A journeyman's tale with a Chicago Cubs connection
The motor coach inched its way through Tokyo traffic on a seemingly endless ride from Narita airport to the middle of the city.
While a few exhausted members of the Chicago Cubs either made jokes or grumbled about the crawl, one journeyman catcher didn't want the ride to end, even though he had spent countless hours on buses.
Seated alongside his wife, Yvonne, catcher Alan Zinter took it all in.
Zinter was one of the last cuts of the spring in 2000, but because he had played part of the previous season in Japan, the Cubs brought him along to help out with the pitchers in the bullpen for their season-opening trip to Tokyo.
It was a familiar rite of spring for Zinter, then 31. He'd go to big-league camp only to be sent to the minor leagues. This was the third straight spring he had gotten the bad news from the Cubs.
Zinter never quit. He finally made it to the major leagues in 2002 with the Houston Astros, hitting a home run for his first big-league hit, in the 4,706th at-bat of his pro career.
Today, he is in his second year as the hitting coach of the San Diego Padres. During the Padres visit to Wrigley Field this past week, Zinter talked of perseverance.
"I love the game, obviously," he said. "When you're in it, each year is going to be 'the year.' I felt like I was still good enough. I didn't ever want to quit. That never crossed my mind. Obviously, I was frustrated.
"But you use that as fuel to try to figure it out. Being able to make it at age 34 was tip of the iceberg that I was able to persevere and get there. Then I wanted to stay there and find a niche.
"Being able to play for 19 seasons was an accomplishment for me. I wanted to play until I was 40. But I think looking back at all that, it's prepared me for what I do now. I absolutely love what I do. All those tough times and frustration, it was baseball.
"Life's not fair. Baseball's not fair, but it was very good to me, and I'm able to use all those experiences, all those tough times. I'm a little bit more sensitive to where hitters are. It prepared me for what I do now. It helps me with hitters today."
Zinter was a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1989. He played in such places as Williamsport, Birmingham, Toledo, Pawtucket and Tacoma in four different organizations before the Cubs signed him in late 1997.
He batted .310 for Class AAA Iowa in 1998, but "the call" never came. The Cubs sold him to the Seibu Lions in early 1999, and he wound up loving Japan, with the fans adoringly calling him "Zhintah," as he recalled.
He came agonizingly close in 2000, but he was cut late. Still, he has nothing but good things to say about the Cubs and then-managers Jim Riggleman and Don Baylor.
"I just feel that at that time I was really primed and ready for the big leagues," he said. "I was so close and had really good camps. I remember Riggleman telling me this and that. Being the last guy cut with Don Baylor, and then they bring me to Japan. I had a great time with the Cubs.
"It was a time in my life where I had prepared myself and finally was able to say, 'Yeah, I can play in the big leagues. I know I can do this.' So I have fond memories of the Cubs."
The call to the big leagues came in 2002, when Zinter was playing for the Astros' Class AAA New Orleans affiliate.
"It was on Father's Day in Colorado Springs," he said. "It happened in the dugout during a double switch. Our trainer got a call. The manager was like, 'Can I tell him?' He walked over to me in the corner, and I was like, 'What?' That was kind of a weird moment during the game, but it was really awesome."
His first hit and first home run came on July 1, 2002, as a pinch hitter off the Reds' Scott Williamson at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati.
"It's obviously a great moment in my life," he said. "When I hit it, in my sixth at-bat in the big leagues, it was a no-doubter to the pavilion in right-center field in Cincinnati. I just remember going, 'Oh, my God, I just did this. There's no way.' It was kind of like floating around the bases."
Zinter got into 39 games with the Astros that year, hitting 2 homers. He didn't surface in the big leagues again until 2004, when he played 28 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, hitting 1 homer.
Zinter played two more years in the minors after the '04 season and finished with Somerset in independent ball in 2007. He logged 5,544 minor-league at-bats and 299 more with Somerset before calling it a career.
He began coaching in 2008 in the Diamondbacks organization before working in the Cleveland and Houston systems. He was an assistant hitting coach for the Astros in 2015 and moved into his current role last year.
"In the course of 14 years at the Triple-A level, I found myself always helping, reaching out to the younger Triple-A prospects," he said. "I remember Marty DeMerritt, who was our pitching coach (at Iowa), tell me I was going to make a good coach one day. I took offense at that, like, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'No, no, when you're done.' I couldn't see that far down the line.
"But I had always enjoyed helping even the player who was in my position. I just couldn't see anybody struggle. I always helped guys out. My wife used to get mad at me for, 'Why are you always helping all the players? You've got to take care of yourself.' I think it's in me to want to help, and I'm continuing learning from my players, learning from other people."
So if quitting never crossed Zinter's mind, what kept him going, from minor-league outposts in the United States to the other side of the world?
"Just the belief in myself that I could make it, that someday I'm going to be a big-leaguer," he said. "That's something I had when I was little, and nothing was going to stop me.
"It didn't work out on my timetable, but that's still not going to stop me. If I'm able to do it, and I felt I was getting better each year, I was going to continue to go until I felt like I wasn't getting any better and I didn't have an opportunity."
And now he's enjoying life as a big-league coach.
"It's the best gig in the world," he said.