in the minors shows Mike has established himself as a dominating left handed middle man capable of striking out opponents at an impressive rate. Zagurski’s first year in the majors was cut short by an injury, but he certainly looks like a strong contender to rejoin the Phillies once he has fully recovered from his surgery.
Mike was kind enough to talk with me this week about his time at KU and his experience in professional baseball. A few of his answers are surprising and offer insight into the life of a college and minor league prospect. Tip of the cap to him for taking the time to stay connected with the Jayhawks. Mike Zagurski is a thoughtful well-spoken man who remembers his time in Lawrence as some of the best years of his life.
You played high school baseball in Omaha and then two years at Hutchinson Community College before transferring to KU. Why did you choose Lawrence?
I had a few options, Nebraska, some schools in the south, but there was something about Kansas that felt right. I thought I had an opportunity to jump right in and be a weekend guy and contribute right away. Coach Price and pitching coach Steve Abney both impressed me. I wanted to play in a major conference and after visiting Kansas my gut instinct was to go there.
Looking back, do you think going to KU was the right choice?
Without a doubt. It was the best decision I ever made career wise. I was still a bit rough around the edges as a player when I arrived and the coaching staff made me a much better player overall.
Did your time at KU prepare you for professional baseball as well as if you had instead gone straight into the minors after leaving Hutchinson?
Yes, my time at Kansas helped. The lifestyle and travel that comes with minor league baseball, I wouldn’t have been prepared for that. The quality of players in the Big-12 is also much more comparable to what I faced in the pros. There are a lot of good players in community colleges but the overall level of play is much higher in the Big-12. I think if I would have gone straight into the minor leagues I would be out of baseball now.
Who were some of the toughest hitters you faced while at KU?
I don’t know if I ever got Alex Gordon out in two years. Cameron Blair of Texas Tech killed me also. He hit about .800 off of me. Those were the two toughest.
I have read that the level of play in the Big-12 roughly equates to that of High-A minor league baseball. Does that sound correct to you?
Yes, I think so. The quality of the players is comparable. High-A baseball might be easier on pitchers because a lot of the hitters at that level are still getting used to using wooden bats.
What do you think about the use of aluminum bats in college?
You might be surprised but I am in favor of using them. I am a fan of baseball and I think aluminum bats are good for the college game. They make the game more exciting for the fans. Not many casual fans like 1-0 games and the aluminum bats create more runs. Speaking as a pitcher I didn’t like making a good pitch only to see it turn into a hit but on the whole I am in favor of the aluminum bats.
What should young players who think they have a legitimate shot at playing professional baseball consider when choosing between college and a minor league offer?
Money is a big issue but it is a complicated decision. A guy who signs for one or two hundred thousand dollars, that is a lot of money for a seventeen or eighteen year old. Being offered a few hundred thousand dollars can be a life changing event that is hard to turn down. But you have to balance this with the reality of the minor leagues. Most people don’t realize that minor league players only get paid $1,100 a month. You have to realize that every year there are about fifty guys in the organization who are after your job. If I hadn’t gone to KU I am not sure I would have been prepared for it and probably would be out of professional baseball now.
My experience in college was worth more than any amount of money I could have signed for. Not only for the baseball but for all the other experiences as well.
Congratulations on earning your degree. Are there demands placed on college baseball players of which you think some fans may not be aware?
It is tough. The amount of time beyond what you put in at the ball park. You attend fundraisers, act as an ambassador for the program, attend study sessions. Plus the time in the classroom. It is just a lot of time. Also athletes cannot hold down jobs so you have no money if you want to do something like take your girlfriend out or go to a nice restaurant. There are perks, like playing before thousands of fans and getting help with your tuition, but a lot of people think athletes are pampered because they do not realize how much extra time and work is involved.
How much financial support did you receive at KU?
I think it was about 50%. I had my tuition covered. I was lucky because my family could help out.
Do you think the use of performance enhancing drugs is an area of concern in college baseball?
I never really put much thought into it at the time. I do not think they are nearly as prevalent as in professional baseball. Certainly not to the same magnitude. Maybe it will become a bigger problem if more college players see professional players using. They might try to get an edge.
Just a 5% increase in results can make a huge difference in baseball.
Absolutely. A 5% improvement might mean the difference between someone getting drafted in the 4th round instead of the 8th round. Or not getting drafted at all.
What are some of the adjustments you had to make after becoming a professional player?
I was lucky and my coaches liked most of what I was doing and didn’t make a lot of adjustments. In professional ball I attack the strike zone a bit more. I was always encouraged to do this but it works a bit better in professional ball because of the wooden bats. I try to throw strike one right away and challenge the batters. Getting a guy out in three or four pitches works a bit better in professional baseball.
How was life during your first two years of minor league ball, in Batavia and Lakewood?
Different. In Batavia, most of the players didn’t even have cars and we were living with host families. I was used to my friends and transportation while I was at KU and suddenly I am riding my bike back and forth to the park every day. Lakewood was great. Every night there would be seven thousand fans in the stands. It was one of my better experiences. And my host family was great.
2007 was an amazing year for you. You went all the way from High-A ball to the majors in less than three months. How did this happen?
In spring training my hope was to make the AA team. The Phillies were good about giving me opportunities to pitch for the AA team in spring. At the end there was a lot of trickle down. More experienced guys who didn’t make the major league team pushed me down to high-A ball. But the coaches told me if I threw the ball well I’d get to AA soon. After I was promoted to AA I started to see pitching in the majors as a more realistic goal. I knew the Phillies were in need of some left handed relief pitching. I never expected to make the club in spring, but by the time I was pitching in AA I knew I had a chance.
Your season ended early due to an injury. What is your status now?
I am feeling okay. Not 100% yet. I hope to be 95% by spring training and ready by April 1st. The surgery went well and right now it is just a waiting game.
A few quick questions – What is the best park you played in while in college?
Texas A&M. It is a beautiful park and they have good rowdy fans who also show a lot of good sportsmanship. I also liked Mississippi State’s park quite a bit.
Who has the worst park?
Missouri. I can’t think of anything that made that park nice.
Was going to Hawaii more fun or more work?
It was great. It was a great opportunity to play outside and get some games in while there was still snow on the ground in Kansas.
What team did you most like to beat?
Missouri. When I first got to Kansas the rivalry meant nothing but after one game you start to dislike them. Missouri always has a good team and I was always up to play against them.
Did you have a favorite teacher while at KU?
Scott Harris of the Communications department was great. He was very helpful in getting me into the field of communications.