Stan Zielinski

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

Inside the scouting report where Cubs compared Kyle Schwarber to Babe Ruth and called their shot

"I believed today," Stan Zielinski wrote in a report filed on May 4, 2014, teasing the Cubs with the video he shot on a handheld camera during an Indiana-Purdue game. "I will send clip. To preview, squint your eyes and imagine a grainy film of Babe Ruth hitting a ball in the stands at Yankee Stadium. I swear I saw that reenacted today as the ball flew out over the 2nd fence in RF."

Zielinski used his imagination for almost 40 years as a scout for the White Sox, Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, working around the rainouts and through the cold weather, covering the Midwest for the Cubs from 2001 until his death this winter, an unexpected loss that would be felt throughout the entire organization.

Zielinski uploaded Kyle Schwarber's last at-bat to the team's internal database. That day, the Hoosiers wore baggy, off-white throwback uniforms with high socks, adding to Schwarber's aura.

"He really loves to play," Zielinski wrote. "He can work out inconsistencies with his mechanics behind the plate with teaching. He'll be a major-league catcher. ... He has the best college bat I've seen in a long time, and remember I'm old so I've seen a lot of them.

"I had to answer a question you will all ask me ... 'Yes, I would consider him with 4th pick.' Squint again and you can see him call his shot and point to CF bleachers in Wrigley Field."

Zielinski's invisible hand helped raise the 2016 World Series banner now flying at Wrigley Field and create the 108-diamond championship ring Schwarber will receive during Wednesday night's bling ceremony. Because long before #Schwarbombs became a thing on Twitter — flying into the Allegheny River and onto a Wrigleyville video board — Zielinski saw it all coming.

"That's Stan," Schwarber said. "For him to think of me that way, I can't thank him enough, because I felt like he helped me get here. He pushed for me to be a Cub."

***

Jim Hendry, the fast-talking executive who loves busting balls and telling stories, had never before felt so stressed about speaking in public.

Zielinski died suddenly overnight in January at his home in Chicago's western suburbs at the age of 64. Zielinski's wife, Holly, asked the former Cubs general manager to give the eulogy at St. John the Baptist in Winfield. But when Hendry stood up at the front of the church, he experienced this amazing sense of calm, something the priests would have prayed for at his old Jesuit schools.

"I miss him every day," said Hendry, who's now a special assistant with the Yankees. "I find myself wanting to call him every day. I probably talked to him on the phone at least five days a week for 30 years. It's crazy."

Zielinski funneled players to Hendry when he coached at Creighton — the prospects hesitant to sign or not quite ready for the demands of professional baseball — and kept doing it for the Cubs. Of the 25 guys Creighton dressed for the 1991 College World Series, Hendry counted 12 from Illinois.

"The guy hit bull's-eye after bull's-eye for me," Hendry said. "It was unbelievable."

Zielinski saw Rich Hill's curveball at Michigan and Jeff Samardzija's baseball potential at Notre Dame, signing both pitchers in the fourth and fifth rounds, four years apart.

Zielinski did an extensive background check on Ted Lilly, pushing the Cubs toward the four-year, $40 million deal that would help lead to back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008.

When the Cubs executed the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year's Eve 2008, Zielinski told Hendry: Don't do the deal without Chris Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

If that was unique then — a scout closely analyzing the amateur draft, trade-deadline activity and upcoming classes of free agents — it's almost unheard of now that front offices have continued growing and building different silos within baseball operations.

"He was that good," Hendry said. "But he didn't want a bigger job. He didn't want to be the boss. He loved the area job first. He wanted to be the guy that got to know the kids — and got to know the families — and went to their high school basketball games in December when they're in the 10th grade. He put so much more into it than the normal area guy.

"He knew everybody. He knew every coach. He knew every parent. And that was his first love."

***

Theo Epstein — who never believed in "The Curse of the Bambino" — recognized those same qualities and the depth of Zielinski's relationships when the Cubs held their workouts at Wrigley Field before the draft.

"It was incredible," Epstein said. "Everyone would wait in line to talk to Stan. It was like he was the pope and they were waiting for their 30 seconds with him."

