People travel to France to study philosophy at the Sorbonne or
cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. They don't go to learn the fine art
of throwing breaking pitches. "I picked up my slider, my best
pitch, over there," says Rangers rookie reliever Jeff Zimmerman,
who graduated from Texas Christian in 1993 and then played in
some of baseball's farthest outposts, including a south of
France ville, Montpellier. "Had I thrown it in college, I might
have had a shot at getting drafted."
Since being called up from the Triple A Oklahoma RedHawks last
month, Zimmerman, 26, a righthander, has made Francophobes out
of American League hitters, many of whom have flailed at that
French-fried slider. Through Sunday, Zimmerman was 2-0 and,
having allowed just two runs in 26 innings, led American League
relievers with a 0.69 ERA. Opponents were hitting .094 against
him. "I didn't know who Jeff Zimmerman was until halfway through
last year," says his manager, Johnny Oates. "Now, when I go to
take him out after two innings, guys on the bench yell at me to
keep him in."
Despite leading TCU with eight wins as a senior in 1993,
Zimmerman failed to attract the attention of scouts. A native of
Kelowna, B.C., he spent a summer with the Canadian national
team, after which his pitching coach, Greg Hamilton, persuaded
him to play in a French league, where Hamilton coached during
Team Canada's off-season. Zimmerman expatriated himself to the
Montpellier Barracudas--even farther off the radar than TCU.
"About junior college-level," is how he describes the
competition in France. "But it was good because I could
experiment and work on different things."
That's how Zimmerman picked up that biting slider. After the
1994 season he returned to Vancouver and, hoping to play in the
'96 Olympics, spent another year as a starter for Team Canada.
When Canada failed to qualify for the Atlanta Games, Zimmerman
figured his baseball career was over. He earned an MBA at Simon
Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and started a search for
"any kind of corporate job." Months later and still unemployed,
he decided to give pitching another shot. "I had an interview
scheduled with Fidelity in Boston," Zimmerman says. "The night
before, I called and said, 'Sorry, I'm going to be a baseball
May 23, 1999
In May 1997 he signed with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the
independent Northern League, went 9-2, led the league with a
2.82 ERA and earned the rookie pitcher of the year award. Still,
no scouts banged on his door. At the urging of his younger
brother, Jordan, a pitching prospect in the Mariners' system,
Jeff--whose repertoire by now included the slider, a changeup
and two low-90s fastballs--sent resumes to all 30 major league
teams. Only the Rangers gave him a look.
Zimmerman went a combined 5-2 with a 1.28 ERA in two minor
league stops last season and was a late cut by the Rangers this
spring. He was soon called up to help bolster Texas's middle
relief corps, and in his major league debut on April 13 he
struck out four of the six Mariners he faced and started a
string of 11 2/3 scoreless innings. "His best assets are his
presence and his command," says Oates, who originally used
Zimmerman for mop-up duty but now trots him out to set up closer
John Wetteland. "He has no fear."
The very model of a French Foreign Legionnaire.