For Tigers’ Zimmermann, hunting season starts anew

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
After a strong start, Jordan Zimmermann had a rough first season with the Tigers, thanks to some nagging injuries.

Lakeland, Fla. — He sits on a tree-stand not far from the Mississippi River, with whitetail headed his way on an autumn day, and Jordan Zimmermann is only slightly less isolated than he was growing up in Auburndale, Wis.

Auburndale’s population, according to its website: 703.

“Probably closer to 750,” Zimmermann corrected during a Tuesday conversation in the new Tigers clubhouse at Detroit’s spring-training complex.

And that Auburndale High graduating class from which he sprang in 2004, destined for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and eventually for the big leagues?

It totaled 84.

“Which was pretty big,” Zimmermann said in a voice steady and efficient, like his right-handed delivery that 15 months ago bound him for the Tigers and a five-year deal worth $110 million. “I think there were only 300 in the whole high school.”

Zimmermann hopes, and believes, he’s back in 2017. Back from a bad neck/disc situation that ruined his first year with the Tigers. Back to becoming a blue-chip pitcher who can join with Justin Verlander in bracing the Tigers rotation with a pair of 30-year-old-plus masters.

And, maybe, back to becoming the kind of every-fifth-day innings-chomper who can help give kid starters Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd a chance to get settled, which also would make life more bearable for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, not to mention Detroit’s bullpen.

That would be dandy with Zimmermann. Not that much isn’t. A guy who grew up next to his grandparents’ dairy farm, with hay bales outnumbering neighbors by at least 1,000 to 1, brings a new dimension to the term low-key.

In the tradition of big-leaguers who never met a guy they couldn’t nickname or jest with, his Tigers teammates call him “The Grinch.”

“They think I’m mad,” Zimmermann said. “It’s the way my face works.”

He paused and said, with a smile tight and devilish:

“I have fun with all the guys.”

And especially with Mike Pelfrey.

They hit it off a year ago. In fact, two Tigers right-handers might want to bag this pitching gig and consider work as a comedy duo.

They already are something of a legend in Tigers circles. Digging at each other constantly. Dishing zingers, insults, quips, and put-downs. They’re as in synch with each other’s style and wit as they are on road trips when they grab lunch, hit a mall, or in whatever fashion make the most of a big-league life that only gets better when guys share a certain frat-house level of fun.

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“We were, I think, just kind of in the same situation here,” said Pelfrey, who, like Zimmermann, signed a free-agent deal with the Tigers in the autumn of 2015. “Showing up here we didn’t know anybody except for having played against them.

“I like to think he kind of liked my sense of humor, even if he doesn’t laugh a lot. I get him going. He looks serious all the time, but he isn’t.”

No, and he couldn’t be. Otherwise, his wife, Mandy, wouldn’t have decided during her days as a softball outfielder for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point that this pitcher for the Pointers (Stevens Point’s apt team moniker) was worth dating. They are parents to a 3-year-old son, Riley, and 19-month-old daughter, Ava, and, like so many Tigers players live in Birmingham during the baseball season.

Otherwise, they still dwell in Zimmermann’s old environs, 125 miles northwest of Green Bay, 26 miles from Stevens Point.

Busy, never bored

He grew up as an only child, the son of Jeff and Kris Zimmermann, now divorced. Jeff was a salesman for a tire plant and later for a welding company. Kris worked as a secretary for a trucking business.

Jordan spent much of his time either “putzing around” his grandparents’ farm, fishing and hunting, or, more often, playing basketball, football, baseball and, later on, golf.

Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann heads to the field on the first day of pitchers and catchers workouts.

Baseball probably was his third sport, he says, at least in high school. He was a basketball guard on teams that went 49-1 during his junior and senior seasons, an amazing run, spoiled only when the Apaches, Zimmermann said, “choked” playing schools that probably had as many kids enrolled as Auburndale had people in its entire town census.

He was a two-way wizard on the football team, playing wide receiver and free safety. And until late in his sophomore baseball season at Auburndale, he was a catcher.

A few turns on the mound convinced his coach, and Zimmermann, he might want to stick with this pitching thought.

He was on the smaller side (he is listed today, liberally, at 6-foot-2) and had only a single Division I recruiting letter, from the University of Minnesota. He settled eventually on Division III Stevens Point, a half-hour from home, where coaches expected him to play football and baseball.

Zimmermann decided he needed time and a life. He was finished with football. Baseball would be his focus, and so would be the weight room.