Zielinski stood around 6-foot-2 and could see eye-to-eye with players. He had broad shoulders, a stocky build, short, brown hair graying at the sides and two children of his own, Zach and Anna.

Samardzija appreciated how Zielinski would make specific suggestions about how to improve his game — and not waste time playing mind games or trying to talk him out of the NFL or drive down his asking price.

Zielinski grew up in Northbrook, went to Loyola Academy and played college baseball at St. Mary's in Minnesota, but he could walk into Cliff Floyd's house in South Holland and convince his parents their boy should sign with the Expos as the No. 14 pick in the 1991 draft.

"Stan was so genuine and just so real with everything that a young kid needed," said Floyd, who lasted 17 seasons in the big leagues and now works as an MLB Network analyst. "It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm — in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households.

"You can't just be one-dimensional. That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it."

The Cubs needed all of that insight and accumulated experience to take a chance on Schwarber, who looked more like an American League designated hitter or the perfect player for your neighborhood softball team. If not for that below-slot deal worth $3.125 million, Schwarber's camp believed he might have dropped to the San Diego Padres at No. 13.

"I don't think that (Stan) got caught up in that new age of scouting with the spin rate and launch angle and hard-hit stuff," Schwarber said. "He did a really good of getting to know the player, knowing what type of person he is, (to) tell what kind of competitor he is.

"(It's) knowing that guy is going to go out there every day and give it 110 percent. That's why he was unique. It wasn't a lot of hearsay questions. It was more upfront. I'm going to be upfront with you. You be upfront with me. That's why I loved him."

The Cubs absolutely believed Schwarber suffered a season-ending injury last April when he wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision and needed surgery to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL. But if anyone could come back that October after two Arizona Fall League games with the Mesa Solar Sox and step in to face Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Indians ...

"He's John Wayne," Zielinski wrote after that Purdue game. "NOW I would consider him at #4. I started to think how much I'd miss watching him play and decided that would be alleviated by knowing he'd be playing for our team.

"Today was the best day I've ever seen him have behind the plate. Really agile on his legs, looked relaxed and had flexibility in his hands, framed better, bought some pitches — maybe that leather is worked in enough to be soft. He did drop a couple that were up, but he did a real good job on pitches down in the zone.

"He felt so good that after (taking a) big lead Indiana was replacing their regulars late and he refused to come out."

***

Who compares some Big Ten dude to John Wayne or Babe Ruth?

"Stan was probably the best I've ever seen at creating that picture of the person," said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs. "You would just be amazed to see how detailed he was in breaking down who this guy will be when he arrives in Chicago."

Zielinski's mind raced with possibilities, paranoid about everything from being late to a game or a workout to where he stood in the organization to how his guys performed in the minors. He used vivid language and descriptive adjectives to replace common baseball terms.

"Where I might say, 'Wow, that's a really fluid swing,'" McLeod explained, "Stan would say it (this way): 'It's like listening to jazz music when this guy steps into the box.' But you know exactly what he's talking about."

Amateur scouting director Matt Dorey found himself re-reading old reports after Zielinski's death: "'He has an arm action like a cranky shopping-cart wheel,' things like that where you would just automatically envision the guy with a roll or a rattle at the back of his arm stroke."

Hendry started cackling over the phone: "'A one-pitch carnival thrower.' You know, like guys on dates with their girlfriend trying to win the stuffed animal.

"Or he'd call 'em a 'seat-belt reliever.' You had to f------ buckle up every time he came into the game and hold on. Oh, he had s--- like that all the time.

"He had a language of his own. Man, I'm telling you, he had s--- that nobody's ever written in a scouting report before — or ever will again."

Like comparing a guy at a basketball school — who might have entered his junior season as a possible second-round pick — to one of the most iconic athletes of all-time.

"He just took you to this place where you were mesmerized reading it," McLeod said.

"It felt like I was watching a game through an old, bad whatever-millimeter camera," Dorey said. "I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth saunter to the plate, call his shot and then he went on to hit a home run. And then as he trotted around the bases, I felt like I was watching Babe Ruth's trot."

***

Epstein had already seen enough on video and at the Big Ten tournament to develop a man crush on Schwarber by the time he noticed a dispatch from Zielinski in the fall of 2013. Zielinski reported that Schwarber had lost around 10 pounds and appeared to be in better shape, a tipping point for Epstein's data-driven, risk-management philosophy that favored college hitters at the top of the draft, anyway.

