Milford native Joe Zanghi learning plenty from famous teammate Tim Tebow
Joe Zanghi is in only his second season of professional baseball, playing at the Class A level in the outpost of Columbia, South Carolina.
But he’s already getting some big-league perks.
Before a big, new movie is released to the public, Zanghi often gets to go check it out at a private viewing at a local theater. He eats pretty well on the road, too, and doesn’t often have to pay for it.
It all has to do with a certain teammate of his on the Columbia Fireflies.
Zanghi, a Milford native and Foran High graduate, has spent the past couple of months as a teammate of Tim Tebow, the former Florida All-American and NFL quarterback and hero to millions who is trying his hand at baseball as a Mets farmhand.
Tebow’s presence with the Fireflies has ignited unprecedented interest in the team. Columbia easily leads the South Atlantic League in attendance, drawing 147,316 over its first 28 games. And even if the hysteria has died down a bit at home, Tebow is still a huge road draw: the Fireflies visit to Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium last weekend attracted 22,578 fans, a new four-game series record for the 87-year-old ballpark.
And Zanghi has been a first-hand witness to it all.
“It’s definitely crazy,” he said by phone last week. “But the amount of things I’ve learned, from being an athlete, from a highly-admired guy like him, the things I’ve learned about being a person, an athlete has been incredible.”
Indeed, Tebow’s presence on the team has added up to more than just free movie screenings and dinner on the road.
“He’s not standoffish,” Zanghi said. “If you want to have a conversation with him, he’s there to talk about anything.”
Zanghi added that the biggest thing he’s learned from Tebow is to “just be yourself, don’t worry about what other people are gonna think of you. The way you look at yourself is more valuable than how anyone else is gonna look at you.”
While Tebow’s story has been well-chronicled, Zanghi’s baseball odyssey has been perhaps even more incredible.
Almost exclusively a catcher throughout high school and his first year of college, he made the full-time transition to pitcher just a couple of years ago. After a rough start to this season, Zanghi has recently emerged as Columbia’s closer and has posted four saves, 29 strikeouts and a 3.00 ERA over 21 innings.
Zanghi, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound righthander, has been even better lately: he hadn’t allowed a run in five straight outings (seven innings), striking out 11, walking one and scattering five hits over that span, before giving up a run in his last outing on Wednesday.
“My mentality late in the game is definitely, ‘It’s me vs. you, and I’m gonna come out on top every time,’” said Zanghi, who was a perfect 8-for-8 in saves with a 1.23 ERA for short-season Brooklyn last summer. “The hitters are much better at this level. That took an adjustment. I realize it’s more mental than anything. You’ve got to know your stuff.”
Zanghi was a two-time Register all-area pick at Foran, where he was primarily a catcher — though he did pitch a little bit.
“Not many people could catch Joe’s fastball,” Foran coach Garrett Walker explained. “When Joe did pitch, we took our best pitcher and flipped him to catch. He was a very special player. All the fast-twitch, all the power, all the arm strength in the world. A very physically dominating presence. But more than that, he loved baseball. He loved his teammates, and he was a joy for me to be able to coach. He’s one of Foran’s special guys.”
Zanghi began his college career at UConn in 2013, but lasted just one semester before transferring to Southern New Hampshire, where he played in the spring but transferred again after the season was over due to academic struggles.
He landed at Cumberland County College in Vineland, New Jersey, where he moved from behind the plate to atop the pitcher’s mound due to an oblique tear that prevented him from swinging a bat but still allowed him to pitch.
Zanghi went 6-1 with a 1.71 ERA in 63.2 innings at Cumberland County and was selected in the 24th round of the 2015 draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
However, the Reds released Zanghi before he ever suited up for the team, and he went back to school the following fall. The Mets saw he could still throw and, ultimately, signed him as a free agent on Feb. 22, 2016.
Now, still a relative neophyte to pitching, Zanghi is having a better season than Tebow (who’s hitting .216 with 3 homers, 16 RBI and 53 strikeouts in 47 games).
“Being a catcher, it helps, because you have a sense of what pitchers need to do, the adjustments you need to do,” he said. “Things are going well, but I’m still adjusting to being a pitcher, learning something new every day.”
And that includes life lessons from his famous teammate.
“(Tebow is) a guy that money doesn’t matter to him,” said Zanghi. “He doesn’t care about that. If he has his dream, he’s gonna chase it. He’s the first guy at the park and the last to leave, because he’s putting in extra work.
“I feel very blessed to have learned so many things from him.”
Onward and upward
Sean Newcomb, the former University of Hartford star hurler, made his major-league debut with Atlanta on Saturday at SunTrust Park against the Mets. He struck out seven and allowed just one unearned run over 6 1/3 innings in a 6-1 loss. Newcomb, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound lefty, was 3-3 with a 2.97 ERA in 11 starts for Triple-A Gwinnet. He was the No. 15 overall selection in the 2014 draft by the Angels.
Newcomb is the second pitcher with Connecticut connections to make his big-league debut this season. Southington’s Sal Romano earned his first start with Cincinnati in April, where he was tagged with a loss against Milwaukee. Romano has since been back with Triple-A Louisville, where he spent over a month on the disabled list.