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McGAIR: Lincoln's Nick Zammarelli looks back at pro baseball career with no regrets

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Lincoln native Nick Zammarelli enjoyed the type of pro baseball career that few are fortunate enough to experience. He officially retired last month.

No 27-year-old should ever utter the word “retirement.”

That especially rings true when that 27-year-old is a pro baseball player.

Blame COVID-19 for derailing the entire 2020 minor league season. Blame the collateral damage from a series of 2021 injuries that chased Nick Zammarelli into a corner of seemingly no return, the game’s rigors impinging upon the performance he wanted to see on the field.

As Dr. Seuss famously declared, “Don't cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

For Zammarelli, it did happen. The Lincoln native was afforded an honest-to-goodness chance to live out his baseball dream, one that he never took for granted.

How many native sons do you know who were drafted not once but twice by MLB franchises? Ditto when it comes to earning All-American honors in college, playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League, and appearing as a starter in a Class A-Advanced All-Star Game. Zammarelli checks off all those aforementioned boxes.

In short, he enjoyed the kind of baseball ride that very few get to experience.

“If you were to tell me all those things, I would have asked, ‘Where do I sign?’” said Zammarelli when reached recently by phone. 

There shouldn’t be a shred of guilt or remorse on Zammarelli’s part when he looks in the mirror these days. He should take comfort in knowing that he put his best foot forward. He boldly went as far as his ability and ultimately his health would allow him to be able to stick around the game that’s defined him for the longest time.

“I always told myself that when baseball starts to feel more like a job than a kid’s game, it might be time for me to walk away and start this next chapter in my life,” said Zammarelli.

Retirement – news delivered by Zammarelli himself via his personal Instagram page on July 12 – doesn’t have a negative connotation in this case. In one sense, Zammarelli is a liberated 27-year-old who now holds all the cards. No longer is his existence solely defined by showing up to the ballpark at a certain time and taking the necessary steps to prepare for that day’s game.

No longer does he have to carry the guilt of being hurt and subsequently worry about the trainer informing the manager that he should think twice before writing Zammarelli’s name on the lineup card – a frequent concern with Kane County Cougars, an American Association club that ultimately proved to be the last stop in his baseball odyssey.

“I’m one of those guys that says, ‘Don’t tell the skip.’ I would rather play through it,” said Zammarelli. “Especially me knowing that it could have been my last year, I would rather play hurt and see what I could do.”

There was a sense that the 2021 season could mark Zammarelli’s final foray in pro ball. The goal was to bounce sooner rather than later from the independent ranks of Kane City to the more familiar realm of affiliate ball. Zammarelli spent from the summer of 2016 to June of 2020 as a member of the Seattle Mariners.

Zammarelli spent the 2019 season in Double-A Arkansas. There was hope he would continue to climb the ladder with the same Seattle organization that had nutured and developed him since selecting him in the eighth round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

Then came an unexpected game changer when the coronavirus forced teams like the Mariners to go the cost-cutting route and release hundreds of minor-league players like Zammarelli. It was a setback that in turn forced the Lincoln High product to seek alternatives to his quest to reach the major leagues.

Enter the Cougars of Kane City, a team located in Geneva, Illinois that extended baseball’s version of an olive branch to Zammarelli. In no time, it became clear that the world of independent ball represented a vast departure from what has become second nature for Zammarelli.

Perhaps the biggest culture shock was the actual length of spring training. Instead of having a month-plus to get ready for a minor-league affiliate under the Arizona sun, spring training with the Cougars was more of a fast-food venture. It consisted of two weeks with only a handful of exhibition games.

“Taking a year off and then trying to hit the ground running as best you can … the length of [MLB] spring training is for a reason,” said Zammarelli. “It doesn’t matter how often I lift, hit,  and throw. There’s nothing that prepares you to be in game shape the way that spring training does. We just didn’t have that luxury [in Kane City].”

An ill-timed development occurred during the final exhibition game as Zammarelli tweaked his hamstring. It was an injury that launched an onslaught of issues that he was unable to shake free of throughout the two months he spent with the Cougars. He played with the aforementioned hamstring for a few weeks, then he dealt with Achilles tendinitis’ issues. Next thing he knew, his hip flexor went on him.

Trying to compensate, Zammarelli re-tweaked the same hamstring.

“It was literally everything under the sun you could imagine,” he said. “I just played through it.”

The triple-slash line of .196/.265/.314 that Zammarelli posted in 39 games with Kane City told the story of a ballplayer who was breaking down. In 399 minor-league games, he compiled a line of .275/.340/.414. Sadly, that player never surfaced in Illinois.

“The only way I had a chance to be picked up was being on the field every day and playing well,” said Zammarelli. “The mindset I had was that the right person could be in the stands. I wanted to be in the lineup. Sometimes, things don’t work as planned.”

It wasn’t like Zammarelli woke up on the morning of July 12 and decided to call it a career. It was a decision that had been simmering for a while. When he sought counsel on what he should do, he was simply told to do what makes him happy.

“I had confidence to make it to the big leagues, but all the good things I did and as far as I made it, people would kill to be in the position I was fortunate enough to be in,” he said.

From this scribe’s point-of-view, it was fun following Zammarelli’s career.

I’ll never forget the June 2013 day when Zammarelli’s older sister Tayla went over to the visiting dugout just prior to Lincoln’s playoff game against North Kingstown. Tayla delivered the news that Nick had been drafted by the Red Sox.

Tracking him in the years that followed became part of my morning routine. Part of me hoped that he would make his MLB debut with the Mariners at a nearby location – someplace with “Boston” or “New York” as the dateline. Alas, someone upstairs had a different plan.

A few weeks have passed since Zammarelli let it be known that he was hanging up the cleats and putting away the bat and glove. The Elon University graduate is currently planning his wedding with fiancé Abby Smith.

“Right now, my biggest focus is to do what makes me happy,” he said. “Talking to someone, they said that baseball is only a small part of your life. You might not see it now, but whatever you do, you’re going to be successful because of baseball. That same person also said I’ll now be able to pick where I want to live and what I want to do.

“I do have a lot to look forward to,” said Zammarelli, someone who comes across as being at peace with the plan administered by the baseball gods.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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