By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
To a lot of people, perhaps, the scene was desultory: a mid-June game between two teams far below .500, the seventh inning of a 7-1 blowout, Milwaukee's Miller Park two-thirds empty. Houston Astro Alan Zinter waited in the on-deck circle. To the fans barely paying attention in the stands, Zinter was just another no-name pinch hitter strolling to the plate. For him, the moment could not have been more tense or exciting. "My knees just shook; I could feel my heart beating in my chest; I could hear my pulse in my ears," he says. But that short walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box marked the end of a long, long journey for the 34-year-old catcher.
It marked his big-league debut after 13 years in the minors. Thirteen years of bad pay and endless bus trips, 13 years of watching his teammates get younger and younger as former hopefuls gave up the dream or got promoted past him. Big things had been expected of him. He was a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1989, but his big break never came. Somehow, Zinter never gave up.
"If you had asked me 13 years ago at Shea Stadium, 'You're not going to make the big leagues until 2002 -- can you do it?' I probably would've said no," says the El Paso native. "It was frustrating, watching TV and seeing people I had played with or against. I was never jealous -- it just fueled my fire to do more." Zinter says he stuck with it all these years simply because he loves the game. "I've always had heart and dedication," he says. "But I would critique things a lot -- I wanted to be a perfectionist."
But baseball, as he notes, is a game where the best batters fail 70 percent of the time; he had to learn to accept that and not dwell on the times he couldn't get a hit. "I realized I had to change my attitude and think positive thoughts," he says. "You have to not let the bad days be so bad and the good days be so good, but to stay on an even keel."
Each spring would bring the moment when he'd get the bad news that he was being shipped down to the minors. But this year the new Astros manager, Jimy Williams, left him believing his chance would come soon.
Sure enough, his chance came, on that otherwise forgettable mid-June night. Zinter grounded out against Brewer pitcher Ben Sheets. From then on he was a big-leaguer, his career statistics forever listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia no matter what the rest of his future held. Now, instead of long bus trips, he's taking charter flights to four-star hotels in Chicago and Montreal, playing in stadiums he's only dreamed about and basking in the casual locker-room luxuries that veterans take for granted.
"I'm not a prospect anymore. I think I appreciate it all even more now than I would have if I was 23," he says. "I'm enjoying every minute of it."