Zielinski's impact went beyond evaluating talent

Longtime Cubs scout who passed away Jan. 5 connected with players, families

Zielinski's impact went beyond evaluating talent

CHICAGO -- There are so many stories, so many players whose lives he touched, so many miles he traveled, that trying to sum up Stan Zielinski in a few paragraphs is futile. He wouldn't want the attention.

Zielinski, who died Jan. 5 at the age of 64, had to be tricked to attend a dinner in January 2016, when he was named the Cubs' Scout of the Year. He was always worried about being fired. Zielinski had no reason to be concerned.

In his 38 years as a scout, Zielinski signed Kyle Schwarber, Cliff Floyd, Kirk Rueter, Jeff Samardzija and countless others who may never make an All-Star team but are better for having known Zielinski. Last year, he drove 70,000 miles through the Midwest, where the weather isn't always cooperative. Zielinski had the ability to evaluate a player for what he thought he could become, not necessarily what he saw on any given day.

"[Zielinski] is 100 percent about the kid, and he had an unbelievable knack of seeing a kid in a limited evaluation setting because of weather or conditions, and being able to say, 'That's the guy,'" former Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. "Most of the time it would be a guy nobody else has talked about."

The catcher

Smith, who was Schwarber's coach at Indiana, said most scouts tend to travel in packs, chasing the prime players together.

"What was different about Stan was he was a man of his own eye, his own talent and his own conviction," said Smith, now the baseball coach at Arizona State. "The big thing with Kyle was, can he catch? Not catch? And how that would affect his Draft status. Stan was so adamant and had strong convictions that this guy could catch at the big league level.

"I always admired that because far too often, guys went whichever way the wind blew, and Stan did not do that -- particularly with Kyle," Smith said. "When the Cubs selected him, he was not projected to go that high. I would venture to say that Stan was a huge part of that decision."

As soon as Schwarber arrived at Indiana, Zielinski asked about his makeup, how invested he was as a student-athlete and a teammate. Eighty percent of the talent evaluators felt Schwarber would not catch in the Majors, Smith said. Not Zielinski.

"He took the time," Smith said of Zielinski's efforts. "Some guys don't put that time in and they sit back and see a radar reading and evaluate the tools, but I think everyone knows now that what makes Kyle Schwarber so special is that here's a kid who doesn't have 250 at-bats in the big leagues, but he took that city by storm. He did it by his play but also because of the kind of person he is, and you don't know that unless you do your homework."

Seinfeld

Scott Effross connected immediately with Zielinski. Their first conversation at Indiana was not only about baseball but about what Effross wanted to do outside of the game. Both were huge "Seinfeld" fans. After the Cubs selected the right-handed pitcher in the 15th round in 2015, Zielinski would drop references from the show in text messages.

"I think the way he looked at it -- and I thought it was a very smart way to look at it -- is that he saw the player on the field, but he wanted to dive deeper into the person I was," Effross said.

Last season, Effross went 6-0 with a 2.77 ERA in 32 games in relief at Class A South Bend, and every time Zielinski got a good report, he'd call the pitcher to tell him to keep up the good work.

"It was good to have him as a guy in your corner," Effross said. "If you're pitching well, you'll hear about it. He was genuine -- 'You're impressing people, keep it up.'

"I'll miss those phone calls," Effross said.

'Gut feel' players

Before the Draft, the Cubs' amateur scouts are asked to submit a list of four "gut feel" players. Austin Jones, a pitcher at Wisconsin-Whitewater, was on Zielinski's list, and the Cubs picked him in the 26th round but were unable to sign him.

"It was such a great process -- [Zielinski] identified a guy who nobody else in the industry liked or saw, and this was one of his target guys for the Cubs to take. And we did everything in our power -- we had all the right information, we just ended up not having enough money because of CBA restrictions to sign him," said Cubs director of amateur scouting Matt Dorey.

This past fall, Jones' fastball was clocked at 98 mph, and Dorey said the right-hander is now one of the highest-ranked Division II players in the country.

