MESA, Ariz. — When you walk into a professional locker room, it’s not hard to figure out who the athletes are. They’re the ones with all the muscles. They’re the ones who don’t look like me or you or most anyone of our acquaintance.
The other day, a rather plain-looking man in a blue T-shirt and blue shorts made his way through the Cubs’ clubhouse and stopped at a stall. This obviously was a stocky, middle-aged locker-room attendant. Probably dropping off something for a player. And, indeed, after a few minutes, the man walked away.
But he came back and plopped down in the seat in front of the locker as if he owned it, which was odd. Attendants are there to serve, not to sit. Then the husky, no-necked man started pulling on a uniform, which was not just odd but borderline sacrilegious. Who did this guy think he was?
According to the jersey and the name above the locker, this guy thought he was Mike Zagurski, No. 48.
So you adjust. You won’t let your preconceived notions rule you. Not you! Clearly, big Mike was a bullpen catcher. Or a roving minor-league instructor whose nameplate had found its way above a locker in the Cubs’ clubhouse.
Nope. This was Mike Zagurski, relief pitcher.
A surreptitious Google search on an iPhone revealed that Zagurski is a 36-year-old lefty who has played for 10 organizations in the United States and two in Japan.
This was glorious. Here, friends, was one of us — a 6-foot, 240-pound, deep-dish pitcher. And we need him. The Cubs need him. He could own Chicago, a city of guys just like him. Guys named Zagurski. Guys named Bronko Nagurski.
Yes, as it turns out, people do question whether our man is a professional ballplayer.
“Often, often,’’ he said. “Everywhere. Sometimes people will say, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I play baseball.’ They say, ‘Oh, you just work with the team?’ I say, ‘Sure.’ It’s not worth the hassle of trying to [convince them]. I’ve been skinnier. I’ve been heavier. I’ve been a little bit of everything. This seems to be my best performance weight. It’s kept me around, I guess.
“I certainly don’t look the role compared to the Jason Heywards of the world and the physically fit, the physical specimens. But, yeah, I’m surviving.’’
He is. Since the Phillies chose him in the 12th round of the 2005 draft, he has pitched in the majors for the Phillies, the Diamondbacks, the Pirates, the Yankees and the Brewers, compiling a hefty 7.78 career ERA in 76„ innings. He has also played for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Between the majors, minors, winter ball and Japan, he has worn 25 different uniforms. He went 11 years, 23 days between his first major-league victory (June 7, 2007, for the Phillies against the Mets) and his first loss (June 30, 2018, for the Brewers against the Reds). All of it speaks of struggle and perseverance.
At some point in his long journey, he realized he was a better pitcher if he had more meat on his bones. So 240 pounds, it was. But it’s not as if Everyman has eaten everything in sight.
“When I was with the Phillies one year, they wanted me to get down to 209, and every pitch was like 86 mph,’’ said Zagurski, who throws 90 to 92 mph at his current weight. “Then they wanted me to put more weight on. I got too big, and I just didn’t like the way I moved. I didn’t feel my body was working as well as it should.
“It’s certainly been a fine line of a little more, a little less. I became a little bit more flexible. I did a little less heavy lifting. Just trying to find out what works best.’’
He might not look like a typical ballplayer, but he thinks many of the veterans in the clubhouse know who he is from experience.
“I would imagine if they just saw me eating dinner down the street, they would never look twice,’’ he said. “But being around as long as I have, they probably know me. Playing against me, they probably made jokes about me.’’
He said he prides himself on being fairly athletic. It’s pointed out to him that of course he’s athletic; he’s a professional baseball player.
“Professional pitcher,’’ he said, correcting his questioner. “I don’t want to over-athlete myself, compared to these other guys. Yeah, I get by.’’
Any player who is standing in the Cubs’ spring-training locker room in February has a chance of making the team. Some have a better chance than others, of course. Zagurski knows exactly who and what he is.
“I think the best thing you can do is show them what you’re capable of,’’ he said. “You’re certainly always trying to make a team, but the realistic part of it is that you’re a depth piece, and you want to just show that, hey, I’m capable of doing this. I’ll be down there if you need me. I’ll do my best.’’
Until then, he’ll continue to think good thoughts about the possibility of playing for the team he followed as a kid growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. He watched the Cubs’ title run in 2016 with extra interest.
“I imagine it’s tougher for these guys to be just normal people and go out to dinner after the World Series,’’ he said.
If there’s one guy who could be successful in Chicago and still go out to dinner unnoticed, it would be Zagurski.
“Fact, fact,’’ he said. “Just look like the common folk.’’