Detroit — He was a phenom, a flame-throwing freak, and in a blaze of fastballs, he became a folk hero. Joel Zumaya stood on the mound in Yankee Stadium 10 years ago and blew pitches past bewildered batters as the Tigers stunned the Yankees in the American League Division Series, and that’s pretty much where it started.
It ended a few years later, after six surgeries on his right arm. It ended during a spring-training bullpen session for the Twins, when Zumaya’s tendon snapped. Baseball is riddled with tales of careers wrecked by injury and misfortune, but there aren’t many to match the fast fame of a guy whose nickname — Zoom-Zoom — fit in so many ways.
Zumaya says he’s moved on, but it sounds like he hasn’t quite convinced himself. He’s only 31, and as he sat in the Tigers dugout Tuesday, part of a season-long commemoration of the 2006 World Series team, he figured he could still get in shape and throw 90 mph, and maybe he could.
It’s impossible not to consider what could have been, when Zumaya was unleashing 103-mph fastballs as a rookie reliever, striking out 97 in 83 innings with a 1.94 ERA. He’s been out of the majors since 2010 — his last pitch with the Tigers was a 99-mph fastball that broke his forearm — and now is a fisherman in San Diego. He’d love to get back in baseball in some capacity and participates in the Tigers fantasy camp, and every time he steps on the mound, the ache returns.
“I really can’t believe it’s been 10 years, I sit around and think about it so much,” Zumaya said. “I know I could still do it if I really put my heart into it. It’s the physical part where I’m a little nervous. It’s almost gonna be like a divorce, if I decide to separate myself completely from the game.”
He no longer contemplates a pitching comeback, knowing his arm needs more work after Tommy John surgery in 2012. After he left the Tigers, he signed with the Twins but never made it back to the majors. He threw his final pitch in a workout in Fort Myers, Fla.
“My wife and son were there, and I was really pumped,” Zumaya said. “And I popped it right in front of them. That was a rough night. No alcohol or nothing, I just remember crying, crying, crying, telling myself, ‘Why me?’”
He still gets emotional when he recounts it, but tries not to dwell on it. He stared through his Ray Bans out at the Comerica Park field, where the Tigers were taking batting practice.
“I’m over it now,” he said. “I just let it be. I let it be, man. It was fun while it lasted.”
Oh, man, was it ever. He was flamboyant and menacing on the mound, and had one famously bloodshot eye when he shut down the Yankees in the playoffs, striking out three of the five batters he faced in Game 2. He was engaging and quotable off the mound, and had his share of fun.
Shortly after the legend was born, the folk hero arrived, too. Zumaya was bothered by a mysterious wrist injury the rest of the playoffs, and then-GM Dave Dombrowski later chalked it up to overuse of the PlayStation 2 game “Guitar Hero.” (More on that in a moment).
After an injury-plagued 2007, there was another strange incident. Zumaya and his brother, Richard, were helping their father, Joel, move memorabilia out of his attic as a California wildfire approached. Zumaya was at the bottom of the ladder and his father was handing boxes to Richard at the top. A box fell and slammed into Zumaya’s right shoulder, sidelining him into the 2008 season.
Truth about injury
Some speculated the story was a ruse to hide some sort of reckless behavior, but Zumaya turned serious Tuesday when discussing it.
“That was the truth, that was a rough one for me,” he said. “That could’ve ended my career. It still devastates my brother. Doctors say it just landed in a perfect spot where it busted my AC joint.”
As long as we’re discussing mysteries, how about “Guitar Hero”? Zumaya laughed.
“Everybody still asks me about that,” he said. “I love music, and I got hooked on it really fast. But I’ve never spoken about this to any media, and I’m gonna keep it that way. I know what the truth is. My final answer was, I got hurt with the ‘Guitar Hero.’ But that was some bogus stuff.”
It doesn’t matter now, but it’s part of the legend. And even though he’s younger than many current Tigers, Zumaya looks like a blast from the past. Not old, just an image from a different time.
Justin Verlander arrived in the majors at the same time and was paired with Zumaya as the hard-throwing hopes for the future. Verlander toils on, and respects the 2006 experience so much, he asked to catch the first pitch for each ceremony, and nabbed Zumaya’s straight strike.
“What a special talent he was,” Verlander said. “It’s a shame his arm couldn’t hang in there. That (wild) persona was very true on the field, but off the field he was a great guy.”
There’s no remorse and no regret, not on this day. Oh, Zumaya still craves the competition and found it for a while in Florida as an amateur bass fisherman. He enjoys working with his brother, catching large tuna to sell commercially, all by rod and reel, no wimpy nets.
At his prime, however brief, Zumaya was a marvel. In 2006, he threw a record 234 pitches of 100 mph or more, with the top mark reportedly just under 104, one of the fastest in history. As power pitching has become more commonplace, plenty regularly top 100, but few as consistently as Zumaya did.
It was his special talent. And probably his special curse.
“I’m loved here because I gave it all I had,” Zumaya said. “I threw every bullet I had in my arm for these people, and they deserved it because prior years were rough on (Tigers fans). I tried to do whatever I could to give them a smile, have them look up at the radar gone and walk home with something to talk about.
“I tell people I was made out of sugar glass, but the way I performed, I acted beastly. I had a different approach, just an angry dude, full of steam and jet fuel, and I wanted to blow it past people. I look all crazy, I got tattoos, but I guess you could consider me a big teddy bear.”
He laughed again, which he still does easily. He was touted for his right arm and then tormented by it, but wouldn’t change anything.
Well, maybe one thing.
“Everybody asks me about throwing hard, but I’m gonna give them the real lesson — you gotta take care of your body,” Zumaya said.
“I wish I could switch around 10 years and be 31 with that arm. I’d be a little more mature, and I think I’d pitch more instead of just throwing the baseball.
“You also gotta stay humble in this game because it can be there” — he snapped his fingers — “and just be gone.”
It can happen so fast, you nearly miss it. And then, you dearly miss it.