Epstein used the Boston Red Sox for what might have been another ridiculous frame of reference, envisioning Schwarber as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Shane Farrell — a young assistant in amateur scouting at the time and the son of John, the current Red Sox manager — saved Epstein's e-mail from Oct. 16, 2013.

"After reading that Schwarber showed up with a trimmer body, I'm making the call right now that Schwarber is going to be our pick and put up Big Papi numbers," Epstein wrote in a group e-mail that circulated among Farrell, McLeod, general manager Jed Hoyer and Cubs officials Jaron Madison and Lukas McKnight. "Off the video, this guy has one of the shortest left-handed swings I've ever seen. And the power speaks for itself. Shane can pitch for us at that point."

Farrell — who pitched for Marshall in college and has a humble, respectful attitude toward the wise men in the game like Zielinski — joked: "I'm still waiting for Theo to hold up his end of the bargain there."

The last time Farrell saw Zielinski in December, he got inducted into the Midwest Scouts Association Hall of Fame and used the Kauffman Stadium event to remember how he whiffed on the player who helped the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series.

"If you got to know Stan at all, he's somebody that truly hated the spotlight," Farrell said. "Any sort of recognition was totally not his thing. But he gave a great speech. He was giving himself a hard time up there in front of all those people, talking about how he walked away from Ben Zobrist when he was an amateur player at Olivet Nazarene."

After Zielinski's death, Farrell made what he called at once the easiest and hardest decision he'll probably ever have to make in his career. Farrell is now covering most of Zielinski's old territory — half of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Farrell has been amazed at how quickly Midwest coaches got back to him when he sent out e-mails introducing himself, how much they wanted to share old stories about Zielinski.

"These are shoes that no person could ever fill," Farrell said. "It was just kind of a natural response to help out a friend, really, somebody that I really cared about and really, really admired and looked up to."

Farrell remembered Zielinski's last line in a lengthy Schwarber report documenting all the games he had seen before the Cubs made a franchise-altering decision in the 2014 draft: "You won't ever regret taking him at No. 4."

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

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AP

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

Cliff Floyd landed in Fort Lauderdale – the night before a gunman opened fire in a South Florida airport terminal – and could immediately sense something already went wrong by the way his phone started buzzing.

The news rippled throughout the baseball community last week: Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, 64, had died suddenly overnight at his home in Chicago's western suburbs. The sense of loss hit Floyd hard, because he placed so much trust in Zielinski as a Thornwood High School senior, believing what this guy from the Montreal Expos kept telling his family before the 1991 draft. 

"Not one lie ever came out of this man’s mouth," Floyd said. "Stan was so genuine, man, and just so real with everything that a young kid needed."

The Cubs will miss that presence in the Wrigley Field clubhouse this week when team officials hold their kickoff meetings for the 2017 draft – and remember Zielinski's invaluable contributions to a World Series champion before Wednesday's funeral service at St. John the Baptist in Winfield.

Zielinski spoke with conviction and authority, scouting for the last 38 years and working for the Cubs since 2001, fitting into front offices run by Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein.

Zielinski could shift between the pro game and amateur scouting, recommending Hendry acquire Chris Archer from the Cleveland Indians in the Mark DeRosa trade and reinforcing what Epstein saw in Kyle Schwarber at Indiana University.

Zielinski, who went to Loyola Academy on the North Shore, could also make connections in South Holland with Floyd’s mother, Olivia, and father, Cornelius, convincing them that the Expos would take their son with the 14th overall pick, launching what became a 17-year career in the big leagues and a second act as a broadcaster with MLB Network and SiriusXM Radio.

"It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm," Floyd said, "in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households. You can’t just be one-dimensional.

"That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it.

"I'm a mama's boy. Stan realized he had to put the full-court press on her, or it's not going to work.

"The rest is pretty much history."

It became a two-man operation. Floyd, the Chicago Tribune's 1991 Athlete of the Year, had committed to play for Hendry at Creighton University. Standing in the family's driveway, Hendry asked Floyd what he wanted to do – turn pro – and told him he would go inside and try to influence Olivia.  

