"But he sat with me for about an hour and I chatted with him and got inside his head," Zapata said. "He realizes he has a gift, but without working at that, the gift is useless. He probably realized that a little late in the game."
The kid was Mat Gamel, the Brewers' sweet-swinging answer at first base for the departed Prince Fielder. It was November, and with Fielder almost certain to leave Milwaukee via free agency, Gamel was already facing his best chance to finally win an everyday job at Miller Park.
He's had opportunities before, perhaps not to be a Brewers starter out of Spring Training, but at least to make the team. In 2009, Gamel's long-shot bid was derailed by a sore arm. In 2010, he tore a muscle behind his shoulder. In 2011, he strained a rib-cage muscle.
Brewers officials made sure Gamel knew that 2012 needs to be different. That's what led him to Zapata.
"He was with me religiously, 3-4 days a week, and when he wasn't with me he was hitting or working out with high school teams. He completely got after it," Zapata said. "He became kind of obsessed with it when he saw how his body was changing. I saw his whole attitude change. His focus changed. He matured a lot, to be honest with you."
From start to finish, Gamel and Zapata were together less than three months, with Gamel's assignment to the Dominican Winter League mixed in. Gamel's wife, Julianne, joined some of the workouts, and so did his younger brother, Ben, a Yankees farmhand. Zapata ordered Mat to change his diet and cut out alcohol, and taught him to focus on hydration and flexibility.
Asked how much weight he's dropped since this time last year, Mat Gamel paused.
"A boat," he finally said.
OK, that was an exaggeration. But Gamel said he is 25-30 pounds lighter today than when he reported to camp last year, admittedly out of shape and blocked at all of his positions -- at third base by Casey McGehee, the corner outfield spots by Ryan Braun and Corey Hart and at first base by Fielder.
"I was out of shape," Gamel said with a shrug. "It was lack of doing what I have to do. I was going to hit and not doing the other things that were necessary. I'd say this is the first [winter] that I've been a regular in the weight room. I've always hit and done that kind of stuff much more than I was in the weight room. This year, I was 100 percent more consistent [in workouts]. I actually had a routine."
"I've never seen anyone get results at the pace that he got them," Zapata said. "His body really transformed in a short amount of time, and that was the result of him being compliant, consistent and disciplined, and from working his butt off. I'm going to be honest with you -- I crush
The difference is obvious.
"From last year, yes, I do have a different impression," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He came in ready. He knows last year he didn't come in shape and ready, and he wasn't going to let that happen again."
Gamel was certainly not the first player ever to report to Spring Training a bit bulky, but it hurt him. After recovering from the rib-cage strain, he spent most of the summer at Triple-A Nashville and had a career year, batting .310 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. But he went just 3-for-26 in a brief, 10-game big league stint with the Brewers.
That's been the story of Gamel's career so far. He hits like crazy while playing every day in the Minors, then struggles in the Majors while getting only sporadic at-bats. He has batted .222 in 194 plate appearances over four seasons.
The Brewers are betting that things will be different with regular playing time. Roenicke, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and new hitting coach Johnny Narron all spoke with Gamel over the winter to make sure he understood the magnitude of the opportunity.
"He understands it," Roenicke said. "He wants to be a Major Leaguer. He knows he's proven in Triple-A that he can play, to the point where he hopes he gets that shot to play and do it at the big league level."
The Brewers will also look at some others at first base. Right fielder Corey Hart, drafted as a first baseman in 2000, will brush up there and could be an occasional platoon mate with Gamel. Taylor Green, blocked at third base by Aramis Ramirez and at second base by Rickie Weeks, will play some first, though he and Gamel are both left-handed hitters so a platoon wouldn't work. The Brewers also signed former Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa to a Minor League deal and invited him to Spring Training.
Gamel just has to get through a Spring Training healthy. His trainer is already planning a trip to Atlanta for the Brewers' visit in April.
"I've never even been to an MLB game, to be honest with you," Zapata said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him play."