"Everybody is going to see him, and Stan was on this guy before everybody else," Dorey said. "That's how polished and advanced of a scout he was and that he was always looking for value outside the margins."

Last June, Zielinski lobbied for Tyler Peyton, a right-handed pitcher from the University of Iowa.

"Stan called me and said, 'I know we're getting late in the Draft, but I really would like to take Tyler Peyton,'" Dorey said. "[Zielinski said] 'I think this kid could be one of those steals in the Draft when we look back in five years.' I said, 'Enough said, Stan. Next pick, I'll take Tyler Peyton.' Sure enough, in the 29th round, we take him, and ended up signing him."

No one knows how far Peyton will get in his pro career, but he will always be special as far as the Cubs are concerned. The Iowa native was Zielinski's final Draft selection. Peyton was one of several players who sent flowers to the funeral, saying he'll be forever indebted to the scout.

The mentor

A standout pitcher at Wapahani High School in Indiana, Zack Thompson met Zielinski about a year ago. The Cubs couldn't agree to terms, and the lefty was selected by the Rays in the 11th round of the Draft. However, he opted to go to college at Kentucky. That didn't end Thompson's connection with Zielinski.

"He was different from all the other scouts," Thompson said. "Everybody knows how good a scout he was -- but he was a friend and a mentor. Even after the Draft, he kept in contact.

"There was one day a few months ago, when a tornado passed through close to my hometown and he called to make sure my parents were OK," Thompson said. "Stan was a special kind of guy. He was awesome."

The two exchanged text messages about the Cubs' amazing 2016 season. When Thompson got to school, Zielinski helped the freshman go over his interests and helped him pick business management as his major.

"It was just Stan," Thompson said. "I hope everybody who he scouted got to know him like that."

Passion for the game

Charlie Donovan was a standout shortstop at Westmont (Ill.) High School, and one of Zielinski's favorites, but he was picked by the Brewers in the 30th round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of signing, Donovan decided to honor a full-ride scholarship at Michigan. On Nov. 5, 2015, Donovan died by suicide. He was 18.

"Charlie passed on a Thursday, and [Zielinski] was here all Saturday afternoon with our family," Charlie's mother Karen said. "Charlie's birthday was shortly after, and Stan was here delivering flowers to us, and took us out to dinner just to be with us. With our younger son being watched by scouts, we continued to see Stan a lot."

Last month, just before Christmas, Charlie's younger brother Joe, a catcher at Westmont, sat down with Zielinski for a lengthy chat as part of a pre-Draft evaluation. Zielinski had scouted both boys. On Jan. 14, the Donovans hoped to see Zielinski again at a dinner in which the first Charlie Donovan Passion for the Game Award would be presented by the Chicago Scouts Association. Zielinski helped create the award.

"We were so saddened to hear when Stan passed," Karen said. "There was that tiny glimmer -- I don't want to say happiness, but knowing what we've gone through and knowing what the Zielinski family is going through, we thought about how Charlie is going to see Stan and they'll be able to hang out."

This summer, Jim Donovan, the boys' father, had planned on joining Zielinski at ballparks to learn about scouting.

"That was one of my biggest thrills to stand and talk to him," Jim said. "He was such a big teddy bear and had this self-effacing humor that disarmed everybody. It was such a gift. We were always chuckling and laughing in one way or another. He just endeared himself -- I'm sure we're among many, many, many families who felt the same way about him. The connection with Charlie intensified the whole thing."

Dorey said Zielinski's wife, Holly, noted that "one of her favorite legacies of Stan is the amount of time and energy and work and compassion that he showed to the [Donovan] family, and not because of the incident but before that. He became good friends with the family."

The first Charlie Donovan Passion for the Game Award was presented to Pierson Gibis, a senior at Wauconda High School (Ill.), who was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that develops from connective tissues in the body. Zielinski would have been proud.

"Stan was such a unique man," Cubs scout Sam Hughes said. "He's an incredible ambassador for our game, a mentor on our staff without trying to be. He articulated his thoughts and painted clear pictures with his words like no other. He made me proud to be a scout."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.