He began to pack on muscle. His freshman year at Stevens Point, he was throwing 90 mph and sometimes 91, up two to three ticks from high school. By his sophomore season, he was at 92-93, and as a Pointers junior he was dallying with 94.

He had been on big-league scouts’ dockets since the previous summer, when he pitched for the Eau Claire Express in the Northwoods League. He was going to be drafted the following June, no question, having moved from a possible late-rounds grab to sweeter status thanks to his summer at Eau Claire and to a junior season that, ironically, began with disaster.

Ultimate jaw-dropper

The Pointers were working indoors at Stevens Point in February a few weeks before heading to Florida for a spring tune-up. Zimmermann was pitching batting practice. A protective screen, of the kind big-leaguers use, was in place.

A liner got past the screen as Zimmermann followed through. The ball crashed into the right side of his face. His jaw was broken in two places.

“There was blood everywhere,” he remembers of a winter afternoon in 2007. “I bit down and I was biting on the outside of my jaw.”

He was lucky not to have lost teeth. Not that they would be needed for six weeks. Zimmermann was about to have his jaw re-set. He wouldn’t taste solid food for more than a month.

“Sucking protein shakes,” he recalled, “McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, eating watered-down mashed potatoes — and no talking for a month.

“Tommy John,” he said, referring to elbow surgery he had his rookie big-league year, in 2009, “was easy compared with that.”

Zimmermann lost 15 pounds but put got it back, quickly, after his jaw healed and he could reunite with burgers and chicken. He also reclaimed his mound touch, going 10-0 for the Pointers. His soon-to-be agent learned Zimmermann was pegged to go between the second to fifth rounds in baseball’s June 2007 draft.

Zimmermann sat in Auburndale with his parents and his college coach on draft day. The first round was televised. Ensuing rounds could be followed via the Internet.

Zimmermann remembered but didn’t think seriously of a five-minute conversation he shared earlier that spring with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. In fact, Rizzo was sizing up a right-hander the Nationals were about to take with the 67th overall pick.

Two years later, Zimmermann was with the Nationals and en route to cracking two All-Star teams as well as twice finishing in the top seven of National League Cy Young Award votes.

In the woods

In November 2015, with the Tigers hunting him hard and Zimmermann intrigued by a team just a 55-minute flight from Wausau Central Wisconsin Airport, Zimmermann opted for Detroit.

“I didn’t want to wait until it was getting close to spring training,” said Zimmermann, who signed shortly after Thanksgiving. “I’m a guy who wants to do things early. I want to get my housing figured out.

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“I like to have a plan. I don’t like to not know what I’m doing tomorrow or the next day.”

That would explain why he and his old Apaches teammate and wedding best man, Aaron Linzmeier, were so careful in picking their hunting oasis in west central Illinois, near Quincy, not far from the muddy Mississippi.

They own 450 acres of wild lands complete with a handsome hunting lodge. They found it on the Internet after two men snooped for the right piece of land as painstakingly as they’d stalked, since they were kids, Wisconsin whitetails and grouse. They joined with a few buddies to take “seven or eight” deer last autumn, hauling them back to the lodge, equipped with a a walk-in cooler.

“Stays fresh in there,” Zimmermann said of the hundreds of pounds of venison they culled. “Then we cut up everything ourselves and grind it. We make jerkey, hamburger – everything.”

Linzmeier, a quality manager for a Wisconsin canning company, steps away at various times during spring and summer, trekking to Illinois and tending to food plots designed to deliver healthy deer and big antlers.

Zimmermann’s best trophy: an eight-point buck he took that scored a whopping 150 points on the Pope and Young scale.

Pope and Young is specific to bow-hunting, which is Zimmermann’s passion, in part because archery season begins in October, when autumn’s majesty is peak.

“I’ve pretty much fallen in love with it,” he said. “You don’t have to bundle up and freeze.”

Once he’s climbed from his tree stand and headed for the lodge, Zimmermann, Linzmeier and the guys fall on old habits, which includes watching Packers or University of Wisconsin football games.

Sports — Zimmermann loves them. Bucks or Badgers basketball games, hockey, whatever. If it’s a game, it it has an outdoors tinge to it, including ice-fishing, Zimmermann’s soul is straight from a state that, like Michigan, shares a certain heritage built on games and nature, spiced by a certain Great Lakes flavor.

There is one exception.

The Tigers now are his team. Baseball is his vocation.

And a Comerica Park crowd waiting for him to shake that neck issue, and maybe get cozy with another of those Cy Young ballots, hopes he can offer Wisconsin’s next-door neighbor, as well as an old American League town, something special to celebrate in 2017. @lynn_henning