Hendry explained how he couldn't promise that he would be at Creighton forever. That candid admission eventually caught the attention of Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski, who would later help Hendry make the jump to pro baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins and make Floyd a part of the 1997 World Series team.

Zielinski arranged for the Expos to deliver a $290,000 bonus and a clause in the contract that included money for college, allowing Floyd to take some offseason business classes at DePaul University and please his mother.

"She was such a big advocate of education that she was like: 'You're going to college,'" Floyd said. "She was just so big on who was going to take care of her baby when I was finally out of her eyesight after 18 years.

"These two guys were literally godsend, bro. They were literally everything you could possibly want your kid to be involved with. Without one, maybe you couldn't have the other.

"But I think when you look at how it all transpired for me, it was crazy, because my mom was so strong-willed at getting you to see it her way or the highway.

"When he finally said, 'Your mom is on board,' I thought he was crazy. I go: 'Stan, get your ass out of here. There ain’t no way. She just told me last night she wouldn’t do it.'"

Fifteen years later, Zielinski helped Hendry put together a $10 million deal that infuriated Bud Selig – the Major League Baseball commissioner at the time – and priced a Notre Dame All-American out of the NFL draft.   

"I'm in debt to him big-time," Jeff Samardzija said. "The more I talked to (Stan), and the more I saw that he was watching me, (and) the more they really explained to me why they felt (it would work), it just started to make the option a little bit more realistic for me. Whereas before it was maybe just a long shot or a pipe dream to involve baseball in my professional life.

"Sometimes, it takes other people believing in you for you to really start believing in yourself. I know he saw me play more in college probably than any other scout or GM or crosschecker or whatever. I knew his opinion of me was pretty solid – and it wasn’t wavering."

Where the St. Louis Cardinals asked Samardzija "mind-game questions on if I remembered the scout’s name," Zielinski used the same direct approach that worked on the Floyd family, explaining how he would need to improve his off-speed pitches and really sharpen his slider to become the frontline starter the Cubs envisioned.

"(It's talking) to you with that tone that you’re not a kid – you’re a grown man," Samardzija said. "He was one of the few guys that talked to me about baseball, and not about trying to convince me to play baseball, if that makes sense.

"When I met with scouts, a lot of them were just trying to feel me out if I was serious about playing baseball, why I wanted to try and play two sports, things like that, trying to get in my head.

"That was never the case with Stan. It was more about baseball itself – the games I've pitched, my repertoire on the mound – which I found very refreshing. And that was a big reason why I was open to committing my future to the Cubs."

Before Samardzija got traded to the Oakland A's for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, Epstein had asked him to watch video of a college hitter who intrigued the Cubs with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft.

Zielinski – an area scout covering Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – recognized Schwarber's vicious left-handed swing and intangibles in the same way that he projected Samardzija’s 6-foot-5 frame and natural athleticism could translate into 200 innings a year and a $90 million investment from the San Francisco Giants. 

"There was nowhere to play him," Samardzija said, repeating the conventional wisdom that framed Schwarber with the Hoosiers. "This kind of describes Stan: 99 percent of the people look at the negatives. 'Ah, he can’t play here. He can’t play there.' Whereas a guy like Stan says: 'Well, timeout here. There’s something special that I like about this guy that we need to fit into the system, regardless.'

"In all sports, but especially baseball, it’s easy to get caught up in looking at the negatives and what a guy can’t do, instead of maybe possibly looking at what he can bring to the organization in a positive light.

"You've seen what Schwarber’s done for momentum for that team, with big hits and just a personality that fits. A guy like Stan, there's not too many of them out there that can see that side of things (and) not necessarily just nitpick at things kids can't do."

That’s what made Zielinski such an important voice inside the Cubs, even if you never really saw his name quoted in the newspaper or his face on TV. 

"Certain people have the knack," Floyd said. "He was never awkward. It was always fluid with our conversations. It was never where we sat down and it felt like: 'God, I can’t wait for this s--- to be over.' It was always cool, calm and collected. I loved it. That’s why I hurt so bad when I (found out and) got off the plane.

"I had to sit there for a second and just reflect on how wonderful this dude was."