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'It hurts to throw hard': Ex-Tiger Joel Zumaya admits using marijuana during playing days

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Joel Zumaya celebrates with the fans at Comerica Park after the Tigers defeated the Yankees in the ALDS in 2006.

Joel Zumaya is fishing a whole lot more these days. He's also consuming way more marijuana than he did when he was with the Tigers — but, oh, yes, he did enjoy marijuana when he was with the Tigers.

Zumaya, the former Tigers relief pitcher who blew up the radar guns during a short but exciting career, made the admission during an appearance on a podcast with 97.1 The Ticket's Jeff Riger and Evan Jankens this week.

Zumaya said he would vape medical marijuana, typically late at nights, after a late return home from a game or a road trip. It helped him fall asleep, he said. It also helped ease the pain that came with firing triple-digit fastballs.

"I would go home and I would vaporize medical marijuana and it would put me to sleep," Zumaya said during the wildly revealing half-hour interview with 97.1. "Back then it was, man, we didn't actually get blood-tested back then when I was in the league. They were just looking for guys that did cocaine and amphetamines. ... I got drug-tested more than the average person in 2006, man. I guess they thought I was juicing, just because I threw so damn hard.

"But you never saw my name pop up dirty, man, and it'll never be."

Zumaya, 35, is from California, a state that recently legalized recreational marijuana. Zumaya also said he was excited to see Michigan do the same.

Zumaya is an advocate for professional athletes being able to use marijuana, which he says is way better on the body than downing, say, a fist-full of Tylenol or Advil. Zumaya said he also used to take as many as six Advil a day during his playing days.

"It hurts to throw hard, and to do what we do for 160-something games, guys, and perform at that level," he said.

"You can't just pop anti-inflammatories and Tylenols and Excedrins in your body. It's gonna deteriorate your body, man."

Joel Zumaya

Zumaya, an 11th-round pick out of high school in 2002, pitched for the Tigers from 2006-10. He took the league by storm, along with Justin Verlander, in 2006 as Detroit stormed to the World Series, though Zumaya's later years were marred by a series of injuries.

By 2012, he was out of baseball, not wanting to undergo a seventh surgery.

One of the first injuries came during the Tigers' playoff run in 2006, not-so-coincidentally not long after the popular video game "Guitar Hero" came out. Then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski revealed the video game probably caused the numbness in his fingers.

"My hand just flared up on me, the right hand, the thumb, I couldn't grip the baseball," Zumaya told 97.1. "I couldn't throw the baseball.

"The 'Guitar Hero' had just come out, and I fell in love with the game, dude. I'm a rock-and-roll fan. It's a killer game. ... 'Hell, I'm gonna buy this.' ... Guess I got hurt, dude."

Zumaya said it was then-head athletic trainer Kevin Rand who diagnosed the cause of the injury, many other options ruled out by MRIs and X-rays. Rand had a kid who had been playing "Guitar Hero," and so he knew the risks.

It worked out for Zumaya, who said he was hooked up with the "Guitar Hero" makers, and even got a credit in a later version of the game for Xbox 360. It read: "No pitchers were harmed in the making of this game. Except for one. Joel Zumaya. He had it coming."

"They treated me very well," Zumaya said of the video-game maker. "So, thank you, Mr. Dombrowski."

Zumaya still plays video games, with "Call of Duty" a favorite these days.

Other highlights from the podcast:

►He sure enjoyed his status as a rock star in Detroit in 2006: "I'm 35 now, back then I was 21, man, so, uh, you know, I'm not gonna lie, that team in 2006, once we were popping and things started happening, you'd walk around that city and people, dude, they'd get down on their knees and bow to you. ... They would want to pay for everything for you. ... To this day, I go to Detroit and people still greet me as if it was 2006. That shocked me. ... I'm so sad that we didn't win it for you guys, man."

►Zumaya said it was Curtis Granderson's idea to celebrate with the fans during that raucous party following the victory over the Yankees in the AL Division Series. The highlight was Kenny Rogers pouring champagne on a cop. "Curtis was, 'Hey let's go back outside,' and we end up going out and the grateful thing is everyone was still in the stadium, man. We grabbed as many bottles as we could. ... You guys deserved it."

►Zumaya swears he told teammate Jason Grilli in spring training of 2006, when nobody had the Tigers on their radar, "If this team breaks off the way it should be, this team was going to go to the World Series."

►Asked how often he'd immediately turn around to check out how fast he'd just thrown his fastball, Zumaya said, "Every single time."

►He had high praise for manager Jim Leyland, whom he hilariously called a "small, pesky little Hobbit, bro."

The 97.1 podcast is called, "In The Meantime," designed to catch up once a week with former Detroit athletes — perfect timing, really, given that the current state of professional sports in the city is in such despair.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984